The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup from 1933 is considered one of the greatest anti-war films ever made. However, at the time of its release it was a flop both critically and at the box office.
Unfortunately the timing of the film could not have been worse, with the worldwide depression and angst concerning unrest in Europe and Asia; movie goers were not ready for an irreverent political satire. After Duck Soup bombed at the box office the Brothers were dropped by Paramount. The brilliant Irving Thalberg, production chief at M-G-M, felt that their Paramount films were underperforming at the box office because their characters did not appeal to the female audience, a romantic interest was needed. Thalberg signed the Brothers and used his theory to produce their biggest hits for M-G-M, A Night at the Opera 1935 and A Day at the Races 1937. However, in Duck Soup no mushy love scenes get in the way of their fast paced craziness. Running only 69 minutes, surely more laughs per foot than any film in history.
The screenplay of Duck Soup was written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby (with additional dialogue by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin). The renowned Ernst Lubitsch was the first choice as director but he was replaced by veteran Leo McCarey.
Due to their general anarchistic tendencies the five pictures the Brothers’ made for Paramount could be more accurately described as being loosely supervised, rather than directed. Duck Soup and director McCarey being the only exception. He was the master of the gag, a comedic genius, responsible for making the team of Laurel and Hardy a success in sound films; after Duck Soup, he would go on to direct such memorable pictures as The Awful Truth 1937, Going My Way 1944 and An Affair to Remember 1957.
McCarey was not enthused about the project, he recalls in a 1967 interview in Cahiers du cinema “I don’t like [Duck Soup] so much…I never chose to shoot this film. The Marx Brothers absolutely wanted me to direct them in a film. I refused. Then they got angry with the studio, broke their contract and left. Believing myself secure, I accepted the renewal of my own contract with the studio. Soon, the Marx Brothers were reconciled with [Paramount]…and I found myself in the process of directing the Marx Brothers. The most surprising thing about this film was that I succeeded in not going crazy, for I really did not want to work with them: they were completely mad.”
As Roger Ebert writes: “To describe the plot [of Duck Soup] would be an exercise in futility, since a Marx Brothers movie exists in moments, bits, sequences, business and dialogue, not in comprehensible stories.” However, I will attempt a brief outline of the story. A wealthy widow, Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) is willing to donate $20 million to the bankrupt country of Freedonia, but only if its elected leaders agree to appoint Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) dictator. Firefly is duly installed, but he neglects his duties to lure the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale into an affair. Over in neighboring Sylvania, a rival suitor, Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) hires the sex pot Vera Marcal (Racquel Torres) to distract Firefly by seducing him so that Trentino would be free to woo and wed Mrs. Teasdale, thereby combining the two kingdoms. Trentino hires peanut vendor, Chicolini (Chico Marx) and his mute pal, Pinky (Harpo Marx) as spies, this precipitates a war breaking out between Freedonia and Sylvania.
Groucho always felt that Margaret Dumont, as the upright and matronly Mrs. Teasdale, was almost a fifth Marx Brother. She always played her scenes in Duck Soup and their other pictures dead seriously; this created a contrast that made the Brothers’ slapstick humor and satire even more effective. In the notorious final scene Dumont belts out Freedonia’s National Anthem as the Brothers pelt her with a barrage of fruit. Groucho later said of her, “She was a wonderful woman. She was the same offstage as she was on it – always the stuffy, dignified matron. She took everything seriously. She would say to me, ‘Julie, why are they laughing?'” Apparently, Dumont did not get most of the Marx Brothers’ jokes.
One of the greatest and most beloved scenes in cinema was thought up by McCarey based on an old vaudeville act: Harpo disguises himself as Groucho, and sneaks into Mrs. Teasdale’s room, in trying break into a safe, shatters a mirror. Groucho himself comes downstairs to investigate. Harpo stands inside the frame of the broken mirror, and tries to avoid detection by pretending to be Groucho’s reflection. This leads to wonderful continuous pantomime involving perfect timing, as Groucho tries to catch the reflection in an error, and Harpo matches him move for move. Finally, to properly conclude this theater of the absurd, Chico enters into the frame, also dressed as Groucho. This scene has been copied dozens of times, most famously some twenty years later for television on I love Lucy by Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance.
As master deflators of stuffed shirts and pompous highbrows, the Brothers would certainly appreciate the irony of Duck Soup’s lofty status over seventy-five years later, making the revered list of preserved treasures from the National Registry of Historic Films as well as being placed in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Groucho might repeat his famous quip: “ I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member.”
The Museum of Modern Art film catalogue records: “In its brilliant combination of silent-film pantomime and verbal fireworks, Duck Soup is the distillation of all the best elements to be found in the Marx brothers’ comedies.”
Valued critics have placed the Marx Brothers in some heady company.
Roger Ebert states that “Although [the Brothers] were not taken as seriously, they were as surrealist as Dali, as shocking as Stravinsky, as verbally outrageous as Gertrude Stein, as alienated as Kafka. Because they worked the genres of slapstick and screwball, they did not get the same kind of attention, but their effect on the popular mind was probably more influential.”
Film Scholar Patrick Mc Cray writes: “As an absurdist essay on politics and warfare, Duck Soup can stand alongside (or even above!) the works of Beckett and Ionesco. The epic scale is what makes it so amazing. Because, unlike Beckett or Ionesco, the Marx’s don’t have any pretensions about being arty and incomprehensible.”
In The Comic Mind, film critic Gerald Mast writes that “The Marxs’ 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.”
Evidently Benito Mussolini, the fascist Italian dictator, took the Brothers’ satire on war and dictatorships personally; completely banning the film in Italy; to the delight of the Brothers.
Among the more memorable lines and insults:
Rufus T. Firefly: You’re a brave man. Go and break through the lines. And remember, while you’re out there risking you’re life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be in be in here thinking what a sucker you are.
Rufus T. Firefly: He may look like an idiot, and talk like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.
Rufus T. Firefly: But there must be a war. I’ve paid a month’s rent on the battlefield.
Rufus T. Firefly: We’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is more than she ever did.
Chicolini: Now I aska you one. What has a trunk, but no key, weighs 2,000 pounds and lives in a circus?
Prosecutor: That’s irrelevant.
Chicolini: Irrelephant? Hey, that’sa the answer! There’s a whole lot of irrelephants in the circus.
Rufus T. Firefly: I suggest we give him ten years in Leavenworth, or eleven years in Twelveworth.
Chicolini: I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll take five and ten at Woolworth.
Rufus T. Firefly: Excuse me while I brush the crumbs out of my bed. I’m expecting company.
Rufus T. Firefly: Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You better beat it — I hear they’re going to tear you down and put up an office building where you’re standing. You can leave in a taxi. If you can’t get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that’s too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff. You know, you haven’t stopped talking since I came here? You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle.
Minister of Finance: Here is the Treasury Department’s report, sir. I hope you’ll find it clear.
Rufus T. Firefly: Clear? Huh! Why a four-year-old child could understand this report!
(To Bob Roland) “Run out and find me a four-year -old child, I can’t make head nor tail of it.”
Finally, the reader may wonder about the origin of the title Duck Soup. While the Brothers’ Paramount films all had enigmatic titles, such as Animal Crackers or Horse Feathers , the Duck Soup title actually has an explanation behind it, according to Groucho you, “Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you’ll duck soup the rest of your life.”