Duck Soup, and six more movies

Duck Soup



Feb. 22, 2023

Freedonia is a nearing national bankruptcy, but a wealthy matron (Margaret Dumont, hooray) is willing to loan the country many millions of dollars to stave off economic collapse. There's just one catch — she'll only loan the money if the nation's leader resigns, and Rufus T Firefly (Groucho) takes charge. 

This has always been my favorite of the Marx Brothers movies. Groucho is relentlessly funny, the script and the brothers are at a peak, and the story line is pretty dang close to anarchy.

Every scene involves at least one of the Marxes, so it never gets boring except briefly, when it's Zeppo. Chico and Harpo are Chico and Harpo, only more so if that's possible, with the former speaking eternally befuddled Italian and the latter not speaking at all. Harpo is also Groucho, and it's hilarious.

If any form of pleasure is exhibited
report to me and it will be prohibited
I'll put my foot down, so shall it be,
this is the land of the free!

Duck Soup is subversive to the very last moment, and with so many laughs there's no time for Harpo to play the harp nor Chico the piano.

But it's hard to recap a Marx movie — the plot doesn't matter much, and it's not fair and never enough to simply quote the jokes. And anyway, you can't quote Harpo, who's the funniest of the brothers here. Yeah, even funnier than Groucho. There, I said it.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Kes (1969)

This is a painful look at lower-caste childhood, about a boy dealing with (and dishing out) the daily indignities of school, and eventually adopting a pet kestrel.

Due to his poverty and class, the boy, Billy, has a very limited life ahead of him, probably following his older brother into the coal mines. The bird is the only thing Billy cares about, and his only chance to escape the mines, or an even bleaker future.

Director Ken Loach has made a lot of subversive films, but this remains his masterpiece. It's a kick in the nuts to the educational system, as there's no way anyone could emerge undamaged from Billy's school.

It's not entirely depressing, though. There's a hilarious conversation between Billy and a librarian who won't let him check out a book until he gets a library card, though of course he can't get a library card without a parent's signature, and good luck getting that.

The cockney or Yorkshire accents are very thick, and difficult for my ear. Subtitles are required, but I didn't have access, so while watching I read along with an internet transcript.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Kid (1990)

Kid is as clever and creative as its title. It's built on the popular action-movie template of "There's a new guy in town and everybody's out to hassle him," with the twist that the new guy in town is as stupid and cruel as his tormentors. C Thomas Howell stars, glaring at everyone for an hour and a half. 

"Dude, you look like you just got banged by the dick of doom."

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Nightmare in Chicago (1964)

This is a dark, noiry, creepy thriller about a serial killer code-named Georgy Porgy, who's killing women across the midwest.

Most of the action takes place in the seediest "Girls Girls Girls" section of town, and one of the murders happens rather gruesomely during a nightclub strip show.

Amazingly, this was made for television. Or at least, that's what IMDB says, though it's hard to believe and I wonder if they're mistaken. Can't imagine what network would've aired this in 1964. It sure doesn't feel like a made-for-TV movie; it's more like a very good B-movie thriller from that era.

The film's high quality comes from being based on a story by William P McGivern (The Big Heat, Odds Against Tomorrow, Shield for Murder), and directed by Robert Altman, who went on to make Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, and a few more pretty good flicks.

The cops are distracted by a convoy full of McGuffins, and a central clue in capturing the bad guy is that he wears sunglasses, even at night. Because of this, cops think he has a disease that makes bright lights painful, so they run around shining a super-bright flashlight in everyone's eyes. Bright lights in everyone's faces soon becomes comical, but it all works marvelously, and outta nowhere the ending earns some serious poignancy. 

Ted Knight, years before playing Ted Baxter, plays pretty much the same character — a pompous, humorless police commissioner with great hair. 

Music by "Johnny Williams," who's since gone by John, and scored Star Wars among a few other films.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Point Blank (1967)

Walker (no first name, played by Lee Marvin) has been double-crossed by the mob, and feels he's owed $93,000, and he'll kill anybody up the Mafia's chain of command until he gets his money. 

The movie's a classic, everyone says. And it is a good movie, but it left me cold. There's not much humanity in it.

The story is told with lots of quick flashbacks that fill in the blanks, or most of the blanks, and it's interesting but it rarely feels like anything more than actors performing a script.

There's a great scene where Angie Dickinson slaps Marvin around, beats on his chest, furious, and he stands and takes it, doesn't care. When she runs out of energy and collapses on the floor, he sits on the couch and turns on the TV. He doesn't give a damn. (She ain't entirely out of gumption, though.)

The film gets a thumbs up from me, because a lot of it looks terrific, the dialogue is made of solid noir, and I can't fault any of it really — the script, the direction, the performances. And yet...

I don't even know what I'm complaining about, specifically. But Dickinson pounding on Marvin's chest, and his uncaring response, sorta encapsulates what's missing:

Watching it, I'm sitting here, pounding on the movie's chest, waiting for Point Blank to care about itself. But it remains thoroughly detached and never does.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Railway Children (1970)

An upper-class family is thrown far from their routines after the father is arrested on suspicion of espionage. Mom and the three kiddies move from their fine home to a lesser house near the train station, which makes the three kids into railway children. 

"It's quite true that we are poor, but we shall have enough to live on just so long as I have ideas for stories." Mom is a writer, apparently.

This is a very 'family film', in which not a lot happens but it's all charming, and it's British so bring some buttered crumpets and tea.

It's based on an apparently classic kiddie book by Edith Nesbit, which I'd never heard of. The G-rated storyline and especially the sleepy-time musical score make it all seem even blander, perhaps, than it is.

Jenny Agutter stars, with the marvelous Bernard Cribbins.

Verdict: YES, but barely.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Samantha (1991)

A baby is left on a stranger's doorstep (does that ever really happen?), and she grows up to be the brilliant violinist Martha Plimpton.

Her adoption was kept secret from her (never a good idea) until she's 21, and immediately she makes it her mission to find her biological parents. Toward that goal, she gives not enough attention to her music, the parents who raised and love her, and the pal she doesn't yet know is the man of her dreams.

"We wrapped you in a blanket, and put you inside our best wicker basket... oh honey, do you remember that basket? We used to take that basket on picnics. I could fit a whole ham inside that basket..."

Mostly this is sit-com level stuff, but Plimpton can make anything sparkle. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Coming attractions: 

• Alien from the Deep (1989)
• Apollo 10½ (2022)
• It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman! (1975)
• Malcolm X (1975)
• Mom and Dad Save the World (1991)
• Strike (1925)
• Top Secret (1984)


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, try • AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlix • or your local library.

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.
— — —
Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff.

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  1. Ted Knight, years before playing Ted Baxter, plays pretty much the same character — a pompous, humorless police commissioner with great hair.


    Ted Knight is my spirit animal. Caddyshack? The funniest film ever made.

    1. Shirley you jest. I've seen Caddyshack, and enjoyed it, but if I get one Bill Murray movie it's Groundhog Day.

      Knight was perfect as Ted Baxter. Never saw his other big sitcom. My spirit animal is probably a cockroach.

    2. I agree with you on Groundhog Day and on Caddyshack not being nearly as good but still enjoyable. Ted Knight also had another sitcom later in life, the pretty crappy Too Close for Comfort. I believe he plays Henry Rush a cartoonist. You know it's bad when JJ Bullock shows up in the cast. -- Arden

    3. GROUNDHOG DAY had no business being any good. From the previews, it looked like a one-joke comedy so I wasn't expecting anything much, but jeez it was good. I must've seen it half a dozen times at the dilapidated Strand in San Francisco...

      The love so many people have for CADDYSHACK eludes me. It's a good comedy, that's all.

    4. Groundhog Day is wildly overrated. I've read at least 50 SF stories with the same basic plot or premise, none of which made by spoiled insincere Hollywood shitbirds. I'll take Vonnegut or Robert Sheckley instead any day of the week.

      Or, maybe I've read the same story 50 times. Irregardless, Marge.

    5. Who's Marge? A cliché unknown to me...

      Well, granted, GROUNDHOG DAY is not great sci-fi, not terribly original, and it doesn't explain itself or make sense, but a delightful rom-com made by spoiled insincere Hollywood shitbirds.

  2. Doug, for any pre-code movie, and especially those of the Marx Brothers, runtimes are important. I haven't done all the research, but the imposition of the code, combined with incidental cuts made to various copies of the print, make runtime an important component in seeing as much of the film as possible.

    So as part of your review, it might be a good idea to include a desirable runtime. I don't know what it is for Duck Soup, but there must be a resource somewhere that will tell us.

    I believe most of the pre-code Marx Brothers movies simply don't exist in their pre-cut condition. The idiots at the two primary Marx studios didn't know they were cutting important cultural history, and just tossed the hilarious scenes in the garbage can. Maybe anybody whose job it is to deface movie prints ought to be required to watch the damn film first.

    They were fucking up art and American history to make a few politicians look good to the church crowd, or to squeeze a movie into a one hour + commercials afternoon television broadcast. Criminal activity like this should have consequences. I'd start with jail and work down.


    1. Usually I delete movies off my hard disk to make way for more movies, but I'm keeping all my Marx Brothers stuff for re-watching, which makes it easy to check run times.

      The Cocoanuts -- IMDB says its an hour and 36 minutes, but the version I watched is 1:33. Damn.

      Animal Crackers -- 1:37 and 1:33, respectively.

      Monkey Business -- 1:17 and 1:18, so somehow I got a longer than 'official' version?

      Horse Feathers -- 1:08 and 1:07.

      Duck Soup -- 1:09 and 1:10, so again I'm a minute ahead.

      Total so far, in five Marx Brothers movies, I've lost six minutes to the censors, for which I'd like to wake them in their coffins and yell at them.

      Annoying as fuck that those bastards chopped up the DaVincis of comedy.

    2. I'd say, based on your numbers, you likely got the best available cuts of all those movies. There are shorter cuts of all those films, not because of censorship, but because after the Marx Brothers went out of fashion, there were, in a few cases, only a half dozen copies of a few Marx films, and in a couple of cases, in the late 40s, companies were throwing away old films to make room for storage of newer ones.

      The producer of You Bet Your Life got a call in the mid-60s, asking him if he'd like a film of one of the programs as a keepsake, because they were burning all the old film to make room for more. He asked how many had been destroyed and was told "only about 20 or 30. He yelled "Stop now. I'm on my way." He was able to save the rest of the shows.

      He called the networks and asked them whether they were interested in syndicating the old shows. All said no. So he started calling independent TV stations, and found one in Los Angeles who was interested in running reruns daily if the producer didn't charge much. He didn't charge anything, so indie TV station started running old reruns of You Bet Your Life in the afternoons. Within a month, they were beating the three network affiliates in the time slot. Word got around, and independent TV stations across the country started asking for copies to run in the afternoons. Ratings were quite good. Thus began the Marx Brothers revival and the showing of their films in theatres again. Groucho went from being a barely-known old-time movie actor to being a superstar in about two years. Cavett invited him on, then invited him back, and back again. Colleges started inviting Groucho to appear and speak and answer questions. The events were jammed and quite successful. Groucho died as he had lived in the 1930s, a well-known and well-loved character.



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