A country on the verge of bankruptcy is forced to appoint a new president who insults everyone and throws the government into such chaos that they teeter on the verge of war. “Duck Soup” is one of my favorite movies of all time –one that makes me laugh out loud every time I see it (over 20 times – I’ve lost count) – one I teach to my students every semester and that I can quote almost every line from. “Why a four-year-old child could understand this report. Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can’t make head or tail out of it!” The lines are hysterical but they work so well because of the way they’re delivered so brazenly and so fast by the Marx Brothers. Of all of their movies, “Duck Soup” is their masterwork – although when first released in 1933 it wasn’t as financially successful as their previous ones – nor as well received by critics. During the Great Depression, audiences may have been shocked by the irreverent political satire, horseplay and sarcasm at a time of economic and political turmoil. To the delight of the Marx Bros., Benito Mussolini took the film extremely personally for he banned it from Italy. You should see “Duck Soup” for I feel you will find relief in the genius of their absurdity.
As I mentioned in a previous note, the 1930s introduced us to the screwball comedy. The anarchic comedy was also common in this period and the Marx Brothers were the main advocates of it. The brothers – Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo – became famous doing vaudeville which was a popular form of live entertainment in the US from the 1880 until the 1930s. It was made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together (musicians, dancers, ventriloquists, acrobats, magicians, among others) on a common bill. If an audience didn’t care for a particular number they knew that they only had to wait a few minutes until the next sequence came. The anarchic comedies of the Marx Brothers are built in that style. A very thin veil of a narrative connects visual gags. They were dexterous at word play filled with double entendres and visual slapstick. The anarchy also entailed making fun of the establishment and the elite – and by the end of the movie – literally leaving the place in shambles whether it was the opera, a country club or in the case of “Duck Soup” – a country. The long lasting influence of their work can be seen through the work of Monty Python, Woody Allen, and Saturday Night Live among many others.
In “Duck Soup” – which breezily flies by in 70 minutes – there’s not a single ounce of fat. Scene after scene – there are extraordinary set pieces. One of them still inspires awe in me after so many repeated viewings. Harpo disguises himself as Groucho and shatters a mirror while sneaking into a rich lady’s home to break into her safe. Groucho comes inspecting and Harpo stands inside the frame of the broken mirror, pretending to be Groucho’s own reflection. What transpires is this gloriously performed routine that escalates into delirium. The movie crescendos into a war sequence that is still astonishingly brilliant and zany. Notice the anachronism of Groucho’s ever-changing uniforms from moment to moment.
You will be astonished at the modernity and relevance of one of the greatest comedies of all time.
Rufus T. Firefly: “I could dance with you ‘til the cows come home. On second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows ‘til you came home.”
Available to rent on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, YouTube, Redbox, Microsoft and DIRECTV.
Story by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby
Directed by Leo McCarey
Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Louis Calhern, Raquel Torres and Edgar Kennedy.
The Inspirations Behind “Duck Soup”
“The genesis of “Duck Soup,” known under various working titles, such as “Cracked Ice” and “Grasshoppers,” was influenced by two other projects that tangentially involved Marx Brothers alumni. Herman Mankiewicz, the producer on “Duck Soup,” had just supervised the shooting of another Paramount comedy, “Million Dollar Legs” (1932), starring W.C. Fields. Herman’s younger brother Joe had written that film’s original story about a fictional country, Klopstokia, beset by chaotic foreign intrigue, nutty spies, and internal political strife. Sound familiar? The cast even featured a young actress named Susan Fleming, playing the President’s daughter, who was to become Harpo Marx’s betrothed two years later. While there are no definite connections between the two projects, Herman Mankiewicz’s involvement in both can not be easily dismissed. The other influence on “Duck Soup” was a political play called “Of Thee I Sing,” by George S. Kaufman (who wrote two of the Marxes’ stage plays) and Morrie Ryskind, which took satirical swipes at French and U.S. relations. The Marxes briefly flirted with the idea of adapting the play for the screen. Instead, they incorporated many of the same themes into early drafts of “Cracked Ice,” soon to be renamed “Duck Soup.” (tcm.com)
Writing “Duck Soup”
“In the original script, there was to be a romance between Raquel Torres and Zeppo Marx, but it was cut before the picture’s release. In fact, after the premiere of “Duck Soup,” Zeppo cut himself from the comedy team altogether, citing a dissatisfaction with movie acting overall, and a weariness with being the butt of jokes regarding him as the “unfunny” Marx brother. But contrary to the commonly accepted story, Zeppo did not leave to represent his brothers as their showbiz agent. In fact, the only deal Zeppo ever spearheaded for his brothers was with RKO Pictures, for the 1938 movie, Room Service. Upon making his exit from the cameras, Zeppo, and another Marx brother, Gummo eventually represented a number of talented writers and actors, including George S. Kaufman, Dorothy Parker, Lucille Ball, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Harlow, and Lana Turner. It was Gummo, not Zeppo, who became the Marx Brothers’ formal agent.
Screenwriters Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmer were standing on the set of one day when an extra standing next to them said, “I don’t know who wrote this stuff but they ought to be arrested…they should be in a different business.” Kalmer, who was known as a rational and calm man, said to Ruby, “I’m going over to hit him. Who does he think he is? He’s just an extra!” But before fisticuffs erupted, Kalmer and Ruby were informed that Chico Marx had paid the extra to rib the screenwriters, just for the hell of it. Some screenwriters did not survive the Marx Brothers long enough to be ribbed at all. Two Paramount contract writers, Grover Jones and Kean Thompson, were both eager and willing to be assigned to “Duck Soup.” They were each hired at different intervals, but both had disappeared from the production after two weeks’ work. They simply did not have the stamina and perseverance in dealing with the Marx Brothers.” (tcm.com)
Releasing “Duck Soup”
To help sell “Duck Soup” to theater exhibitors and the public, the Paramount press department featured a number of contests to get the word out about the newest Marx Brothers laughfest. In addition to “Name the Four Marx Sisters,” there was also a proposed duck-hunting contest, in which hunters across the fruited plain would bring back their catch to be cooked in one big duck dinner, beginning with duck soup, of course. And then there was the duck parade. Just imagine, to paraphrase the Paramount press materials, after you round up four ducks (preferably from a poultry market or a farmer), dress them as the Brothers, and let them lead the parade, you, the faithful theater manager, could then create more nonstop hilarity by tying the ducks together with a long string. “The ducks will not stay in line but that will only add to the confusion and the excitement,” the press materials helpfully added.
Shortly before “Duck Soup” premiered in November 1933, the city of Fredonia, New York, complained about the use of its name with a missive from the town mayor that read, “The name of Fredonia has been without blot since 1817. I feel it is my duty as mayor to question your intentions in using the name of our city in your picture.” Groucho replied in writing, “Your Excellency: Our advice is that you change the name of your town. It is hurting our picture. Anyhow, what makes you think you’re Mayor of Fredonia? Do you wear a black moustache, play a harp, speak with an Italian accent, or chase girls like Harpo? We are certain you do not. Therefore, we must be Mayor of Fredonia, not you. The old gray Mayor ain’t what he used to be.” (tcm.com)
About Director Leo McCarey
Leo McCarey, in full Thomas Leo McCarey was born October 3, 1898, in Los Angeles, California. “McCarey graduated from the University of Southern California law school and practiced briefly before he broke into films in 1918 as an assistant to director Tod Browning. By 1924 he was directing Charley Chase two-reelers and writing gags for the “Our Gang” series, and he soon was supervising a hundred comedy shorts a year for Hal Roach Studios as vice president of production. His most-noted accomplishment during his tenure with Roach was his inspired notion that Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy—two of the studio’s top comic talents—should be made a permanent comedy team. McCarey then oversaw every aspect of the movies they made over the next four years, from the writing of the stories to the editing and previewing of the finished films. The 19 films that Laurel and Hardy made under McCarey’s supervision, including three that he directed, were essential in forming McCarey’s comic sensibilities. In 1929 McCarey directed his first full-length features, “The Sophomore” and “Red Hot Rhythm,” both for Pathé Exchange. The following year he signed with Fox (later Twentieth Century-Fox) and then made “Wild Company” (1930)…McCarey next directed the popular musical Let’s Go Native (1930). He had even more success with Part Time Wife (1930), a comedy about an estranged couple (Edmund Lowe and Leila Hyams) who reconnect through golf. It was cowritten by McCarey, who contributed to the story or screenplay for most of his films.
In 1933 McCarey signed with Paramount Pictures. There he worked with some of the most-renowned names in film comedy and honed his own freewheeling comic style, based on improvisational techniques learned during his days with Laurel and Hardy. His first effort for the studio was “Duck Soup” (1933), starring the Marx Brothers. Although a flop when released, it is now regarded as one of the greatest comedies of all time. McCarey also worked with W.C. Fields, George Burns, and Gracie Allen on “Six of a Kind” (1934) and with Mae West on “Belle of the Nineties” (1934), which was West’s final film before her screen image was tamed by the onset of the Production Code. It was not until “Ruggles of Red Gap” (1935), however, that McCarey directed a film bearing many of his trademarks: a comic sense that blended reality and farce, a glorification of the American character concurrent with a condemnation of American materialism and naïveté, a reflection of McCarey’s own Roman Catholic values, and a warm sentimentality that usually transcended cloying sweetness. McCarey’s most personal film, “Make Way for Tomorrow” (1937), was a bittersweet indictment of the mistreatment of the elderly. It was a radical departure for the director, an unabashed tearjerker about an impoverished elderly couple (Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore) whose selfish children are not willing to house both of them, so they must live apart. McCarey then moved to Columbia Pictures, where he directed the classic Cary Grant–Irene Dunne screwball comedy “The Awful Truth” (1937)…The film received six Academy Award nominations, including a nod for best picture, but only McCarey won an Oscar, for his stylish freewheeling direction.
After signing with RKO, McCarey made the ultraromantic “Love Affair” (1939)…the film earned six Academy Award nominations, including for best picture, and McCarey received a nod for his work on the story. (He would remake the picture 18 years later as An Affair to Remember.) McCarey also cowrote the story for “My Favorite Wife” (1940), with Grant and Dunne. He was slated to direct it, but a near-fatal car crash forced him to hand the reins over to Garson Kanin, who turned it into a comic classic and one of 1940’s highest-grossing films. McCarey’s tenure at RKO ended, but Paramount was happy to obtain his services, particularly after his first film for the studio, “Going My Way” (1944), was a success… “Going My Way” was the biggest hit of 1944, and it nearly swept the Academy Awards, winning for best picture, director, actor (Crosby), supporting actor (Fitzgerald), story (McCarey), screenplay, and song (“Swinging on a Star”). McCarey had similar success with “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945)…earned eight Oscar nominations, with McCarey receiving a nod for his direction, and was the top-grossing film of 1945…McCarey’s films that followed World War II bear a slightly cynical tone previously unseen in his work. Personal problems limited his output to five films during the rest of his career. Three years elapsed before Good Sam (1948)…His powers were clearly on the wane, but McCarey pulled himself together for “An Affair to Remember” (1957), a remake of “Love Affair”…and McCarey cowrote the lyrics to the Oscar-nominated title tune. Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys! (1958), starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Joan Collins, was McCarey’s first comedy in 10 years…McCarey’s final film was “Satan Never Sleeps” (1962).” (britannica.com)