Despite the film being a box office disappointment, Duck Soup is the pinnacle achievement for the Four Marx Brothers on the screen.
Duck Soup is 90 years old today. Paramount viewed the film as a disappointment because it didn’t bring in the money they hoped. The Great Depression was certainly a contributing factor. That the film is a political satire is probably less of a factor in why it did not perform better. There is so much to say about the film on its anniversary, including Groucho changing costumes during the battle scenes late in the film. He has as many as five costumes during the sequence, if not more.
This is another film that runs barely over an hour long. It doesn’t really need to be any longer. I mean, they could have added another song or dance sequence or two but the film is flying along at a quick pace. To give you an idea of the run time, one can watch Duck Soup two times in a row and a contemporary film would not even be finished playing. In fact, I actually did watch it twice in a row–the second time featuring insightful commentary from Leonard Maltin and Robert S. Bader. It’s worth it!
Believe it or not but there is only one shot in the film with ducks and soup and it comes during the opening credits. The film otherwise has nothing to do with its title. Instead, the 1933 comedy is about two countries going to war. Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) is appointed the new leader of Freedonia after Ms. Teasdale’s (Margaret Dumont) donates millions. Firefly’s secretary is Lt. Bob Roland (Zeppo Marx). Meanwhile, neighboring Sylvania is trying to annex Freedonia, sending spies Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx). The Marx Brothers up the situation by having Groucho appoint Chicolini as the Secretary of War. One can look at the film as a political satire but it was not their intent at the time. Unfortunately, there are some lines that do not age well but they remain in the film. But anyway, Chicolini’s trial is a hysterical farce.
The mirror scene is certainly among the stand-out scenes. It first starts out with Groucho and Harpo mirroring each other. Chico soon joins in on the fun. But anyway, it is not the first time that this happens in cinematic history. It would also not be the last. Harpo would later reprise the scene during an episode of I Love Lucy. By this point, they worked together since 1912 with three playing together a few years prior. The chemistry is a contributing factor in why they worked together so well on the screen.
We don’t talk enough about Zeppo but he turns in some solid work in the film. Zeppo even sings during the first number, “When The Clock On The Wall Strikes 10.” I mean, each brother gets moments to shine in the film but Zeppo does not get enough credit. After Zeppo walked away, the Marx Brothers would never be the same on screen.
Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby’s script is so tightly written that we’re laughing at joke after joke. Before we have time to recover, there are even more jokes coming our way. They do not stop coming! Nothing is off limits, not even the Hays Code. This does not even begin to take all the visual sight gags into account. How many are because of the writers and how many are because of director Leo McCarey is a different story. It’s amazing to think that the film was a box office disappointment for Paramount Pictures because this is hands-down the best Marx Brothers film of all time. I’m probably going to repeat that again later on because I cannot stress it enough. Hey, if Mussolini bans you in Fascist Italy, you’ve got to be doing something right!
Behind the camera, Leo McCarey helms the directorial duties. The filmmaker came up through Hal Roach’s system, not to mention directing a number of Laurel and Hardy films. He’s one of the best comedy filmmakers and certainly plays a role in elevating the physical comedy in Duck Soup.
The Marx Brothers had their issues with Paramount and would soon head off to join the ranks of MGM players. It does not change the fact that they made some magic during the pre-Code era. However, they would not be Four Marx Brothers upon going to MGM as they would become the Three Marx Brothers. Two of their later films are honored by AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs but again, their best films are the Paramount comedies. I’m glad that Groucho lived long enough to see their films reassessed by audiences.
Duck Soup is the greatest Marx Brothers comedy of all time.
DIRECTOR: Leo McCarey
SCREENWRITERS: Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby; Additional Dialogue by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin
CAST: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, with Margaret Dumont, Louis Calhern, Edgar Kennedy, and Raquel Torres