#200) Duck Soup (1933)
OR “Say the Secret Word and Democracy Comes Down”
Directed by Leo McCarey
Written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Additional dialogue by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin.
Class of 1990
The Plot: Freedonia is bankrupt and in need of a new leader. Socialite/financial aid Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) insists on Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) for the job. Firefly takes over, and tries to woo Teasdale in order to get her late husband’s inheritance. Meanwhile Sylvanian ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) wants to annex Freedonia, and sends spies Chiccolini and Pinky (Chico & Harpo Marx) to follow Firefly. In true Marx Brothers fashion, the plot falls apart in favor of rapid-fire gags, the occasional musical number, and some of the boys’ most iconic bits. Oh, and Zeppo’s there too.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “the brothers’ masterpiece”, and praises the boys, director McCarey, and the “reliably clueless” Margaret Dumont. There’s also a lengthy essay by film critic William Wolf.
But Does It Really?: No one can argue the inclusion of a Marx Brothers film on this list. The Marx Brothers are one of the rare film comedians that effortlessly mixed puns and wordplay with physical shtick, and it’s that “everything but the kitchen sink” mentality that has ensured the boys’ longevity. I’ll argue that “Duck Soup” isn’t the brilliant political satire it’s hailed as (none of their other films get anywhere near social commentary), but their humor comes with a strong enough viewpoint that, mixed with this film’s premise, makes the connection plausible. “Duck Soup” is still laugh-out-loud funny 85 years later, and how many other comedies can you say that about?
Shout Outs: The music box that Harpo knocks over plays “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” for some reason.
Everybody Gets One: We’ll see more of Groucho, Harpo, and Chico when they jump ship to MGM (and a crowded stateroom) in “A Night at the Opera”, but this is the only NFR film for Zeppo, the fourth Marx Brother. The youngest of the five children, Herbert “Zeppo” Marx was the straight man of the group for their stage performances as well as their early films. He left the group after “Duck Soup”, but he spent some time afterwards as the brothers’ agent, and later made a fortune as an engineer and inventor. So you don’t have to feel too bad for Zeppo.
Wow, That’s Dated: Lots of references to such popular songs as “Ain’t She Sweet”, “Goodnight, Sweetheart” and…oh god, do I have to? [Deep inhale] Okay, here we go: “That’s Why Darkies Were Born”. [Deep exhale] Why, Groucho, why?
Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for “Duck Soup”. Perhaps Paramount didn’t want to put money in a campaign for stars that had already left the studio. Paramount’s comedy of choice at that year’s ceremony was fellow NFR entry “She Done Him Wrong”.
- Other than a current slang term for an easy task, the title “Duck Soup” has nothing to do with the film. It doesn’t matter anyway, because I ordered the Duck Salad.
- The “additional dialogue” credit at the beginning is attributed to Sheekman and Perrin, who wrote for Groucho and Chico’s radio show “Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel”. They lifted enough jokes from the radio show to warrant a credit for the two writers.
- The film was made by Paramount, and was part of their film library that was sold to Universal in the ‘50s. The version I watched began with two separate Universal logos, followed by the original Paramount logo. Somewhere, Cinema Sins is shaking its head.
- Ah yes, that point in ‘30s cinema where people just broke into song.
- Margaret Dumont is clearly not listening to a word Firefly is saying. I guess that helps make you a great foil.
- Harpo’s doghouse tattoo is super creepy. One of the boys’ rare forays into the surreal. Also, who has a tattoo of themselves?
- Teasdale’s room seems to take its cue from Mrs. Robinson’s rumpus room.
- There are some pretty big continuity errors in this film. I suspect a lot of material hit the cutting room floor. Apparently, among the deleted material were a piano number from Chico and a harp number by Harpo (ohhhh, now I get it).
- The best line no one quotes from this film: “Let me out of here or throw me a magazine.”
- The mirror scene is still the highlight of the movie. It’s also the only scene in a sound comedy I can think of that’s executed in complete silence.
- And now an “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” parody? About guns? Oh Christ.
- I do love me some repurposed stock footage.
- I never realized that “Airplane!” lifted the “horse in bed” gag from here.
- The Wolf essay about the film praises the political satire, and cites how that is a rarity in film, even today. Give it a decade.
- Speaking of, Groucho attributed the film’s political edge to Leo McCarey, a director the boys never worked with before or again.
- Not quite the “flop” as some historians refer to it as, “Duck Soup” was popular, but not as popular as their previous film: “Horse Feathers”. When their contract with Paramount ended with this film, the brothers moved on to MGM, and their other NFR entry “A Night at the Opera”.
- Everyone and their mother has done the mirror bit, but the best homage will be the one Harpo did 22 years later with Lucille Ball.
- Woody Allen considers “Bananas” a “spiritual sequel” to “Duck Soup”. Yeah, Woody believes a lot of things.
Listen to This: A recent addition to the National Recording Registry is the 1972 album “An Evening with Groucho”. It’s an hour of Groucho saying pretty much whatever he wants, and it’s the best. Because it’s Groucho in the ‘70s, Dick Cavett makes an appearance.
200 films already? Seems like only a few days ago we were talking about movie #199. I’m a little over a quarter of the way through my journey, and I thank you for making it this far with me. Promise me you’ll go outside at some point.