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Duck Soup

Directed by Leo McCarey with Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Margaret Dumont and Louis Calhern,  black and white, 107 minutes, 1933

Mayhem! Anarchy Forever!

The four Marx Brothers
The four Marx brothers on the cover of the DVD

By Carter B. Horsley

Perhaps the most famous Marx brothers movie scene was the overpopulated oceanliner cabin in "A Night at the Opera," but "Duck Soup" is the favorite movie for most critics.

In his July 20, 2000 review of "Duck Soup," Roger Ebert noted that his father loved the Marx Brothers "above all other comedians or, indeed, all other movie stars."

"How much more anarchic the Marx Brothers must have seemed in their time than we can understand today....you can see who the Marx Brothers inspired, but not who they were inspired by, except indirectly by the rich traditions of music hall, vaudeville and Yiddish comedy that nurtured them. Movies gave them a mass audience, and they were the instrument that translated what was once essentially a Jewish style of humor into the dominant note of American comedy. Although they were not taken as seriously, they were as surrealist as Dali, as shocking as Stravinsky, as verbally outrageous as Gertrude Stein, as alienated as Kafka. Because they worked the genres of slapstick and screwball, they did not get the same kind of attention, but their effect on the popular mind was probably more influential. 'As an absurdist essay on politics and warfare,' wrote the British critic Patrick McCray, ''Duck Soup' can stand alongside (or even above) the works of Beckett and Ionesco.

"The Marx Brothers created a body of work in which individual films are like slices from the whole, but 'Duck Soup' (1933) is probably the best. It represents a turning point in their movie work; it was their last film for Paramount, and the last in which all of the scenes directly involved the brothers. When it was a box office disappointment, they moved over to MGM, where production chief Irving Thalberg ordered their plots to find room for conventional romantic couples, as if audiences could only take so much Marx before they demanded the mediocre....'A Night at the Opera' (1935) their first MGM film, contains some of their best work, yes, but in watching it I fast-forward over the sappy interludes involving Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. In 'Duck Soup' there are no sequences I can skip; the movie is funny from beginning to end.


Margaret Dumont and Groucho Marx

Groucho and Margaret Dumont

"To describe the plot would be an exercise in futility, since a Marx Brothers movie exists in moments, bits, sequences, business and dialogue, not in comprehensible stories. Very briefly, 'Duck Soup' stars Groucho as Rufus T. Firefly, who becomes dictator of Fredonia under the sponsorship of the rich Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont, the brothers' tireless and irreplaceable foil). Neighboring Sylvania and its Ambassador Trintino (Louis Calhern) have designs on the country, and Trintino hires Harpo and Chico as spies. This flimsy premise provides a clothesline for one inspired sequence after another, including sustained examples of Groucho's puns and sneaky double entendres. But it also supports a couple of wordless physical sequences that probably have their roots in the vaudeville acts the brothers performed and saw years earlier.

"One is the three-hat routine involving Chico and Harpo and the straight man Edgar Kennedy....Chico, as a spy, inexplicably adopts the cover of a peanut vendor, and Harpo is a passerby. Kennedy has the lemonade cart next to Chico's peanut cart, and the brothers make his life miserable in a routine that involves their three hats changing position as quickly as the cards in a monte game.

The mirror scene

The mirror scene

"The other sequence is one of the gems of the first century of film. Harpo disguises himself as Groucho, and for reasons much too complicated to explain, sneaks into Mrs. Teasdale's, tries to break into a safe and shatters a mirror. Groucho himself comes downstairs to investigate. Harpo is standing inside the frame of the broken mirror, and tries to avoid detection by pretending to be Groucho's reflection. This leads to a sustained pantomime involving flawless timing, as Groucho tries to catch the reflection in an error, and Harpo matches every move. Finally, in a perfect escalation of zaniness, Chico blunders into the frame, also dressed as Groucho....

"Dated as 'Duck Soup' inevitably is in some respects, it has moments that seem startlingly modern, as when Groucho calls for help during the closing battle sequence, and the response is stock footage edited together out of newsreel shots of fire engines, elephants, motorcycles, you name it. There is an odd moment when Harpo shows Groucho a doghouse tattooed on his stomach, and in a special effect a real dog emerges and barks at him. The brothers broke the classical structure of movie comedy and glued it back again haphazardly, and nothing was ever the same."

In his review of the Blu-ray edition of the film, Jeffery Kauffman noted that

"If the earlier Marx Brothers seemed frankly lightweight in their putative subject matter, if not in the impact of their visceral comedy, Duck Soup, dealing as it does with national sovereignty and, ultimately, issues of war and peace, might seem to be too 'serious' for its own good. That, obviously, is not the case, for in my personal estimation and that of other Marx Brothers fanatics I know, Duck Soup is probably the most deliriously funny film in the siblings' Paramount canon.

"The film is a riot of one liners (some of Groucho's moments with Dumont are among the best in film comedy, let alone 'just' the Marx Brothers), but it also is almost bizarrely coherent in its narrative thrust, this despite the fact that the film deliberately indulges in outlandish sight gags and non sequiturs galore. The film may seem 'politically incorrect' (no pun intended) as it devolves into battle and supposed matters of life and death become (comedic) fodder, but the fact is all five of the Paramount Marx films feature the quartet as anarchists, readily engaging the powers that be in both physical and verbal skirmishes. There's absolutely no doubt about who's going to come out on top in this or any Marx Brothers brouhaha."

In his review at filmsgraded.com, Brian Koller observed that 'One subplot only barely explored involves Spanish dancer Raquel Torres, an operative for scheming ambassador foil Calhern. She is to seduce Groucho, which will clear the field for Calhoun to court the wealthy Dumont. But Groucho and Torres only share a few lines, and for whatever reason, he has no interest. The forgotten hero of Duck Soup is understated comic actor Calhoun, who shows uncharacteristic patience when dealing with his incompetent 'spies' Chico and Harpo. His temper is much shorter with Groucho, since he is the obstacle denying access to the Dumont treasury....

Duck Soup poster

"The Marx Brothers are at their best when causing chaos. The larger the scale, the better. The ceremonies at the palace or legislature, with plentiful extras of dignified aristocrats or soldiers, are settings ripe for the mischief of Groucho and co. Singing, dancing, and silliness are ripe to follow. Groucho basks in his character of the most powerful man in Freedonia, but there's no danger that power will corrupt him. He's already completely cynical....

"It's short, funny, fast-paced, and only the rare skit or scene seems extraneous. It's classic Marx Brothers, and only the ignoramus who avoids all old black and white movies will want to stay clear. For the rest of us, it's almost a laugh a minute."

In his book review of The New York Times in the December 3, 2010 of  "HAIL, HAIL, EUPHORIA! Presenting the Marx Brothers in 'Duck Soup,' the Greatest War Movie Ever Made" by humorist Roy Blount, Dana Stevens provided the following commentary:

"No Marx Brothers movie exemplifies the divine anarchy of Julius, Leonard, Arthur and Herbert Marx as purely as the 1933 Paramount comedy 'Duck Soup.' It was the last film in which all four brothers — stage-named Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo — appeared together on-screen. Unlike their earlier Paramount films (or those that would come after their move to MGM the following year), 'Duck Soup' is devoid of romantic subplots or, for that matter, of any real plotline at all, save for the foundering of the bankrupt kingdom of Freedonia in a senseless, and quite conceivably endless, Groucho-led war. Yet 'Duck Soup' is the film Harold Bloom, in an essay on 'the 20th-century American sublime,' called one of the great works of art of the past century...."

At his large and very impressive website, filmsite.com, Tim Dirks provides the following commentary:

"The Marx Brothers' greatest and funniest masterpiece - the classic comedy Duck Soup (1933) is a short, but brilliant satire and lampooning of blundering dictatorial leaders, Fascism and authoritarian government. The film, produced by Herman Mankiewicz, was prepared during the crisis period of the Depression. Some of its clever gags and routines were taken from Groucho's and Chico's early 1930s radio show Flywheel, Shyster & Flywheel. Working titles for the film included Oo La La, Firecrackers, Grasshoppers, and Cracked Ice....The film was directed by first-class veteran director Leo McCarey....Originally, it was to have been directed by Ernst Lubitsch. The film was devoid of any Academy Award nominations.

"The outrageous film was both a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release - audiences were taken aback by such preposterous political disrespect, buffoonery and cynicism at a time of political and economic crisis, with Roosevelt's struggle against Depression in the US amidst the rising power of Hitler in Germany. (This film quote, spoken by Groucho, was especially detested: '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.') Insulted by the film, fascist Italian dictator Mussolini banned the film in his country. Fortunately, the film was rediscovered by a generation of 1960s college students, and by revival film festivals and museum showings. As a result, the film has attained immortal status. This was the last of the Marx Brothers films to feature all four of the brothers....

"The irrepressible comedians in this quintessential anarchic, satirical film simply but irreverently attack the pomposity of small-time governmental leaders (Firefly as President), the absurdity of government itself (the Cabinet meeting scene), governmental diplomacy (the Trentino-Firefly scenes), an arbitrary legal system (Chicolini's trial), and war fought over petty matters (the mobilization and war scenes). The non-stop, frenetic film is filled with a number of delightfully hilarious moments, gags, fast-moving acts, double entendres, comedy routines, puns, pure silliness, zany improvisations, quips and insult-spewed lines of dialogue - much of the comedy makes the obvious statement that war is indeed nonsensical and meaninglessly destructive, especially since the word 'upstart' was the insult word (Ambassador Trentino called Firefly an 'upstart') that led to war between the two countries. It also contains a few of their most famous sequences: the lemonade seller confrontation [and] the mirror pantomime sequence.

"The mirror routine, contributed by McCarey, had been used by Charlie Chaplin in The Floorwalker (1916) and by Max Linder in Seven Year's Bad Luck (1921). It was later replicated in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, re-enacted by Harpo with Lucille Ball on a 1950's 'I Love Lucy' show episode, and also appeared as part of the opening credits for the 60s TV series 'The Patty Duke Show'. Actor/director Woody Allen paid homage to the film in his Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) - with an excerpt from the musical number 'The Country's Going to War.'...

"Unlike many of their other features, there are no romantic subplots (with Zeppo) and no musical interludes that stop the film's momentum - no harp solos for Harpo and no piano solos for Chico. There are, however, a couple of musical numbers that are perfectly integrated into the plot:...

"Why the title Duck Soup? [Earlier in 1927, director Leo McCarey had made a two-reel Laurel and Hardy film with the same title - and he borrowed the title from there.] The film's title uses a familiar American phrase that means anything simple or easy, or alternately, a gullible sucker or pushover. Under the opening credits, four quacking ducks (the four Marx Brothers) are seen swimming and cooking in a kettle over a fire. Groucho reportedly provided the following recipe to explain the title: '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.'

"The film opens with the flag of Freedonia (emblazoned with an 'F') flying over the small village. The government of a 'mythical kingdom' - the Balkan state of Freedonia, is suffering an emergency. It has gone bankrupt through mismanagement and is on the verge of revolution. The country's richest dowager millionairess, the wide and widowed benefactress Mrs. Gloria Teasdale...has offered $20 million to sponsor and support the cash-poor government, but only if it is placed under new leadership:...

"The opening scene is the classic inaugural ceremony and lawn party for the conferring of the Presidency of the tin-pot republic to a newly-appointed leader, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx), characterized by a supportive Mrs. Teasdale as 'a progressive, fearless fighter.'... 

"In the coronation setting (a spoof of all such gala events), royal court guards at the entry announce the guests. Meanwhile, the representative of the neighboring Sylvania [the name of the country where Jeanette MacDonald ruled in Ernst Lubitsch's The Love Parade (1929)], Ambassador and rival suitor Trentino (Louis Calhern), schemes to win Mrs. Teasdale's hand in marriage by wooing the rich heiress (with the ultimate goal of annexing Freedonia to Sylvania). He has hired the seductive, sultry, and sinuous Latin temptress/dancer Vera Marcal (Raquel Torres), who wears a low-cut, revealing gown, to function as a secret agent and keep Firefly distracted....

"Firefly's secretary Bob Rolland (Zeppo Marx, in his LAST Marx Bros. film) arrives and assures Mrs. Teasdale, in song, that the absent statesman will appear 'When the Clock on the Wall Strikes Ten.' When the clock on the wall does strike ten, pretty dancing girls scatter rose petals and kneel in homage between an impressive lineup of helmeted, sword-bearing guards along the entrance way with swords uplifted. The assembled audience sings the national anthem 'Hail, Hail Freedonia,' but Firefly isn't anywhere in sight. After a long pause and a trumpeters' fanfare, the anthem is sung a second time and all the guests look toward the entrance, but Firefly still fails to enter. 

"Suddenly, in an upstairs bedroom, the ringing of an alarm clock is heard, and Firefly appears in bed with a nightshirt, nightcap, and cigar. He quickly removes his nightshirt to reveal a suit, and slides down an unlikely fireman's pole into the spacious ballroom hall. He takes his place in the line-up with his own honor guard at the end of the ceremonial line, joining them to wait for his own arrival and holding out his cigar with their swords....

"Mrs. Teasdale notices him and welcomes him (with understatement)...Mrs. Teasdale congratulates him on his coronation and sovereignty: "The eyes of the world are upon you. Notables from every country are gathered here in your honor. This is a gala day for you." He replies: "Well, a gal a day is enough for me. I don't think I could handle any more."

"In the song and dance number, 'Just Wait 'Til I Get Through With It,' Firefly specifies the rules and program planned for his preposterous administration. He threatens, as a repressive, dictatorial ruler, to abuse his power, to be rude, obnoxious, irresponsible, insulting, cynical, and power-mad, ruining the country....

"To leave for an appointment in the House of Representatives, President Firefly calls for his palace's car. In a funny sightgag, Pinkie (Harpo Marx), his presidential chauffeur, roars into view in the presidential vehicle - a motorcycle and sidecar. Firefly (now in his black tuxedo with tails) jumps in the sidecar and commands: 'If you run out of gas, get ethyl. If Ethel runs out, get Mabel.' Pinkie roars off on the motorcycle without his passenger in the sidecar....
 

Louis Calhern in middle

Groucho, Calhern and Dumont

"In neighboring Sylvania (introduced with a waving flag with an emblazoned 'S'), Ambassador Trentino has schemed against Firefly (who has suddenly become popular) by hiring two spies to shadow and 'disgrace him and discredit him with the people.' Enter hot dog and peanut vendor Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinkie, the mute chauffeur, who report to Trentino to carry out the subterfuge. They appear in their superior's office as all good spies do - in disguise 'with spy stuff' and armed with an assortment of playful props. Pinkie wears a beard and rotating pinwheels for his eyes, all on the back of his head, and Chicolini wears a clown mask. Turning Pinkie around, Chicolini asks Trentino: 'We fool-a you good, eh?' Trentino invites them in and they burst into his office. They answer his phone, but the ringing is the sound of Pinkie's alarm clock in his coat. A telegram arrives and Pinkie intercepts it. Because all spies destroy messages, he quickly looks at it and angrily rips it up before it is read. Chicolini interprets for Trentino: 'He gets mad because he can't read.' Trentino invites them to be seated, but they both sit in the Ambassador's chair just as he is sitting down. Chicolini offers to share a smoke with his boss: 'Here, have a cigar. That's a good quarter cigar. I smoked the other three-quarters myself.' The pranks multiply - they take his cigar and fake lighting it with his telephone receiver, then light two cigars with a flaming blowtorch taken from Pinkie's pocket. Behind his back, Pinkie cuts Trentino's cigar in half....

"Outside the Freedonia palace, Chicolini and Pinkie operate a peanut and hot dog stand, next to a Lemonade Seller's (Edgar Kennedy) cart. Pinkie gets involved in a fight with Chicolini for stealing peanuts, and old tricks appear - he hands Chicolini his limp leg, and when fighting delivers a kick when threatening a punch. The Lemonade Seller is angered when his customers are disturbed and driven off by the fight. He intrudes and immediately becomes their target.

"While Chicolini shows how he has been kicked - delivering a kick to the Lemonade Seller's backside, Pinkie innocently clips the Seller's inside-out pants pocket and transforms it into a peanut bag. When the Lemonade Seller approaches Pinkie and they collide, Pinkie's taxi-horn sounds. Chicolini explains that they are both spies: 'Look. He's a spy and I'm a spy. He a work-a for me.' After being annoyed and kicked in the pants again by Chicolini, the Seller finds Pinkie's limp leg hanging in his hand.

"In a classic, three-headed, hat-switching sequence, the hats of Pinkie and the Seller fall off. Hats are switched when they stoop to pick them up. They quickly and smoothly exchange their hats, in a shell-like game on their heads, and the frustrated, 'slow-burn' Lemonade Seller ends up with Chicolini's pointed dunce cap on his head. Confused and exasperated, the Seller gives his leg to Pinkie, and Chicolini gives one of his legs to the Seller. Pinkie sucks some of the lemonade into his taxi horn, and it squeezes into the Seller's face when they collide their stomachs together. For revenge, the Lemonade Seller takes the horn and squeezes lemonade into Pinkie's trousers, causing him to make a face and show discomfort like he's wet his pants. To settle the score, Pinkie burns the Lemonade Seller's bowler hat on the flaming hot dog cooker....

To identify himself to Firefly, Pinkie rolls up his sleeve and shows him:

- a tattoo of his curly-haired face on one forearm

- a bikinied dancing lady on his other flexing forearm

- her phone number tattooed on his right side

- his residence - a dog house tattooed on his stomach. When Firefly looks closely and meows, a live barking dog emerges

"Firefly is incredulous: 'I bet you haven't got a picture of my grandfather?' Pinkie is ready to turn around and pull down his drawers, but Firefly has had enough and suggests he'll see it some other time....

"Both Vera and Mrs. Teasdale beg Firefly - is there anything they can do to get him to reconsider and relent? Firefly replies: 'Well, maybe I am a little headstrong, but I come by it honestly. My father was a little headstrong, my mother was a little armstrong. The headstrongs married the armstrongs and that's why darkies were born.'

"Firefly slaps Trentino across the face with his gloves. Trentino departs, vowing Sylvania's declaration of war on Freedonia: 'This means WAR!' Firefly adds:

"Go, and never darken my towels again!...

"Next follows the inspired, celebrated mirror pantomime scene, a superlative, lyrical, artistic example of mute physical comedy [a revival of a classic vaudeville routine]. Pinkie (disguised like Firefly) confronts the real Firefly, and pretends to be his mirror image, simultaneously playing back every gesture and movement. Firefly suspects his 'reflection,' another white-nightgowned figure, and tests the reflection in the perfectly-timed, ghostly-silent pantomime to catch him.

'After peering closely at his mirror image, Firefly cups his hand on his chin, turns away, looks back over his shoulder (twice), bends down, and wiggles his backside. Pinkie imitates.

'Firefly nods his head up and down and moves to the left behind the door frame. Pinkie imitates.

'Firefly peeks around the door frame with his glasses moved down on his nose. Pinkie imitates.

'Firefly pokes his head around the lower edge of the doorframe on his hands and knees in a crawling position - and so does the reflection.

'Firefly tiptoes/prances by, hops back, and performs a one-legged hop back again. Pinkie imitates.

'Firefly does a traditional Charleston dance. Pinkie follows each step.

'Firefly then spins around completely, arms outstretched. In the first illusionary mistake, Pinky fails to spin around, but his image matches Firefly's after he has completed the gyration. Both images are posed with arms slightly outstretched in a half-bow. They both walk to the door frame, arms up and flailing.

'Firefly carries a white Panama hat hidden behind his back. Pinkie has something behind his back.

'Firefly changes sides with the mirror view. As they circle around one another back to their original positions, Firefly notices that his mirror image has a black top hat behind his back - he silently smirks triumphantly in anticipation of fooling and exposing the mirror image.

'Firefly claps the hat on his head as fast as he can to trick his mirror image. Miraculously, the mirror image claps an identical white hat on his head! Both make faces to try to send their mirror image into hysterics. Firefly then takes his hat off and bows. So does Pinkie.

'Pinkie drops his hat, and Firefly retrieves it and hands it back to him through the mirror frame.

'When a third character - Chicolini - enters the scene's frame, the routine ends - the game of disguise is over, although it was over much earlier. Firefly grabs Chicolini by his nightshirt as Pinkie escapes.'"...

In a historical parody, Pinkie is dispatched to waken the citizenry with a bugle, in a memorable Paul Revere-like ride scene. While alerting citizens late at night on his white steed after seeing three lights ("they're coming by land and sea"), he comes upon a blonde woman undressing in an upstairs window. He gives up his Paul Revere midnight duties in the scene of exploded-expectations and enters her room, but is forced to find a place to hide in the bottom of a sudsy bathtub when her husband (Edgar Kennedy again) arrives home. And then, the husband settles into the bath tub on top of a submerged Pinkie. When Pinkie's taxi horn honk is heard underwater, he surfaces with bugle blowing, sounds a wet reveille and flees, leaving a startled husband in the tub.

"Pinkie reaches his own house where a woman is waving to him from a second-floor window. He enters the front door on horseback. The next image is taken at the foot of the bed - Pinkie's discarded boots, a pair of ladies shoes, and horseshoes are all laid out on the floor. Perversely, Pinkie shares a bed with the horse, and the woman sleeps in a single bed alone....

"A large shell bursts through an open window and blasts a large hole through the opposite wall. Firefly picks up his damaged Panama hat: "Gentlemen, this is the last straw." He asks for his Stradivarius - a violin case with a machine gun inside: "I'll show them they can't fiddle around with ol' Firefly!" Firefly picks up the machine gun and fires mistakenly on his own troops, boasting happily:

"Firefly: Look at them run. Now they know they've been in a war....

"Firefly tries to keep gunfire and shells out by pulling down the blinds. Pinkie's hat twirls around on his head as it is hit by a rapid-fire machine gun. Mrs.Teasdale calls for rescue and Firefly delivers the famous line to his cohorts as they rescue her:

"Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honor, which is probably more than she ever did.

"Firefly keeps track of the war tally with a pool-hall counter. Freedonia finally emerges victorious and the war is won when Trentino rams the door and then gets his head stuck in the door of the Freedonian headquarters...."




This film is ranked 63rd in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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