DUCK SOUP (1933)

  • Director: Leo McCarey
  • Writers: Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Arthur Sheekman, and Nat Perrin
  • Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Louis Calhern, and Raquel Torres
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#60)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with cable subscription on TCM App, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Duck Soup is both the most Marx Brothers-y of any of their movies, and also the one Marx Brothers movie that actually works on its own as, you know, art or what have you. Just don’t say that Groucho Marx, who always pushed back on the movie having any message at all. “We were just four Jews trying to be funny,” he protested. And they were. But they were also four Jews given lots and lots of money to make a movie in which one of them becomes a dictator in a world where Hitler and Mussolini were both currently in charge of countries. They took that opportunity to do an enormous “negro spiritual” production number, with a key word of the title changed: “All God’s Chillun’ Got Guns.” Groucho was never willing to give a straight answer to anything, and it seems very possible that this particular topic might be counted in the world of “anything.”

Duck Soup was the last Marx Brothers comedy at Paramount Pictures, which had given them their big break, prior to their leaving for MGM. Their last movie, Horse Feathers, had been the third highest-grossing movie of its year, and Paramount had very high hopes for Duck Soup. While not a financial disaster, it wasn’t really a big hit, and the Brothers soon departed for greener pastures. As such, it remains the one Marx movie where they pretty much had entirely free rein, and they used it to pack the movie with gag after gag after gag from start to finish. Its sheer zaniness, in fact, was thought to have turned off some percentage of the audience, and MGM kept them on a much tighter leash. It was also their final movie in which their straight-ish man brother, Zeppo, appears, though if I’m honest I really can’t tell you what part in the movie he actually plays. He was, in fact, a mechanical genius, who after years of keeping the Marx family car running retired from acting in 1933 to start an engineering firm. He reportedly designed the clamps in the “Fat Man” plane that were used to hold the atomic bomb before it was dropped on Hiroshima.

Anyway, the plot of this movie is that perennial Marx straightwoman Margaret Dumont is a rich widow, Mrs. Teasdale, who agrees to bail out the tiny, bankrupt nation of “Freedonia,” on the condition that they appoint one Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) dictator. I’m gonna be honest, I watched the movie and I forget what her actual motivation is. It doesn’t really matter. Meanwhile, the ambassador of the neighboring nation of “Sylvania” (Louis Calhern) wants to annex the country, so he tries to foment a revolution and hires Chico and Harpo to dig up dirt on Firefly. His plans do not work, but Firefly manages to start a war between the two countries anyway. The third act features the war going very, very badly for Freedonia, with Groucho wearing a different militaristic outfit in every scene. I’ve honestly not really seen anything like it anywhere else. The melodramatic exclamation of “This means war!” was obviously not invented by this movie, but it brought it to the heights we know today, and certainly would not have made it into Looney Tunes cartoons without its use here.

Many of the truly classic comedy bits have nothing to do with this plot, though many of them do. After Chico and Harpo break into Groucho’s palace to try to steal Freedonia’s “war plans,” Harpo finds himself caught in Groucho’s bedroom as he gets ready for bed. This leads to a routine in which Harpo disguises himself as Groucho and then pretends that a door is a mirror and he is Groucho’s reflection. It’s one of those bits that seems to go on forever, in a good way. What’s funny is he’s just good enough at it to not get caught but not perfect, so we’re always aware of the deception. Soon after, there’s another sight gag making fun of the Hays Code, which said that you couldn’t show a man and a woman in bed together. We see Groucho jumping into bed and think that he and Teasdale are getting in together. Then the camera pans past a pair of male shoes, a pale of female shoes, and four horseshoes, then continues to show that Teasdale is in one bed while Groucho is sharing another bed with a horse.

Duck Soup is definitely my favorite Marx Brothers movie that I’ve seen, because it’s just so in your face cynical and yet deeply, deeply zany in every frame. The wordplay is relentless. In Groucho’s first scene, Mrs. Teasdale tells him she “feels he is the most able statesman in all of Freedonia,” to which he delivers this cavalcade without breathing: “Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You’d better beat it; I hear they’re gonna tear you down and put up an office building where you’re standing. You can leave in a taxi. If you can’t get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that’s too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff. You know, you haven’t stopped talking since I came here. You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle.” That’s how the whole thing is. It never shuts up.

Somewhere amidst the general logorrhea is the basic message of this movie: that patriotism in any form, be it warmongering or just national anthems, is nonsense for suckers. When Chico volunteers late in the movie to carry a message behind enemy lines, Groucho proclaims, “Just remember, while you’re out there braving shot and shell, we’ll be here thinking about what a sucker you are.” Regardless of the Marx Brothers’ intentions, Mussolini took personal offense and banned the movie in Italy, at a time when studios were still worried about offending the European market if they made too much fun of fascists. The town of Freedonia, New York, meanwhile, asked that the country in the movie be renamed to avoid sullying the town’s good name. Groucho responded that they should rename their town so it didn’t hurt his movie.

You might be wondering about the title, Duck Soup. This apparently was a real slang term used at the time that meant something like “a piece of cake.” That doesn’t say anything about what it has to do with the movie, though. It might have been suggested by director Leo McCarey. Like many of the Marx Brothers’ collaborators, he was a great director in his own right, who went on to win two Best Director Oscars for The Awful Truth and Going My Way. He had gotten his start directing Laurel and Hardy shorts, one of which also happened to be named Duck Soup. When asked about the meaning of the title, Groucho gave the following answer: “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.”

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