Duck Soup depicts the zany and ridiculous antics of the renowned Marx brothers. In this classic film the small country of Freedonia has just appointed a new head of state, Rufus T. Firefly, Groucho Marx. This is the first in a whirlwind of events that takes place within the film all eventually leading to a great war between Freedonia and its neighbor, Sylvania. Some truly odd conflicts can be found within the wild tangle of events that unfold. The main conflict arises between Firefly and the Ambassador of Sylvania, Trantino. Both of these men hold great authority, one as the leader of a country and the other as an ambassador of a different county.
The first time Firefly meets Trentino is at his inauguration party. The new leader slights him immediately as the man has come between him and the woman he’s trying woo. Both Firefly and Trentino have set their eyes on Mrs. Teasdale because she possesses the fortune that keeps Freedonia afloat. While Firefly just wants the lady and her money, Trentino is seeking her hand so that his country may take over Freedonia. However, this conflict between two politicians proves to be already decided. From the beginning, Mrs. Teasdale displays affection for Firefly even with his strange and sometimes rather crude way of talking. Once Trantino has left, Firefly goes on to sing a song of how he intends to “fix” Freedonia. This includes a series of restrictions, including not chewing bubblegum, prohibition of pleasure and higher taxes. As Martin Gardner says in his book, “Duck Soup is really about how people in authority ultimately abuse power and fall prey to its seductive handmaiden, Mademoiselle Corruption.” Firefly is definitely one of those men as he lets his power over the people in the country get to his head, doing things like appointing an enemy spy to Secretary of War on a whim.
However, Firefly isn’t the only one who lets his position go to his head. Trantino acts like he’s the head of his country even though he is merely an ambassador, going so far as to hire spies to infiltrate Freedonia and get dirt on Firefly. The only problem is, the spies tend to get the better of Trantino just as much as they do everyone else they meet up with. So the ambassador’s authority practically doesn’t exist when it comes to them. Throughout the movie Chicolini and Pinky, the spies, flip sides. One moment they are on a mission for Trantino and the next they are buddies with Firefly. Through this hilarious discourse, authority gets thrown about like Firefly’s jax ball. The spies bounce from one point of authority to another, causing all sorts of shenanigans.
Following Chicolini and Pinky, a subtler play against authority is revealed. In one instance Firefly offers Chicolini a job in the Mint – as in currency. The spy, however, takes the word to mean the flavor and turns it down. Through a witty series of similar word tricks he actually winds up getting the job as Firefly’s Secretary of War before Pinky comes in. In this way, Chicolini has manipulated the authority figure, bending him to his whims even though he clearly doesn’t know how to fill the position. His lack of knowledge in the area is shown when he answers Firefly’s question about having a standing army for the country by saying, “because then we save money on chairs.” With comments like these, the men seem totally incompetent in their positions of power.
Switching back to the rivalry between Trantino and Firefly, the viewer is brought to the event that causes the outbreak of war. Firefly’s assistant, Bob Roland, finds a letter from Trantino that proves the man is plotting behind their backs. He insists Firefly get him kicked out of the country by flustering the other into hitting him. However, when the scheme is set in motion, Firefly ends up being the one to get insulted and slaps Trantino across the face with gloves in the classic style of calling a gentleman’s duel. Trantino’s immediate reaction is to pronounce war – an act that usurps the power of his country’s ruler. When Mrs. Teasdale tries to amend the misunderstanding it only gets worse, the two men seemingly destined to be completely at odds with one another.
With Trantino faced with the fact that he can’t woo Mrs. Teasdale, he resorts to sending the spies after the war plans in her house. However, it’s just their luck that Firefly is a weekend guest in her house. Shenanigans ensue and Chicolini winds up being caught. In his trial another wild scene occurs where authority gets tossed up to be caught by nearly anyone. Firefly and his military men question Chicolini but it winds up as the spy questioning them. Each turn of the phrase becomes a flipping of power until they are interrupted by the arrival of Mrs. Teasdale come to attempt one last try for peace. For the first time, Firefly differentiates himself from Trantino by acknowledging the fact that his position in his country is in act higher than Trantino’s in his. Thus the eventual refusal of peace by a person of lesser status, even though provoked by Firefly’s actions, lands both countries in war. As Gardner says, “More than mere intellectual exercise, in this film the Marxes are a metaphoric vehicle employed to create an antiwar environment by reversing generally accepted logic and practice. They espouse antiwar sentiments by actually starting a war – born from the union of chaos and mistrust of repugnant political and social traditions (as in the slap across an opponent’s face with a glove to call for a duel).” The union of chaos comes about immediately after the final proclamation of war wherein the entire courtroom bursts out into song and dance, highlighted by the ringleaders: the four Marx brothers.
Though their antics create an amusing atmosphere, the overall struggle with authority is always present. The disputes with Trantino and so many of the other episodes showed struggles with authority and how it can easily be contested and rivaled or even nullified by the actions of another.