About 3 years after the beginning of the Great Depression, Duck Soup made its appearance on screen for the first time. The Marx Brothers created this frantic and funny satire with rapid-fire gags and some of the most inspired physical comedy ever to hit the screen. In the film, the small state of Freedonia, which is in a financial mess, borrows a significant sum of cash from wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale. In order to get her money donation, the state must replace the current president with eccentric Rufus T. Firefly. Mayhem erupts almost immediately. Firefly (played by Groucho Marx) manages to offend half his staff and fellow world leaders and lead his country to the brink of war. To make matters worse, the neighboring state sends inept spies Chicolini and Pinky to obtain top-secret information, creating even more chaos for Freedonia.
Duck Soup is a highly adept and intelligent satire of government processes and government officials that perpetuate them. The whole film is an opportunity to poke fun at unintelligent and corrupt rulers, the nonsensical government bureaucracy that is universal across all governments, pompous diplomats and the absurdity of reckless war. This satire was particularly well received during the time period in which it was released. During the midst of the Great Depression, there were high levels of distrust and outright distaste for the government and its programs. The processes required to receive any aid from the government was full of loopholes and was extremely difficult to deal with, especially for working class Americans, who were the most drastically affected. People lived in “hoovervilles”, a popular name for the large shantytowns that were built by homeless people during this time period. They were named for the current president Herbert Hoover, who was largely blamed for the Great Depression by the American public.
The statement against warfare was particularly heard in the broader American audience. One of the many causes of the Great Depression was the collapse of the economy, which couldn’t transition from wartime to peacetime production after WWI. Many women were left widows after WWI as well since most men at that time fought in the war, throwing them into the Great Depression as single mothers or relying on only one salary to make ends meet.
The war in Freedonia ends with Groucho commanding the Freedonian troops in a pitched battle that appears to be more like a pie fight, shooting his own men by accident and wearing every uniform known to man from World War I to Boy Scout. This variation in uniform reinforces the message of governmental rejection to all countries, time periods, and bureaucracies. The ridiculousness of the battle itself mirrors the nonsensical logic behind war in general, but especially country-to-country rivalries and disputes.
This film reached out to the American public with humor and a message of camaraderie during a particularly dark time, mostly void of humor and community. The slapstick humor and clever quips that so much make the Marx Brothers ageless, gave a little comic relief to the poverty stricken America in 1933.