One of two Marx Brothers movies preserved in the National Film Registry (the other is A Night At the Opera) and the last to include Zeppo, Duck Soup is the funniest of their films, an exercise in inspired anarchy that nevertheless works with the precision of a Swiss watch.
Without ever feeling overburdened by superfluous plot, Duck Soup is one of the few Marx Brothers movies that actually has one, or at least one that serves not merely as an excuse for humor, but as a catalyst for it. Considering how many chefs stirred this particular cinematic pot, however, not just the credited writers but also director Leo McCarey and the Brothers themselves, all concerned likely counted themselves lucky that the movie worked at all. A study of the screenwriting process reveals that the story was actually a mishmash of old vaudeville gags, Laurel and Hardy routines and entire scenes lifted nearly intact from the Marx Brothers' short-lived radio program. That Duck Soup wound up the most effortlessly brilliant entry in the Marx Brothers' oeuvre is something of a modern movie miracle.
Immediately after the release of the Marx Brothers' 1932 hit, Horse Feathers, work began on a follow-up, Firecrackers, to be set in the mythical Eastern European kingdom of Oo-La-La, with Ernst Lubitsch, whose resume was filled with comedies set in mythical Eastern European kingdoms, slated to direct. The script started as a handful of songs and a rough story idea from the songwriting team of Burt Kalmar and Harry Ruby, who had written songs for two other Marx Brothers movies, Animal Crackers and Horse Feathers.
His Excellency is due
To take his station
Beginning his new
He'll make his appearance when
The clock on the wall strikes ten.
Zeppo, by the way, who sings this opening number, was initially to play Groucho's son, as he had in Horse Feathers, and only at the last minute was the part rewritten to be Rufus T. Firefly's secretary, Bob Roland. It was probably just as well—it's his smallest part in the five films he appeared in and he was ready to leave the act and pursue a career as a Hollywood talent agent.
For the opening scene, a long sequence in a palace ballroom where foreign dignitaries and government officials have assembled to await the arrival of Freedonia's new leader, Kalmar and Ruby wrote two other songs, the two-line Freedonian national anthem and a big song and dance number for Groucho.
The last man nearly ruined this place
He didn't know what to do with it.
If you think this country's bad off now
Just wait 'till I get through with it.
Together with "His Excellency Is Due," the scene plays out more or less as it did in the final film.
During these early stages of the story's development, Kalmar and Ruby also penned the opening lines of what would later become the song and dance number, "The Country's Going To War," which was a spoof of, among other things, the spiritual "All God's Chillun Got Wings," and a 1924 Eugene O'Neill play of the same name starring Paul Robeson.
Then it's war!
Then it's war!
Gather the forces!
Harness the horses!
Then it's war!
Taken together, the songs suggested something of a story arc—Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) becomes leader of Freedonia and the country winds up in a war—but stitching those two bookends together proved to be a bit of a problem.
Grover Jones, a veteran of more than a hundred screenplays in his career, including the Ernst Lubitsch classic, Trouble in Paradise, made the first attempt at hashing out the storyline. Working with Kalmar and Ruby, Jones's draft of the script, now entitled Cracked Ice, imagined that Groucho, in addition to being president of Freedonia, is also an arms manufacturer who conspires with Chico to start a war to gin up a demand for his product, anticipating by nearly three decades Dwight Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex" speech, with Margaret Dumont throw in for comic relief.
Some of the jokes survive—the recurring bit with "His Excellency's car," the "gala day" line, opting for a "standing" army to save on chairs—as does the scene introducing Firefly and the garden party at Mrs. Teasdale's, but everything after the first act went out the window. (One of the rejected ideas was an opera sequence, with Chico and Harpo disrupting the performance. An expanded form of the idea was revived two years later as A Night At The Opera.)
Aside from the fact that many of his gags were belabored and not very funny, Jones fundamentally misunderstood the Brothers' appeal. It was one thing for Groucho to scam the sorts of people we instinctively root against—gangsters, gamblers and rich buffoons—or for Chico to scam Groucho; it was another thing altogether for Groucho and Chico to be those people we root against. (You can read this draft online here.)
Next the studio brought in Groucho Marx's favorite writer, Arthur Sheekman, who along with Nat Perrin, had been writing a radio show for the Brothers, Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel, which briefly aired on NBC radio from late November 1932 to May 1933. Arthur Sheekman had been a show business columnist for the Chicago Sunday Times where Groucho sought him out, befriended him and hired him to work on two Marx Brothers films, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, the latter without credit, before becoming the chief writer on the radio show. Perrin, a former lawyer working in the Warner Brothers' publicity department, landed a job as a gag writer for Groucho after forging a letter of introduction from Broadway playwright Moss Hart.
The new script, now called Grasshoppers, was cobbled together from previous drafts and from the radio show. With minor refinements, Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel provided fifteen of Duck Soup's gags and routines, including Chico's trial for treason, and lines such as "Go, and never darken my towels again" and "Would you give me a lock of your hair—I'm letting you off easy, I was going to ask for the whole wig." (I knew there was a reason I bought the transcripts of the radio show some twenty years ago.)
Chico's first scene in Duck Soup was lifted nearly verbatim from the program's first episode. This, from the show's transcript:
"Hey, you remember when you giva me that picture of your wife?"
"Well, I start right out. Joosta like a bloodhound, I tell you. And in one hour, even less than one hour—"
"I losa da pisch."
"Then you didn't shadow my wife?"
"Sure, I shadow her all day."
"What day was that?"
"That was Shadowday. ... Monday I shadow your wife. Tuesday I go to the ball game—she don't show up. Wednesday she go to the ball game—I don't show up. Thursday was a doubleheader. We both no show up. Friday it rain all day—there'sa no ball game, so I go fishing."
For the movie, the jokes were further polished and the characters altered to suit the story. In addition, business was written for Harpo, who as a silent act was of course not on the radio.
[To read more about Grasshoppers, click here.]
(Producer Herman J. Mankiewicz, who later won an Oscar for co-writing Citizen Kane, also contributed to the finished product—what, exactly, I can't tell you.)
Finally, although director Leo McCarey wasn't credited with writing the script, I suspect he played a major role in the way the story played out. Originally a lawyer by trade, McCarey broke into the film business as a writer for the Hal Roach Studios; by 1929, McCarey was in charge of production there. A veteran director of comedy shorts, McCarey dipped into his past to provide the Brothers with new material. The scenes with Edgar Kennedy as the long-suffering owner of a lemonade stand are much more characteristic of the slow-burn frustration routines of W.C. Fields and Laurel and Hardy, whom McCarey had worked with extensively, than of the sort of comedy the Brothers had been doing. The scene where Chico and Harpo rob the safe is a reworked bit from Laurel and Hardy. And the famous mirror scene, which McCarey also suggested, was an old vaudeville routine.
McCarey was the first veteran comedy director the Brothers had ever worked with and to their delight, he encouraged improvisation on the set. And to the delight of many film fans, he also insisted on dropping the usual harp and piano interludes.
His main contribution, though, was knowing from experience what was funny and how to capture that comedy on film.
(For a more detailed and less adoring analysis of the film, stop by The Marx Brothers Council Of Britain.)
As filming came to an end in June 1933, the studio finally settled on a title, Duck Soup. The origin and meaning of the title has been the subject of speculation for years, and with his usual directness, Groucho explained it thusly: "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."
In fact, though, "duck soup" was slang for "something easy to do," and Leo McCarey almost certainly suggested it—in 1927 while at Hal Roach's studio, he proposed pairing comedic actors Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy for the first time in short named, yes, that's right, Duck Soup.
In any event, Duck Soup was in keeping with the three previous Marx Brothers movies which had worked an animal into the title.
The movie premiered on November 27, 1933. Legend has it that Duck Soup flopped on its initial release, but in fact, it broke even at the box office, and although it did receive mixed reviews from critics, its relative lack of success (compared to its predecessors) may owe more to Paramount Pictures' lack of a marketing budget than to any inherent lack of interest on the part of the public. In any event, Paramount, which had been tottering financially throughout the Depression, soon after went bankrupt and the Brothers decamped for MGM where Irving Thalberg remade them in his own image. But that's a story I'll leave for another day.
Despite their ups and downs, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby worked together as a songwriting team from 1920 until Kalmar's death in 1947. The pair wrote such songs as "Who's Sorry Now," "I Wanna Be Loved By You," and their biggest hit, "Three Little Words," which provided the title of the 1950 fictionalized film account of the partnership starring Fred Astaire and Red Skelton.
Grover Jones was twice nominated for an Oscar, for the original story Lady and Gent and for the screenplay for The Lives Of A Bengal Lancer (shared with four other writers). He also wrote Abe Lincoln in Illinois, and during the silent era, he directed twenty-one movies. Jones died at the age of forty-six following surgery.
After hopping a train from New York with Groucho and Nat Perrin to write Duck Soup, Arthur Sheekman continued to work in Hollywood, and met his future wife, Gloria Stuart, while writing the Eddie Cantor musical, Roman Scandals. (You may remember Stuart for her Oscar-nominated turn in the 1997 movie Titanic.) Sheekman and Stuart married in 1934 and remained married until his death in 1978.
Nat Perrin also stayed in Hollywood and did some uncredited script doctoring on Go West and wrote the screen story for The Big Store (recycling the name "Flywheel" and the plot of that movie from the radio show). He also wrote the hit play Hellzapoppin' and later produced The Addams Family for television. Although Duck Soup provided him with an entree into Hollywood, Perrin wasn't a fan of the movie. "[It] was so crazy—that was Leo McCarey's approach, and the boys loved working with him. But, to me, [A] Night at the Opera is a far better film. Of course, plenty of people disagree with me." He died in 1998.
Both Sheekman and Perrin remained lifelong friends with Groucho.
During a career which began in the silent era and ended in the early '60s, Leo McCarey directed 110 shorts and feature films. He was nominated for nine Oscars, winning four, one for directing Cary Grant's breakout performance in The Awful Truth, and three for writing, directing and producing 1944's best picture winner, Going My Way.
And as for the Marx Brothers? We'll be returning to them soon enough.
[To read about frequent Marx Brothers co-star Margaret Dumont, click here.]