Duck Soup is a Marx Brothers anarchic comedy film written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, with additional dialogue by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin, and directed by Leo McCarey. First released theatrically by Paramount Pictures on November 17 1933, it starred what were then billed as the "Four Marx Brothers" (Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo) and also featured Margaret Dumont, Raquel Torres, Louis Calhern and Edgar Kennedy. It was the last Marx Brothers film to feature Zeppo, and the last of five Marx Brothers movies released by Paramount.
Compared to the Marx Brothers' previous Paramount films, Duck Soup was a box-office disappointment, although it was not a "flop" as is sometimes reported. The film opened to mixed reviews, although this by itself did not end the group's business with Paramount. Bitter contract disputes, including a threatened walk-out by the Marxes, crippled relationships between them and Paramount just as Duck Soup went into production. After the film fulfilled their five-picture contract with the studio, the Marxes and Paramount agreed to part ways.
However, critical opinion has evolved and the film has since achieved the status of a classic. Duck Soup is now widely considered to be a Marx Brothers masterpiece.
After collecting worthless information about Firefly, Chicolini and Pinky infiltrate the government when Chicolini is appointed Secretary of War after Firefly sees him on the street selling peanuts. Meanwhile, Firefly's personal assistant, Bob Roland (Zeppo Marx) suspects Trentino's questionable motives, and counsels Firefly to "get rid of that man at once" by saying "something to make him mad, and he'll strike you, and we'll force him to leave the country." Firefly agrees to the plan, but after a series of personal insults exchanged between Firefly and Trentino, the plan backfires and Firefly slaps Trentino instead. As a result, the two countries reach the brink of war. Adding to the international friction is the fact that Firefly is also wooing Mrs. Teasdale, and likewise hoping to get his hands on her late husband's fortune.
Trentino learns that Freedonia's war plans are in Mrs. Teasdale's possession and orders Chicolini and Pinky to steal them. Chicolini is caught by Firefly and put on trial, during which war is officially declared, and everyone is overcome by war frenzy, breaking into song and dance. The trial put aside, Chicolini and Pinky join Firefly and Bob Roland in anarchic battle, resulting in general mayhem.
The end of the film finds Trentino caught in a makeshift stocks, with the Brothers pelting him with fruit. Trentino surrenders, but Groucho refuses to stop throwing until they run out of fruit. Margaret Dumont begins singing the Freedonia national anthem in her operatic voice and the Brothers begin hurling fruit at her instead.
This scene has been duplicated many times—for example, in the Bugs Bunny cartoon, Hare Tonic, and in the The X-Files episode, "Dreamland". A scene in The Pink Panther, with David Niven and Robert Wagner wearing identical gorilla costumes, mimics the mirror scene. Harpo himself did a reprise of this scene, dressed in his usual costume, with Lucille Ball also donning the fright wig and trench coat, in an episode of I Love Lucy.
Although its appearance in Duck Soup is now certainly the most well known instance of it, the concept of the mirror scene did not originate with the Marx Brothers. Charlie Chaplin used it in The Floorwalker and Max Linder included it in his silent film Seven Years Bad Luck, where a man's servants have accidentally broken a mirror and attempt to hide the fact by imitating his actions in the mirror's frame.
They got guns, We got guns, All God's chillun got guns! I'm gonna walk all over the battlefield, 'Cause all God's chillun got guns!
Shortly after, during the final battle scenes, "rightfully [...] called the funniest of all of cinema", Firefly can be seen wearing a different costume in almost every sequence until the end of the film, including American Civil War outfits (first Union and then Confederacy), a British palace guard uniform, a Boy Scout Scoutmaster's uniform, and even a coon-skin Davy Crockett cap. Meanwhile, the exterior view of the building they are occupying changes appearance from a bunker to an old fort, etc. (Some analysts say that all the war costumes suggest that the scene symbolizes all American wars. As the Boy Scouts have never formally engaged in war, it is more likely that the writers were merely trying to get laughs.) Firefly assures his generals that he has "a man out combing the countryside for volunteers." Sure enough, Pinky is wandering out on the front lines wearing a sandwich board sign reading, "Join the Army and see the Navy." Later, Chicolini volunteers Pinky to carry a message through enemy lines; Firefly tells him, "[...] and 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." Thomas Doherty has described this line as "sum[ming] up the Great War cynicism towards all things patriotic". Scenes from this final act also play a significant role in a scene near the end of the Woody Allen film Hannah and Her Sisters.
The melodramatic exclamation "This means war!" certainly did not originate with Duck Soup, but it is used several times in the film—at least twice by Trentino and once by Firefly—and would be repeated by Groucho in A Night at the Opera. Variations of this phrase would later become a frequently-used catch-phrase in Bugs Bunny cartoons.
In another scene, the film pokes fun at the Hays Code by showing a woman's bedroom and then showing a woman's shoes on the floor, a man's shoes and horseshoes. Pinky is sleeping in the bed with the horse; the woman is in the twin bed next to them.
Prosecutor: Chicolini, isn't it true you sold Freedonia's secret war code and plans?
Chicolini: Sure! I sold a code and two pairs o' plans!
The street vendor confrontations are also well-remembered pieces of physical comedy: Chico and Harpo harass a lemonade seller (comedy film veteran Edgar Kennedy) egged on by his flustered attitude. At one point, Harpo burns up Kennedy's straw boater hat, and Kennedy responds by pushing their peanut wagon over. Harpo gets revenge for this by sloshing his legs in Kennedy's lemonade tank, driving off his customers. Finally, there is a complex bit of business involving the knocking off, dropping, picking up and exchanging of hats.
This was a turbulent time in the Marx Brothers' career. Reorganization at Paramount Pictures brought fears that money due the Brothers would never be paid; as a result, the Brothers threatened to leave Paramount and start their own company, Marx Bros., Inc. Their first planned independent production was a film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical Of Thee I Sing, with Norman McLeod leaving Paramount to direct. During late 1932 and early 1933, Groucho and Chico were also working on Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel, a radio show written by Nat Perrin and Arthur Sheekman; there was even, at one time, talk of casting the two as their radio characters for the new film (an idea that would eventually be used for the later Marx Brothers film The Big Store).
By October 4, 1932, Arthur Sheekman, Harry Ruby, and Bert Kalmar began writing the screenplay for the next Paramount film, which was now called Firecrackers. Herman Mankiewicz was to supervise production, beginning in January 1933. By December 1932, Firecrackers had become Cracked Ice. Grover Jones was also reported to have contributed to the first draft by Ruby and Kalmar. In The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia, Glenn Mitchell says that "the first script's content is difficult to determine".
On January 18, 1933, Harry Ruby, Bert Kalmar and Grover Jones submitted to Paramount their "Second Temporary Script" for Cracked Ice, and Paramount announced that shooting would commence on February 15. This script shows that the basic story of what would become Duck Soup had been fixed. In February, Paramount announced that the title had been changed to Grasshoppers ("because animal stories are so popular"), and that filming was set back to February 20.
However, on May 11, 1933, the Marx Brothers' father Sam "Frenchie" Marx passed away in Los Angeles of a heart attack, and shortly afterwards, the contract dispute with Paramount was settled. The New York Post reported on May 17 that the Brothers would make a new comedy for Paramount, called Duck Soup. Leo McCarey was set for direction of the film. Three days later The New York Sun reported that Duck Soup would start filming in June. Duck Soup's script was completed by July 11. The script was a continuation of Ruby and Kalmar's Firecrackers/Cracked Ice drafts, but contained more elements. Many of the film's clever gags and routines were lifted from Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel, giving Perrin and Sheekman an "additional dialogue" credit.
Director McCarey reportedly came up with the title for the film, having previously used it for an earlier directorial effort with Laurel and Hardy. This continued the "animal" titles of the Brothers' previous three films, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. "Duck soup" is an American English slang phrase meaning something easy to do. When Groucho was asked for an explanation, he quipped, "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."
McCarey also thought up "the very Laurel & Hardy-like sequence in which Harpo and Chico stage a break-in at Mrs Teasdale's house." Another McCarey contribution was the now-classic "mirror scene", a revival of an old vaudeville act, which had previously been used in Charlie Chaplin's 1916 silent film The Floorwalker and Max Linder's 1921 short Seven Years Bad Luck.
The musical introduction to Groucho's character is similar to the ones in Animal Crackers and Horse Feathers but it did not become closely associated with him as did "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" from Animal Crackers.
Zeppo, as usual, plays, according to James Agee, "a peerlessly cheesy improvement on the traditional straight man", in his final on-screen appearance with the Brothers. He sings with the group (including soloing the first few lines of the first song, When the Clock on the Wall Strikes 10). He also sings with the others in Freedonia's Going to War, filling out the four-cornered symmetry as the Brothers sing and dance in pairs during the number.
The "Freedonia National Anthem" is used frequently throughout the film, both as vocal and instrumental; the entire song seems to consist of "Hail, Hail, Freedonia, land of the brave and free", contrasting with the final line of The Star-Spangled Banner. The "Sylvania theme", which sounds vaguely like "Rule Britannia", is also used several times. "When The Clock On The Wall Strikes 10", the first musical number in the film, is part of the same scene as "Just Wait 'Til I Get Through With It", Groucho's song over the laws of his administration. "This Country's Going To War is the final musical ensemble in the film, and is also the only musical number in the Marx Brothers' films to feature all four of the Brothers.
The introductory scene, showing ducks swimming in a kettle and quacking merrily, is scored with an instrumental medley of the aforementioned songs, and is also the only scene in the film that has anything remotely to do with ducks.
Popular belief holds that Duck Soup was a box office failure, but this is not true. Although it did not do as well as Horse Feathers, it was the sixth-highest grossing film of 1933, according to Glenn Mitchell in The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia and Simon Louvish in Monkey Business, his biography of the Marx Brothers.
One possible reason for the film's lukewarm reception is that it was released during the Great Depression. Audiences were taken aback by such preposterous political disregard, buffoonery, and cynicism at a time of economic and political crisis. Film scholar Leonard Maltin had this to say in his book The Great Movie Comedians:
As wonderful as [Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup] seem today, some critics and moviegoers found them unpleasant and longed for the more orderly world of The Cocoanuts with its musical banalities. [...] Many right-thinkers laughed themselves silly in 1933—but a large number didn't. [...] The unrelieved assault of Marxian comedy was simply too much for some people.
[Thalberg] said the trouble with Duck Soup is you've got funny gags in it, but there's no story and there's nothing to root for. You can't root for the Marx Brothers because they're a bunch of zany kooks. [Thalberg] says, "You gotta put a love story in your movie so there'll be something to root for, and you have to help the lovers get together.
Most critics at the time disliked it because of its "dated" look at politics. Some modern critics are also unimpressed. Christopher Null believes, "the send-up of Mussolini-types doesn't quite pan out. Take the comedy, leave the story."
Even Groucho himself did not initially think too highly of the film. When asked the significance of the film's politics, Groucho only shrugged and said: "What significance? We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh." Nevertheless, the Brothers were ecstatic when Benito Mussolini took the film as a personal insult and banned it in Italy. Also, the residents of Fredonia, New York protested because they feared that the similar-sounding nation would hurt their city's reputation. The Marx Brothers took the opposite approach, telling them to change the name of their town to keep from hurting their movie.
Despite the tepid critical response at the time, Duck Soup is now seen as a classic political farce. Film critic Danel Griffin believes that Duck Soup is "on par with other war comedies like Chaplin's The Great Dictator and Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, only slightly more unnerving in that Duck Soup doesn't seem to realize it is anything more than innocent fluff." Fellow film critic Roger Ebert believes, "The Marx Brothers created a body of work in which individual films are like slices from the whole, but Duck Soup is probably the best."
Revived interest in the film (and other 1930s comedies in general) during the 1960s was seen as dovetailing with the rebellious side of American culture in that decade. American literary critic Harold Bloom considers the end of Duck Soup one of the greatest works of American art produced in the 20th century.
The film was #85 on American Film Institute's 100 Years, 100 Movies and #5 on its 100 Years, 100 Laughs, and in 1990 was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. In 2000, readers of Total Film magazine voted Duck Soup the 29th greatest comedy film of all time. The film also scores a 94% "fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes. It is also one of the earliest films to appear on Roger Ebert's list of Great Movies.
Among the films that Duck Soup has inspired are Woody Allen's Bananas.
shortly before this DVD set hit the streets, a pre-release report by nationally syndicated entertainment columnist Marilyn Beck stated that "racially-offensive material" would be edited from this edition of Duck Soup. Specifically, material "that has been deplored and debated in the 'We're Going to War' production number." Beck didn't say what the exact cut was, or who's doing all that deploring and debating, though presumably she meant the "All God's Chillun Got Guns" section. The possibility of new contextually obtuse editing is bad enough. What made her column even more galling was the satisfied tone in her statement that such a "well-made edit makes the film a pure zany joy without an ugly blot in it to spoil the fun."It's a pleasure to report that Marilyn Beck is full of it. No such edits exist in this edition. Another potentially sensitive moment in the film — Groucho's punchline, "and that's why darkies were born," a dated reference to a popular song from the '30s — is also still intact.