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Duck Soup

Duck Soup(1933)

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Home Video Reviews

The Marx Brothers could turn any word into a bit of zany wordplay and create the most madcap of visual gags, but their comedy is more than that. It often contains sly digs at social and political issues and is based on real observations of human behavior, qualities which keep their comedies timeless. Universal Home Video's six-disc DVD release The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection comprises the five films the Brothers made at Paramount in the early 1930s - which includes most of their best work.

While the movies are superb, enough reason to make this a must-own, Universal's presentation is somewhat lacking. They've taken the time to create a pleasing fold-out package with gorgeous photos and a small booklet attached to the spine, but the information therein is pretty sparse and the extras are, in a word, lame. Incredibly, the studio has included a stand-alone bonus disc with a whopping 15 minutes of material. Since most of the films run a little over an hour, this material could easily have been added to one of the other discs. Furthermore, the extra material just isn't that interesting - two interviews with Groucho and Harpo (no, he doesn't talk) on The Today Show from the 1960s, and one with Harpo's son William from the 1980s. The latter interview includes some snippets of Marx Brother home movies, but they're not terribly revealing. Obviously, since NBC owns Universal, these clips required little effort to secure.

By contrast, the Warner Home Video set of Marx Brothers MGM films, released last spring, had tons of extras including commentaries, documentaries, outtakes and cartoons, and they were interesting. More importantly, those movies were cleaned up and in terrific shape. Universal's titles, which are better films, are visibly in need of restoration, and it seems likely that Universal simply rushed out this collection in order to take advantage of the attention lavished on the Warner set. In the end, even though the prints are far from pristine, they do look and sound decent enough to be enjoyable. Here is a rundown by title:

THE COCOANUTS

Groucho:

"The first musical number on the program will be a piccolo solo, which we will skip."

The Marx Brothers made a one-reel short in 1926 called Humor Risk, but it was never released and is now a lost film. (Groucho claimed it wasn't very good.) This makes The Cocoanuts their earliest surviving movie, and it's the creakiest of the bunch. It finds Groucho running a Florida hotel and auctioning off parcels of land, and all four boys getting mixed up with jewel robbers. While not an essential Marx Bros. film, it certainly has its moments, like Chico continually raising his own bid at an auction, the "viaduct/why-a-duck" wordplay between Groucho and Chico, and a hilarious version of the theme from Carmen sung as "I want my shirt!" While all these pictures are full of music, The Cocoanuts is a full-blown musical with elaborate numbers. Typical of the first Hollywood sound films, the story (such as it is) stops in its tracks every time a number begins, and one number, "Monkey Doodle Do" is so ludicrous that it must be seen to be believed. It includes one camera angle which pretty much exists solely to look up Mary Eaton's skirt.

Margaret Dumont, the woman born to play the straight woman to Groucho Marx on stage and screen, does so here in their first feature, and she would continue to do so for many years ahead. Also in the cast, strangely enough, is Kay Francis, offering little hint of the sophisticated major star she would soon become. Harpo is a quite aggressive presence in The Cocoanuts, more amoral and devious than in the other movies, though no less funny. Zeppo has less to do here than in any other film, and that's saying something!

The Cocoanut was adapted from a George S. Kaufman hit play that the Marxes had performed on Broadway and on the road for nearly two years. This massive amount of performing allowed them to refine the timing of their gags perfectly and was a technique they would continue to use for future films. In fact, while shooting this film by day in New York, the Marx Brothers were performing Animal Crackers on stage at night, a play which would become their second film.

Technically, The Cocoanuts is in the worst shape of the five movies in this collection, with scratches, glitches, soft-focus, and rough spots galore. The elements are clearly in bad shape, and this does not help the stagy, static camerawork go down any easier.

ANIMAL CRACKERS

Groucho talking with two ladies:

"What do you say? Are we all gonna get married?"

"But that's bigamy."

"Yes and that's big of me too. That's big of all of us."

The second Marx Brothers film is a winner, with Groucho playing Capt. Spaulding, a famous explorer just returned from Africa whom Margaret Dumont is honoring with a party. Eventually the plot turns on stolen artwork and the efforts of the boys to retrieve it. Along the way, Harpo tries to produce a "flash" (i.e. flashlight) from his pocket, and instead pulls out a flask, a flute, a flush of cards, a fish, etc. General madcap choas abounds. Though also adapted from a play, Animal Crackers is less stagy than its predecessor. The transfer is better, too, but some reels look soft in focus and portions are quite scratchy. An original trailer is included.

MONKEY BUSINESS

Groucho to ship's captain:

"I want to register a complaint. Do you know who sneaked into my stateroom at 3:00 this morning?"

"Who did that?"

"Nobody, and that's my complaint."

Here, the boys are stowaways on a ship, a setting that prefigures their later MGM masterpiece A Night at the Opera (1935). While constantly evading capture, two get hired by a mobster to be his bodyguards, while the other two are hired by another. The plot is thin even for a Marx Bros film, but the movie never slows down due to hilarious bits of business like Harpo putting on a puppet show for a room full of kids, and all four brothers trying to sing like Maurice Chevalier in order to get off the ship (even Harpo, in a manner of speaking.) Monkey Business is in relatively good shape technically, with fewer glitches and scratches than the previous films.

HORSE FEATHERS

Groucho to Zeppo:

"What's all this talk I hear about you fooling around with a college widow? No wonder you can't get out of college. Twelve years in one college. I went to three colleges in twelve years and fooled around with three college widows."

Groucho is the newly elected president of Huxley College who tries to hire two football players to help his team win, but he ends up hiring Harpo and Chico instead. The climactic football game is an inspired bit of lunacy, and the picture as a whole is much more cinematic than the first three - it moves. Includes the classic bit of Groucho and Chico trying to enter the bar by saying the password. The print is somewhat scratchy with some sound skips, splices, frame jitter and speckling, but these problems come and go - one reel is especially bad, while others are quite good. For some reason, Universal has included a trailer made for a video release of the movie in the 1980s. It adds absolutely nothing.

DUCK SOUP

Zeppo to Groucho, in war zone:

"General Smith reports a gas attack. He wants to know what to do."

"Tell him to take a teaspoon full of bicarbonate of soda and a half a glass of water."

"Yes, sir."

The Marx Brothers' final Paramount film is a bona fide masterpiece and is technically in the best shape of all the movies in this set. Directed by Leo McCarey, it is brilliant political satire, especially the final sequence where the Marx Brothers are in combat. Groucho is president of Freedonia and declares war on a neighboring country in order to defend the honor of Freedonia and Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont). The sequence with three brothers dressed as Groucho, culminating in the famous mirror scene, is hysterical no matter how many times you see it.

Duck Soup was famously a flop upon release and nearly sank Paramount Pictures. Now it's hailed not just as the best Marx Brothers movie of all but as one of the finest comedies ever made, and it is listed in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. (It was one of the first 50 titles to be inducted.) The film was a turning point for the brothers. Zeppo retired to become a talent manager afterwards, and Paramount stopped producing Marx Brothers movies, clearing the way for MGM's Irving Thalberg to step in, sign the boys to a new contract, and significantly re-shape their films narratively. This resulted in one indisputable gem, A Night at the Opera, and then other films of steadily decreasing quality (though they all have their moments).

Thalberg thought the Paramount productions too madcap and unfocused, but in hindsight, that was not a problem. Seen today, these pictures are fresh and hilariously funny, whether you're 9 or 90, and this DVD set, despite its shortcomings, is one of the more notable releases of the year.

To order The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold