Duck Soup (1933) Starring Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Louis Calhern, Raquel Torres, Edgar Kennedy. Directed by Leo McCarey. Screenplay by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby with additional dialogue by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin. Produced by Herman J. Mankiewicz (uncredited). 68 minutes. USA. Black and White. Comedy, Musical.
Following the success of Horse Feathers (1932), Paramount, the Marx Brothers' studio, wanted to rush out another film. However, the Marx Brothers had other plans. Paramount was going through some turbulent times in the early 1930s and was on the verge of bankruptcy. The Brothers felt that the studio owed them money and might never be able to pay them, so they threatened to the studio.
Their plans were to form their own production company, Marx Bros. Inc., with Sam H. Harris. The musical Of Thee I Sing with a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and music by George Gershwin was to be their first production. But the Marx Brothers patched things up with Paramount and those plans were scrapped.
Returning to complete their contractual obligations, the Marx Brothers and Paramount began work on what would end up being their last film for the studio and the last film with all four brothers. Arthur Sheekman, Harry Ruby, and Bert Kalmar began work on the screenplay in October, 1932, then called Firecrackers and later called Cracked Ice. Several other writers are credited, or rather not credited, for making contributions to the script, including Nat Perrin, Arthur Sheekman, Norman Krasna, Grover Jones and Glenn Mitchell.
By January 1933, a second draft was submitted to Paramount, which announced that production of what was called Grasshoppers would begin on February 15th. Filming was later set back to February 20th. But filming would not get underway until June. The screenplay was not really completed until July and by then had picked up gags and routines from Groucho and Chico’s popular radio show Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel, which lead to Perrin and Sheekman receiving additional dialogue credits.
It was reportedly the director, Leo McCarey, who came up with the film’s title, borrowing it from a film he had made with Laurel and Hardy in 1927. The new title fit in with the current run of Marx Brothers films: Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers. The term Duck Soup refers to something that’s easy to do. To duck something also means to avoid it. Groucho muddied the water about the meaning of the title, when in later life he was asked about the title to which he replied: “Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you'll duck soup for the rest of your life."
Duck Soup takes place in the imaginary country of Freedonia, which is in desperate straits financially. The country turns to its wealthiest citizen, the widow Mrs. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), for a $20 million loan. She has already lent the country a great deal of money and agrees to make the loan, but only if they appoint Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) as the head of the country.
Firefly is to be introduced at a large ball, to which Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) from neighboring Sylvania has been invited. He wants nothing more than to have his country take over Freedonia. He plots with Vera Marcal (Raquel Torres), a dancer, to help him. He thinks the best avenue is to marry Mrs. Teasdale, but he knows Firefly is a rival for her affections.
|Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) sneaks into his own introduction ceremony.|
Firefly’s secretary, Bob Roland (Zeppo Marx), assures the gathered that Firefly will appear “When The Clock On The Wall Strikes 10." But even after the introductory heraldry horns sound, there is no Firefly. Turns out he’s overslept and makes his entrance down a fireman’s pole. He takes a place at the end of the honor guard before Mrs. Teasdale notices him. Firefly then maps out how he plans to govern in "Just Wait 'Til I Get Through With It":
Rufus T. Firefly: [singing] If any form of pleasure is exhibited, report to me and it will be prohibited! I'll put my foot down, so shall it be... this is the land of the free! The last man nearly ruined this place he didn't know what to do with it. If you think this country's bad off now, just wait till I get through with it! The country's taxes must be fixed, and I know what to do with it. If you think you're paying too much now, just wait till I get through with it!
Mrs. Teasdale handles the introductions between Trentino and Firefly, but things don’t go well. Firefly already has it worked out in his head that Trentino will refuse to shake his hand and is already insulted.
|Mrs, Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) handles the introductions between Firefly|
and Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) of neighboring Sylvania.
Firefly is called away to go to see congress and there is a call for his car, but it turns out to be a motorcycle with a sidecar. Pinky (Harpo Marx) is the driver, but when Firefly gets in, the motorcycle pulls away and leaves the sidecar behind.
|The President's car is really only a sidecar to a motorcycle driven by Pinky (Harpo).|
Meanwhile, Trentino hires two spies, Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky, to gather information on Firefly, but their shadowing skills need work:
Ambassador Trentino: Now will you tell me what happened on Saturday?
Chicolini: I'm glad you ask me. We follow this man down to a roadhouse, and at this roadhouse he meet a married lady.
Ambassador Trentino: A married lady?
Chicolini: Yeah, I think it was his wife.
Ambassador Trentino: Firefly has no wife!
Ambassador Trentino: No!
Chicolini: Then you know what I think, boss?
Ambassador Trentino: What?
Chicolini: I think-a we follow the wrong man.
|Ambassador Trentino meets with his spies: Chicolini (Chico)|
and Pinky. Harpo is lighting his cigar with a blow torch.
Chicolini and Pinky take their spying to the streets outside the President’s office. Chicolini pretends to be a roasted peanut vendor. Next to them is another street vendor (Edgar Kennedy) and during the course of the movie, the three of them will get into it. There is a lot of play with their different hats and at one time Harpo puts his feet in the vendor’s lemonade. Firefly sees Chicolini outside his window and appoints him to be his Secretary of War.
|They may be undercover, but they are never not outrageous.|
Here Harpo puts his feet in the lemonade vendor's product.
Meanwhile, Roland suspects Trentino’s motives and encourages Firefly to create an incident that will get him thrown out of the country. But the plan sort of backfires; Firefly and Trentino exchange insults, but Firefly slaps Trentino rather than the other way around. Now the two countries stand on the brink of war.
|Firefly slaps Trentino while Mrs. Teasdale looks on. War is on!|
The action moves to Mrs. Teasdale’s house. Trentino learns that the Freedonia’s war plans are in her safe and orders Chicolini and Pinky to steal them. Firefly, at Mrs. Teasdale's invitation, is also staying there and both Chicolini and Pinky, once they manage to gain entrance, dress up like him so they can move around the house without drawing suspicion.
When Firefly runs into Pinky, he thinks he’s seeing his reflection in a full-length mirror. What follows is probably the most famous scene in the film. Trying to be sure, Firefly prances in front of the camera, which Pinky matches to near perfection, even if the move began out of his sight. There are a couple of surreal moments, as when the two men change sides and Firefly picks up and hands back to Pinky a hat he’s dropped. (The idea of a mirror scene did not originate with this movie, but instead dates back to a Max Linder film, Seven Years Bad Luck (1921), but this is the most famous version). Unfortunately for the spies, Chicolini, also dressed like Firefly, enters the fray and is captured.
|Shots from one of the most famous film routines the Marx Brothers ever performed.|
Chicolini is put on trial for treason. Firefly actually comes to his side, but before the trial is resolved, war is declared between Freedonia and Sylvania. This is the cause for a big production number, sequences of which Woody Allen would later use in his film Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). The musical talents of the four Marx brothers are highlighted during "This Country's Going To War" along with their irreverent sense of humor. This production number is significant since it was the only time in any of their films that all four Marx Brothers were featured in the same musical number.
|Part of the "This Country's Going To War" number includes the|
four brothers: Zeppo, Chico, Harpo and Groucho playing banjos.
Pinky rides on horseback out into the countryside, sort of like a mute Paul Revere. He ends up in the lemonade vendor’s house with the man’s wife. In a scene that spoofed the production code, in that a man and a woman could not be in the same bed, the camera tracks across the bedroom floor, showing first a pair of women’s shoes, then a pair of men’s shoes and then four horseshoes. When the entire room is shown, Pinky and his horse are in one bed and the woman in the other. After a hard day, the lemonade vendor comes home and Pinky has to hide, ending up in the vendor’s bath.
|For Edgar Kennedy's Vendor character, there is no escape from Harpo, not even his bathtub.|
When the war starts, Chicolini starts out on the side of Sylvania, but quickly joins Pinky fighting for Freedonia. Firefly is no military leader, so his orders to his troops are unorthodox at best. He is shown in a different uniform until the end of the film, including Union and Confederate uniforms from the Civil War, a British palace guard uniform, a Boy Scout Scoutmaster's uniform, and even a coonskin Davy Crockett cap.
|Firefly goes through a number of costume changes during the War.|
Even though Sylvanian troops led by Trentino invade Freedonia's headquarters, Trentino gets caught and trapped while climbing through the door and is pelted with vegetables and fruit until he surrenders. Overjoyed, Mrs. Teasdale, who is also there, stands in the corner singing “Hail Freedonia” until the Marx Brothers turn their attention from Trentino to her and pelt her instead.
|The Marx Brothers turn their attention from Trentino and start to pelt Mrs. Teasdale to stop her singing.|
The film opened on November 17, 1933, and there persists the thought that the film was a flop. In reality, it didn’t do as well as Horse Feathers but was still the sixth highest grossing film of the year. Reviews were also apparently mixed, with some thinking the political message of the film was preposterous and perhaps longed for less chaos on film during the Great Depression, during which the film was released. Years later, when asked about the film’s politics, Groucho replied, “We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh." In 1990 the United States Library of Congress selected Duck Soup for preservation in the National Film Registry, deeming it "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
In addition to the Marx Brothers and Margaret Dumont, which we’ve written about in other reviews, Duck Soup stars Louis Calhern, Raquel Torres and Edgar Kennedy. Calhern might be one of the last people you’d expect to see Groucho bantering with. Best known for his roles in such films as Notorious (1946) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Calhern began his film career in 1921, with his appearance in What’s Worth While? (1921). But Calhern’s talents were best displayed when he could be heard, so after only a couple of more films, he returned to the stage until after films learned to talk. He returned to films in The Road to Singapore (1931). He played character roles in Hollywood while continuing to play leading roles on stage.
Raquel Torres was considered a Latin beauty during her rather short Hollywood career. Born south of the border to a Mexican mother and a German father, she was about twenty when she began her career playing a Polynesian in White Shadows in the South Seas (1928) and retired from films seven years later in 1935, when she married businessman Stephen Ames. Duck Soup is her best remembered film.
|Raquel Torres played Vera Marcal in Duck Soup.|
Unlike Torres, Edgar Kennedy had a long film career, starting in 1911 and including over 500 films. One of the original Keystone Kops, Kennedy would work with the likes of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Charley Chase, and the Our Gang. He is probably best remembered for his slow burn, an exasperated facial expression embellished by rubbing his hand over his bald head and across his face, in an attempt to hold his temper. We are treated to his signature move after Chico and Harpo get through with him.
|Edgar Kennedy makes a good foil for Chico and Harpo. Here he loses|
his hat, his dignity and his patience with their antics.
In this politically correct world, some have found Duck Soup to be racially offensive since during This Country’s Going to War, part of the number, "All God's Chillun Got Guns" uses the tune of old Negro spiritual "All God's Chillun Got Wings". Some critics had gone so far as to suggest that the number should be edited out of a recent DVD release of the film. Thankfully cooler heads prevailed, but the “controversy” brings up the issue of watching older films with a modern filter. I truly doubt the intention of using the number was to offend, but rather to entertain.
|The use of a Negro spiritual during the "This Country's Going to War"|
number, has been considered controversial by some modern viewers.
A lot of films from the 30s and 40s might have segments that might offend modern viewers, but if we go down that slippery slope and start to edit films so that they don’t offend anyone, where do we stop? Any film with a less than a good rendition of a spiritual? A bad depiction of a Black man? Slavery? There is no way that every film can be edited to please everyone. If we please the PC warrior then a film lover would be offended. It’s better to watch the film as it was meant to be seen and then talk about how opinions have changed since it was made, than to edit it down or not watch it at all.
Duck Soup is another example of the controlled chaos that is typical of the Marx Brothers’ Paramount movies. After this movie things would change. With their contract up, the Brothers left Paramount, but didn’t have a place to go. Zeppo left the act all together, going into business with another brother, Gummo, as Hollywood agents, building up a very successful practice. Groucho and Chico went on radio and there was even talk of going back to Broadway. But at a bridge game, Chico and Irving Thalberg talked about the possibility of taking the act to MGM, which they did. And things would be different from then on, with their films at that studio following a certain story structure. Gone were the anarchic films like Duck Soup.
|And then there were three. After Duck Soup, the Marx Bros. became a trio (Harpo, Chico and Groucho).|
It’s hard to have a favorite Marx Brothers film, there are so many good ones and there is something to like about each of them, especially these early ones. Duck Soup, like the other films they made at Paramount, deserves to be seen. It combines what’s best about all of their movies: the snappy fast-paced dialogue, their physical humor and their musical talent. Add to that the anarchy that pervades all of their films and you have a winner.