Director: Leo McCarey
Producer: Herman J. Mankiewicz (Paramount)
Writers: Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby (screenplay)
Photography: Henry Sharp
Music: John Leipold
Cast: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Raquel Torres, Louis Calhern, Edmund Breese, Leonid Kinskey, Charles Middleton, Edgar Kennedy
Their careers began over a century ago, as a family vaudeville act in New York. Yet the very mention of the phrase “Marx Brothers” has become cultural shorthand for comic genius and a reminder that good comedy never stales. Yes, they were all actual brothers, and yes, there were as many as five: Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and Gummo, though the lattermost left the act before the group started making films in 1926.
“By the time the Marx Brothers were on film, they were doing routines that they had perfected on stage for years and years on the vaudeville circuit, so they really knew what they were doing,” writer/director Andrew Bergman says. “They just took everything apart.”
In all, the siblings made 16 pictures together through 1957, and as the wisecracking standout, Groucho enjoyed a solo career that stretched into the ’60s. But of all the films they made, none was more influential or more hilarious than their 1933 flop Duck Soup, their last at Paramount, and last with Zeppo, a film grossly under-appreciated in its day, but quite simply one of the finest comedies ever made.
The film takes place in the fictional country of Freedonia, a miniscule place barely seen on a map. The nation faces grave bankruptcy and can only be saved by the contribution of wealthy widow Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), who insists the current prime minister step down in favor of Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx).
Of course, it isn’t exactly the best time for Firefly to take over. Freedonia is on the brink of war with neighboring Sylvania. But take over he does, while his assistant, Bob Roland (Zeppo Marx), warns about the suspicious motives of Sylvanian ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern), who’s secretly trying to take over Freedonia by marrying Mrs. Teasdale. Trentino sends two spies, Pinky (Harpo Marx) and Chicolini (Chico Marx), to gather intelligence on Firefly. Later, he sends them to Mrs. Teasdale’s home to steal Freedonia’s war plans, only for Firefly to catch them red-handed.
The appeal of watching the Marx Bros. is the sense that anything can happen at any time, whether it’s Harpo rising out of a bathtub, or a doghouse tattoo turning into a real barking dog. The final war sequence is absolute frenzy with Groucho wearing five different uniforms as he dodges explosions and heat-seeking missiles through the window, Harpo’s hat spinning around from machine-gun fire, and a priceless “help is on the way” montage, where the cavalry arrives in the form of fire engines, motorcycle cops, marathon runners, rowers, swimmers, baboons, elephants and dolphins. While some of the visuals appear dated, they are nonetheless ambitious. And who better to organize this controlled chaos than director Leo McCarey?
Between 1926-1929, McCarey served as Laurel and Hardy’s “supervisor.” He says that meant “writing the story, cutting it, stringing the gags together, coordinating everything, screening the rushes, working on the editing, sending out the prints, working on the second editing when the preview reactions weren’t good enough and even, from time to time, shooting sequences over again.” (E)
With Laurel and Hardy already under his belt, and the screwball comedy The Awful Truth (1937) on the horizon, McCarey was at the prime of his career to attempt the Marx Brothers. Yet even he admits he felt overwhelmed by them. (E) It may be fun to imagine what would have happened if the film’s original director, Ernst Lubitsch, stayed on, but McCarey does a more than admirable job. As critic David Thomson says, of all the Marx Brothers films, “Duck Soup alone suggests a director: its humor is better organized, and its satire on war more serious.” (E)
Watch the way the director helps bring forth the comedy, as with a slow pan past pairs of shoes at the foot of a bed. We see a man’s shoes, a woman’s shoes, then a set of horse shoes, as we cut to see the woman in a separate bed while Harpo shares a bed with the horse (hello Godfather). Duck Soup also features McCarey’s signature mark, the patented “slow burn,” where a clown figure takes a while to realize the disaster befalling him. (E) Here, it comes as Harpo and Chico agitate the shit out of Edgar Kennedy at a peanut stand, lifting their legs up into his hands, stealing his hat, and culminating with the literal presentation of the “slow burn” — Kennedy’s hat in flames behind him. Kennedy benefited so much from the film that he went on to star in a 1942 short of his own, also called Duck Soup.
Script Du Jour
So why the title? “Duck soup” was once a common phrase for “gullible sucker,” which would more than accurately describe Kennedy at the hands of the Marxes. Groucho offered an alternate explanation: “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.” (B) You could also say the title refers to the sound made by Harpo’s horns, recalling Rodney Dangerfield’s Caddyshack line: “Did somebody step on a duck?” In reality, McCarey pulled the title from his own 1927 Laurel and Hardy two-reeler. (B)
The title is just the beginning of a crazy script by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, who had previously worked with the Marxes on the play Animal Crackers and the screenplay for Horse Feathers (1932). Ironically, both eventually gave up screenwriting, in 1949 and 1952, respectively, and turned to songwriting instead, sharing an Oscar nomination with Oscar Hammerstein II for “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” in The Strip (1951). But when they were still writing dialogue for the Marx Bros., Kalmar and Ruby were unreal. It was their Animal Crackers that provided Groucho with the most famous line of his career — “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know” — voted #53 on the AFI’s 100 Movie Quotes.
While Duck Soup doesn’t land any quotes on that list, it has the deepest supply of one-liners in Marx Bros. history, so much so that McCarey later lamented that he may have relied on them too heavily. (E) There are honestly more witty lines in five minutes of Duck Soup than there are in most two-hour comedies. To totally register just how funny Groucho is, you almost have to hit pause in between every time he speaks. That’s how fast the jokes come. And no matter what’s on the page, Groucho’s delivery, with signature cigar, painted-on mustache and fuzzy eyebrows, brings the comedy to another level.
He’s the undisputed king of side-splitting quips, like “I got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it,” or “I danced before Napoleon. No, Napoleon danced before me. In fact, he danced 200 years before me,” or when he looks at a hot young gal and says, “I could dance with you till the cows come home. On second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows till you come home.”
His best moments no doubt come when he’s on screen with Dumont, mocking both her reputation (“I’m fighting for this woman’s honor! Which is more than she ever did”) and her weight (“Ahh, marriage. I can see you right now in the kitchen, standing over a hot stove. But I can’t see the stove”). Still, the funniest exchange between Groucho and Dumont comes as she welcomes him as Freedonia’s new leader:
MRS. TEASDALE: As chairwoman of the reception committee, I welcome you with open arms.
RUFUS T. FIREFLY: Is that so? How late do you stay open?
MRS. TEASDALE: I’ve sponsored your appointment because I feel you are the most able statesman in all of Freedonia.
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. You know you haven’t stopped talking since I came here? You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle.
That final line was voted No. 43 on Premiere‘s 100 Greatest Movie Lines, but the full exchange between Firefly and Teasdale makes for a perfect psycho-analysis of Firefly. He is at once trying to woo Mrs. Teasdale, and simultaneously trying to tear her down. He uses innuendo to flirt (“How late do you stay open?”) but then immediately mocks her weight (“You cover a lot of ground yourself”). This suggests not an inadequacy on her part, but a loneliness on his, yearning for sexual fulfillment. Is he inexperienced? Virginal? Impotent? The final lines (“You know you haven’t stopped talking since I came in here?”) is thus a self accusation, painting Groucho as the constant chatterbox, always needing the last word. Only his phonograph vaccine was no cure. It was a curse. Except for we audience members, who get to sit and laugh at his insecurities.
Beyond the dialogue, the script also works as a poignant political satire. “Freedonia” is a fitting choice of name, and a commentary on how easily nations wage war under the banner of “freedom.” The name actually drew fire from Fredonia, New York, where town officials wrote to the Marx Bros, complaining about the similarity in name. The Marx Bros. didn’t budge an inch, writing the town back, saying, “Change the name of your town. It’s hurting our picture.” (C) Ultimately, Duck Soup added another “e” to “Freedonia,” just to be safe.
“A little bit of political humor and a lot of anarchy is right up my alley,” said actor Peter Fonda, who did his own politicking in Easy Rider (1969). “Duck Soup was a work of brilliance.” (G)
Arriving in 1933, the same year Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, the film mocks the authoritarian governments that were coming to power in Europe at the time. Benito Mussolini actually banned the film in Italy, believing it to be a direct mockery of him, and the reaction more than pleased the Marx Brothers. (B)
Watching the film, you can imagine a real-life dictator’s reaction to such tongue-in-cheek lines as, ““Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” and the oppressive exchange, “Your excellency! You’re shooting at your own men!” “Here’s $5. Keep it under your hat.” Duck Soup goes on to deride many negative political practices: the influence of money on elections; military officials paying people to cover up collateral damage; leaders getting so caught up in their own ideology that they skip diplomacy and go straight to war; and governments sending people off to war while they sit back and say, “Remember while you’re out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be in here thinking what a sucker you are.”
Predating Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) by seven years and Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) by a good three decades, you could say Duck Soup was way ahead of it’s time. As far as satires go, it may just be the funniest. While the whole thing stings of satirical wit, the main goal of the film is not a serious pondering of war, but rather to simply show how silly the idea can be. When asked the political significance of Duck Soup, Groucho reportedly said, “What significance? We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh.” (D)
In spite of the sharp dialogue, a huge portion of the laughs come from the masterful physical comedy, namely in the interactions between Chico and Harpo. The former is always ready with a clever play on words: “I’ll teach you to kick me!” “You don’t have to teach me, I know how!” WHAM. The latter nails his portrayal of a mute, horn-honking, scissor-happy goofball, with a big smile and curly hair stuffed under a pixie hat.
They are the original Jay and Silent Bob, with Harpo doing a something stupefying and Chico telling him, “That’s no good.” Their interplay peaks when they enter Teasdale’s home. Chico tells Harpo do be very quiet, which of course causes him to set off every noisy object in the room. Their ensuing romp, disguised in nightgowns identical to the one worn by Firefly, is one for the history books.
Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you can imagine the comedic possibilities of three identical people interacting with each other and other unsuspecting characters. The madness culminates with the legendary “mirror” scene, where Pinkie is spotted by Firefly and, while running away, accidentally runs through a mirror, shattering it to pieces. As Firefly follows, Pinkie must stand where the mirror formerly stood, which now creates an opening between two rooms, and pretend that the door frame is in fact a mirror, imitating Firefly’s movements in pantomime. A similar gag had already been done in Chaplin’s The Floorwalker (1916) and Max Linder’s Seven Years Bad Luck (1921), but no one did it more entertainingly than Groucho and Harpo, spinning around in those nightgowns and injecting their interplay straight into our pop culture. (B).
Harpo recreated the mirror gag with Lucille Ball in an episode of I Love Lucy (1951).
It was spoofed by both Bugs Bunny (Hare Tonic) and Mickey Mouse (Lonesome Ghosts). It was also spoofed by David Duchovny and Michael McKean in The X-Files; Benny Hill and Pat Ashton in a 1980 episode of The Benny Hill Show; and Stewie and Hitler in a 2008 episode of Family Guy.
In TV’s M*A*S*H, Hawkeye says Henry reminds him of Groucho in Duck Soup. The Return of the Pink Panther (1975) revives the Duck Soup gag of burglars and radios; Monty Python & The Holy Grail (1975) recreates the gag of playing glockenspiel on soldiers/knights helmets. Fival’s An American Tale (1986) has Warren T. Rat quoting Chico, “Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” Rob Zombie names characters after Rufus T. Firefly in The Devil’s Rejects (2005). And characters watch the film itself in Patch Adams (1998), Bless the Child (2000) and TV’s Gilmore Girls and Just Shoot Me.
Still, the most memorable reference comes in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), where a neurotic Allen staggers down the street after a failed suicide attempt and happens into a movie theater, trying to “gather my thoughts and be logical and put the world back into rational perspective.” Cut to a shot of the Marx Bros. playing war helmets like xylophones in Duck Soup, allowing Allen to have an epiphany:
“I’m watching these people up on the screen and I started getting hooked on the film! And I started to feel how can you even think of killing yourself? I mean, isn’t it so stupid? I mean, look at all the people up there on the screen. They’re real funny. And what if the worst is true? What if there’s no God and you only go around once and that’s it? Don’t you want to be part of the experience? What the hell, it’s not all a drag. And I’m thinking to myself, maybe I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I’m never gonna get and just enjoy it while it lasts. And after, who knows, maybe there is something, nobody really knows. I know maybe is a really slim reed to hang your whole life on, but that’s the best we have. And then I started to sit back and I actually began to enjoy myself.”
Reaction and Legacy
No matter how beloved the film is today, it was not well received at all in its day. Critics deemed the satire offensive and so many of the lightning-quick jokes went right over audiences’ heads. It was such a flop that Paramount terminated its contract with the Marx Brothers after a five-picture run.
This allowed Irving Thalberg to step in and offer the brothers new life at MGM, but the new life was also a different life, as the Marx Bros. were suddenly surrounded by romantic subplots and musical numbers in A Night at the Opera (1935), their other masterpiece. That’s not to say Duck Soup doesn’t have music of its own, but even these are geared for comedy, unlike the serious opera renditions of their MGM pictures.
“The Freedonia Hymn” is so mockingly majestic that the Marxes pelt fruit at an opera-singing Dumont. “These Are the Laws of My Administration” is a brilliant satire on totalitarianism, with Groucho listing a litany of forbidden items then proclaiming, “This is the land of the free!” And “The Country’s Goin’ to War” is gloriously ridiculous, with the Marx Bros. hamming it up as they approach the camera in the only musical number featuring all four brothers. (B)
Thankfully, Duck Soup had somewhat of a resurgence among college film students in the ’60s, and today it’s considered one of the greatest films of all time. (B) On the AFI’s original Top 100 Films list, Duck Soup was voted the No. 85 best film of all time, and on the 10th Anniversary list, it jumped to No. 60. What’s more, when it came time to name history’s greatest comedies, the AFI voted Duck Soup into the Top 5.
Meanwhile, the elite Sight & Sound polls saw Duck Soup actually received votes, an amazing feat for a list that’s absolutely brutal on comedies. In 2002, Duck Soup received two votes apiece in both the Sight & Sound Critics Poll and Directors Poll, where Stuart Gordon, writer of Re-Animator (1985) and Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989), voted Duck Soup in his Top 3 Films of All Time, as did director Terry Jones, of Monty Python & The Holy Grail (1975) and Life of Brian (1979). If any of those are your favorite comedies, what does that then say about Duck Soup?
Back in college, I had the occasion to watch the movie on one of those old library 16 mm playback systems. How odd, I know, for a college dude to sneak down into the school library after flag football and rev up the Marx Bros. But I tell you, as I sat there in those headphones, I tried my best not to laugh out loud and disrupt others, but it was a lost cause. Duck Soup has something for everybody: slapstick to entertain the most lowbrow viewers, and satire to impress the hardest academics. If choosing the greatest comedy of all time means choosing the best single film from history’s funniest group of comedians, Duck Soup wins. Or, if you’re downhearted like Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), worried about the unpredictability of life and humanity’s lack of control over the world, Duck Soup may just help you settle in and appreciate all the small things, like a laugh at a great joke, that make this life so worth living.
CITE A: Criterion Collection laserdisc, MGM, Janus Films, 1987, Leonard Maltin’s review on cover.
CITE B: Tim Dirks, filmsite.org
CITE C: 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
CITE D: IMDB Trivia
CITE E: David Thomson, New Biographical Dictionary of Film
CITE F: Turner Classic Movies documentary Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood:”Brother Can You Spare a Dream?”
CITE G: AFI 100 Years: 100 Movies: 10th Anniversary CBS special