by Paul Batters
“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.” Groucho Marx
Of all the films that the Marx Brothers made, Duck Soup is the one that usually ends up at the top of the list as their best. True, it often competes with A Night At The Opera (1935) which took MGM genius Irving Thalberg’s approach to shape a clear storyline with less gags, more music to become a huge hit. Running at 68 minutes, Duck Soup took Marxist anarchism with all its acerbic humour and poured it on thick. Resplendent with fast dialogue, double entendres, absurdism and visual gags, Duck Soup remains their greatest comedy, whilst delivering a powerful knock-out punch to the absurdities of how governments rule and the nature of war. Groucho biographer Stanley Kanfer raises an excellent point that despite script co-writer Harry Ruby’s claim that what the brothers did was strictly entertainment, ‘the result far outran the intent’.
In 2015, Craig Brown in The Guardian made the excellent assessment:
‘Duck Soup has been praised for its understanding of paranoia in international diplomacy and of the economics of warfare. It is full of gags about the futility of war and its financial advantages’.
It is a film that does all this and more.
As the opening credits roll, the first visual gag of ducks swimming in a large boiling cauldron is more than a nod to the nonsensical title of the film. Indeed, the inter-war years saw a world which was very much a boiling cauldron; one where the Depression had hit the world, democracy and capitalism were in crisis and fascism had emerged as a real danger to the world. Whether or not this may not have been the intent of director Leo McCarey, it does introduce us to an imaginary nation aptly named ‘Freedonia’ that appears to be in political chaos. The immediate absurdity emerges where the government, relying on the financial support of wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), asks for more money. She acquiesces on one condition – that Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) be made the leader of all Freedonia. The ensuing musical number with its pomposity and ‘Hail, Hail, Freedonia’ anthem meets the anti-climax of Firefly not only turning up late after sliding down a fire-pole into the proceedings but asking if someone is expected before standing in line to salute their approach.
What follows is perhaps one of the best and funniest interactions on the silver screen between Groucho and the long-suffering but brilliant Dumont. The brutal putdowns come thick and fast from Firefly as Mrs. Teasdale tries desperately to keep things on keel. Groucho breaks the fourth wall in a way that only he can, reminding us of the absurdity of it all:
Firefly jigs and dances, as he delivers his plans to all on how he will rule through song. It is a clever musical number, which again lampoons the concept of freedom, stifled by the rules and regulations put in places by government. But even more so, it reveals the deep power of the state over the individual and how the those who intend to abuse power and authority, do so under the guise of freedom. In the current world, this has become an even more confusing and difficult reality to comprehend.
The darker undertone is introduced with the intrigues of Trentino, the Ambassador of Sylvania (Louis Calhern), whose schemes include using Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo) as spies to find the dirt on Firefly, marrying Teasdale to control Freedonia and using the gorgeous Vera Marcal (Raquel Torres) to seduce Firefly and bring him into disrepute. Firefly will see through it all, beating out Trentino for Teasdale’s affections (while still insulting her) and hiring Chicolini as his Secretary Of War. All the while the gags come thick and fast while revealing a deeper more cynical truth; despite a world which declares law and order, chaos seems to rule instead. Much like the dictatorships that were present in the world at that time.
Nothing is sacred in the Marxist world. Even with Freedonia in trouble, an emergency cabinet meeting sees Firefly playing a game of jacks and arguing with his cabinet members over procedure, how to handle industrial relations and taxes. Later when war is declared, Firefly still lets fly with the absurdities telling Trentino to ‘go, and never darken my towels again!’ Additionally, the slide into war is peppered with insults but again satirises the language of diplomacy and the oft-announced claims of peace made by nations planning for war. The parallel to what was happening in Europe needs no explanation.
The scenes with Chicolini and Pinky trying to steal the war-plans from Teasdale’s home are some of the most hilarious in the film. They are also testimony to director Leo McCarey’s eventual winning over the brothers regarding his view of comedy; it works best visually. As Kanfer points out, sight gags abound in the film and Harpo was particularly drawn to it. The sneaking into the house to steal the plans is an example of this or Harpo’s using blowtorch to light a cigar. A special treat during these scenes is to see Chico and Harpo impersonating Groucho, whilst maintaining their characters. It harkens to a famous story where during stage performances for A Day At The Races, the brothers interchanged their personas with the audience unaware of the changes. Of course, the old mirror scene gag is cleverly worked in with Harpo and Groucho adding their own Marxist flavour.
Courtroom procedures likewise are lampooned with plenty of puns and nonsense. Firefly flits between ardent prosecutor and defender of the hapless Chicolini, who innocently sees the whole proceedings as one huge joke. It leaves Firefly with the only fitting assessment of Chicolini.
FIREFLY: Gentlemen, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot, and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot’.
The musical number announcing and celebrating the declaration of war is also a send-up of the propaganda and jingoism that had aided and abetted the destruction and horror the world had seen only 15 years earlier. Again, there is a darkness to this musical number, in context of not only the previous war but the one to come in only six years’ time. Lyrics such as ‘All God’s chillum got guns’ is an explicit ridicule of the evoking of God during war by opposing nations. Complete with banjos, minstrel singing and southern anthems, the reminder of how war can divide nations as well as destroy them is more than clear.
The final war scenes never let up with the rapid-fire dialogue, whilst leaving nothing that cannot be ridiculed and lampooned. The various military uniforms worn range from contemporary uniforms to those worn during the Revolutionary Wars and the Civil War. Even Davy Crockett’s raccoon hat has its moment when things gets desperate a la The Alamo. The message is very clear – all war is at best absurd. The recruitment drive is ridiculed, as Harpo with sandwich board sporting ‘Join The Army And See The Navy’ walks through the battlefields. Firefly tells his general when it is reported that the men are dying life flies to ‘run out get some trenches’ as he hands him some money to buy some. The dark irony of friendly fire is derided, as Firefly uses a machine gun on his own men, followed by the farce of awarding himself the Firefly Medal, again reflecting the habit of dictators covering their chests with all manner of medals. Even a call sent out for reinforcements is sent ‘collect’. The final moment sees poor Margaret Dumont suffer further indignities, as the end credits roll for the final reel.
There are some memorable scenes that are wonderful examples of Marx Brothers mania. Chicolini and Pinky’s interactions with poor Edgar Kennedy are both hilarious and frustrating. Kennedy, of course, was famous for his ability to shape the ‘slow burn’ and worked with everyone from Chaplin to Laurel And Hardy and was an original Keystone Kop to boot. He turns up later in the film in the risqué scene when Harpo does his turn as Paul Revere. Spying on a half-dressed woman about to have a bath, Harpo discovers that the woman is Kennedy’s wife and hides in the filled bath-tub only to find himself in there with Kennedy. Louis Calhern plays it perfectly straight as the Ambassador and villain and Dumont is outstanding as always.
One must feel for Zeppo whose place as a Marx brother on the screen becomes superfluous. Whilst solid playing straight man to Groucho, he knew that it was time to move on and so it was the last time he would appear on screen with his brothers. But we needn’t feel too bad, as soon afterwards Zeppo would find success as a Hollywood agent.
Contrary to the oft-repeated claim, the film was not exactly a total flop. True, there was some criticism from The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. It did not do so well in the small towns and mid-West and was perhaps too cerebral for the masses looking for escapism from the Depression. Yet as Simon Louvish points out in ‘Monkey Business: The Lives And Legends Of The Marx. Brothers’, Duck Soup grossed nearly as much as Horse Feathers (1932) and was Paramount’s fifth highest earner for 1933. Variety initially gave it a positive review as well. Yet the immediate memory of the film after initially doing well was not a fond one. Stefan Kanfer makes the point that the Depression saw people looking for something to hold them together against the cruelty of what they were going through. The cynicism of Duck Soup just may have been too much and with Americans in an ‘isolationist mood…a satire of Balkan despots was too esoteric for their tastes’.
It was not a film which exactly placed the Marx Brothers on the scrap-heap and the ending of the Brothers’ contract with Paramount was very much a mutual agreement. But for the Brothers, it meant a complete re-assessment of who they were, where they were at and what direction they would go in. As Marxist history shows, it was Chico who found the way forward through Irving Thalberg and MGM. Interestingly, Groucho would later state that he enjoyed working with McCarey and would claim he was ‘the only great director we ever worked with’.
Perhaps this is what makes Duck Soup so beloved and usually at the top of the list for Marx Brothers fans. Once they went to MGM, fans would never again see the wild brilliance which first made them stars. In some ways, Duck Soup is the swan song of that legendary approach to comedy and the final testimony to that brilliance. As wonderful as A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races (1937) are, the comedy of the Marx Brothers is more tempered and refined. Duck Soup would see a revival in the 1960s, in big part thanks to Groucho’s stardom on television, as well as its anti-establishment comedy finding a new home amongst university students and the growing movement that was challenging the conventions of society. Indeed, the irreverence, anarchism and inherent deflating of pomposity and entitlement that underpinned the Marx Brothers, would endear them to new generations.
Duck Soup works because it’s funny. And I’d like to believe it will continue to be so for future generations.
This article is an entry into the Laughter Is The Best Medicine Blogathon run by the CMBA. Click on the link to see other fantastic entries on classic comedy.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.