I'm strictly on the up and up
So everyone beware
If anyone's caught taking graft
And I don't get my share
We stand 'em up against the wall
And pop goes the weasel.
- Rufus T. Firefly
The fifth and final film in the Marx Brothers' five-picture contract with Paramount, Duck Soup (1933) is considered by many to be the Marx Brothers' singular achievement in film. On its release, however, the picture was a critical and commercial failure. The film is notable in that it contains no harp solo for Harpo, no piano solo for Chico and no romantic subplot for Zeppo. These familiar elements, while entertaining in the other films, often took away from the atmosphere of general anarchy, and it is their absence in Duck Soup that has helped make it the most critically praised of all the Marx Brothers' films. Nevertheless, the absence of such elements disappointed moviegoers. A theater owner in Pierre, South Dakota said that Duck Soup was an example of "how dumb smart people can be. Would any exhibitor have made a picture with the Marx Brothers in it and kept the harp and piano out?" This many years later, however, we can see the film as an example of how smart smart people can be.
The film was directed by Leo McCarey, the only top-notch comedy director to take control of the Marx Brothers. He first worked as an assistant for Tod Browning and then established himself as one of Hollywood's best comedy directors. McCarey was instrumental in bringing together Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and had recently directed Eddie Cantor in The Kid From Spain (1932). McCarey would go on to direct The Awful Truth (1937), Going My Way (1944) and An Affair to Remember (1957), a remake of McCarey's earlier film, Love Affair (1939). In addition to his classical directing style, McCarey also borrowed the film's title - Duck Soup - from an earlier Laurel and Hardy two-reeler he directed in 1927.
Duck Soup marked the return of Margaret Dumont as the eye in the Marx Brothers storm and it features the only musical number with all four brothers - "Freedonia's Going to War." Many of the film's gags and routines were recycled from Flywheel, Shyster & Flywheel, Groucho and Chico's radio show from 1932-1933, and some critics have found traces of old Laurel and Hardy routines, which McCarey, assumedly, brought along. One of the great gags in Duck Soup is also one of the most uncharacteristic, in that Groucho barely speaks. It is, of course, the famous mirror sequence, which Harpo reenacted with Lucille Ball on her TV show many years later.
The film's depiction of the absurdities of two-bit dictators was so insulting to Mussolini that he banned the film in Italy. American critics were also dissatisfied with the film, saying it was either "impossible to follow" (the New York Times) or that it provided no "social comment" (New York Herald-Tribune). In later years, though, the critics saw the film's anarchic strain, its satiric take on politics and war, and absurd, almost surreal ending as a scathing criticism of fascism and nationalism. One needs to be careful, though, in ascribing too much (or too little) to the film. As Arthur Sheekman, one of the screenwriters, said, "Comedy works best when you upset stuffy people or notions, but that doesn't mean that you start out with social criticism." Groucho's quip as Harpo is going off to battle: "While you're out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in here thinking what a sucker you are," is best thought of as a criticism of politics and government in general and not as an attack on a specific ideology. As Groucho later said, "We were trying to be funny, but we didn't know we were satirizing the current condition. It came as a great surprise to us."
So why was Duck Soup such a flop with the public? According to Andrew Bergman, after a "year of Roosevelt's energy and activism, government, no matter what else it might be, was no absurdity. The New Deal would breed its own myths in film, but in 1934 it seems to have utterly cut the ground from under Groucho as prime minister." In The Comic Mind, film critic Gerald Mast writes that "The Marxes' Paramount writers and producer enjoyed destroying the very conventions of their craft and the aesthetics of their employers, creating films with deliberately irrelevant plot twists, incongruous sight gags, inconclusive conclusions, red herrings, faceless and forgettable supporting players." If Bergman is right, in 1934, people were still enamored with Roosevelt's "Happy Days are Here Again," and weren't in the mood to have all their conventions destroyed.
After Duck Soup, Zeppo retired from acting and became a Hollywood agent while the other brothers moved on to MGM. There, under the watchful eye of Irving Thalberg, the Marx Brothers went on to their biggest commercial successes, but they were achieved, in part, by reining the brothers in and giving them more likable personas. Ranked Number 5 on the American Film Institute's "List of the Funniest Films," Duck Soup is one of the greatest and most influential comedies ever made (to see its impact on Woody Allen, see Hannah and Her Sisters, 1986).
"I could dance with you till the cows come home. On second thought, I'd rather dance with the cows when you came home."
Producer: Herman J. Mankiewicz
Director: Leo McCarey
Screenplay: Bert Kalmar, Nat Perrin, Harry Ruby, Arthur Sheekman
Cinematography: Henry Sharp
Film Editing: LeRoy Stone
Original Music: Harry Ruby, Bert Kalmar
Cast: Groucho Marx (Rufus T. Firefly), Chico Marx (Chicolini), Harpo Marx (Pinky), Zeppo Marx (Bob Rolland), Raquel Torres (Vera Marcal), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Teasdale), Louis Calhern (Trentino), Leonid Kinskey (Agitator), Edgar Kennedy (Street Vendor).
BW-69m. Closed Captioning.
by Mark Frankel