[To read an eight-part biography of the Marx Brothers, click here. To read about Margaret Dumont, my choice for best supporting actress of 1932-33, click here. And to read about the drafting of Duck Soup's screenplay, click here.]
The award year running from September 1, 1932 through the end of 1933 was an unusually rich one for both comedies and musicals with more than a dozen must-see movies, including a pair from Ernst Lubitsch, three by Busby Berkeley, comedies starring Mae West, Charles Laughton, Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler, Laurel and Hardy, and even a groundbreaking cartoon short from Walt Disney. But the best work of the year came from the Marx Brothers, who contributed two indispensable classics, Horse Feathers and my choice for the best comedy of the year—or indeed, any year—Duck Soup.
In case you don't know, the Marx Brothers—Julius, Leonard, Adolph and Herbert, better known to the world as Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo—were the premiere comedy team of an era that also boasted such classic acts as Laurel and Hardy, and the Three Stooges. Duck Soup was their fifth film and despite being delayed for nine months by a contract dispute with Paramount, proved to be the best of their career, featuring some of the funniest and most famous scenes in the Marx Brothers canon.
Duck Soup is the story of a nation in crisis: Freedonia's economy is in shambles, with a prohibitive increase in taxes ("I've got an uncle in Taxes—Dollars, Taxes!") in the offing if the rich widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) won't come through with another $20 million. And if that's not enough, Freedonia's bellicose neighbor, Sylvania, is massing troops on the border, threatening not only death and destruction, but also to introduce a plot into the picture's foreground, a development which in previous Marx Brothers movies tended to bring the comedy to a grinding halt.
With a month's rent already paid on the battlefield, war seems inevitable and the country teeters on the brink of anarchy. Desperate for a savior, Freedonia turns to that fearless man of the people, Rufus T. Firefly.
"If you think this country's bad off now," he promises, "just wait 'til I get through with it!"
Playing Firefly is Groucho Marx, he of the lacerating wit, the greasepaint moustache and the most impeccable timing in the history of comedy. While the chief obstacle to achieving peace in our time is ostensibly Sylvania's conniving ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern), in fact, it's Firefly himself—his temper, his paranoia, his inability to make heads or tails of things a four year old child would understand.
"I'll be only too happy to meet Am- bassador Trentino, and offer him, on behalf of my country, the right hand of good fellowship. And I feel sure that he will accept this gesture in the spirit in which it is offered. But suppose he doesn't. A fine thing that'll be! I hold out my hand and he refuses to accept it! ... Why the cheap, four-flushing swine—so you refuse to shake hands with me!"
And thus just like that, Freedonia finds itself at war.
The humorist Roy Blount, Jr., in his recent book Hail, Hail, Euphoria!, called Duck Soup "the greatest war movie ever made," and while I wouldn't say Harpo carrying a sandwich board reading "Join the Army and See the Navy" around a battlefield is as harrowing as the Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan, I will agree that it's the best treatment ever of the causes of war. As a student of history, majoring in the subject in college and maintaining a lifelong interest in the to-ings and fro-ings of elected officials, I've concluded that nobody has ever launched a war thinking it was a bad idea, no matter how uninformed, misinformed or half-formed his reasons may have been for thinking so. (Yes, yes, I'm thinking of the War of Jenkins' Ear. Sue me.)
Don't get me wrong. Occasionally the world finds itself in a death match with, say, fascism, and it would be futile, not to mention suicidal, to sit on the sidelines, but more often than not, from the Crusades to Iraq's invasion of Iran and a hundred other major conflicts in between, the thinking leading to war is typically characterized by ego, paranoia, stupidity and shortsightedness, with very little afterwards to show for it but a pile of corpses, and when the smoke clears, everybody scratches their heads and promises to do better—until the next time, that is, when they go off and do it again.
And thus I believe Rufus T. Firefly when he says, "There's no turning back now! This means war!" Or I believe he believes it anyway. But a classic movie, like a well-written history, strips away the comforting lies and the self-delusion and leaves only the truth—in this case, that Rufus T. Firefly might not have been, shall we say, the best choice to lead a country in crisis. (Filmed shortly after the Nazis seized power in Germany, Harpo said later he and his Jewish brothers listened to Hitler's speeches on the radio between scenes and were quite consciously targeting both him and his fascist ally Mussolini with their humor. Indeed, Mussolini banned the film in Italy as a personal attack.)
Egging Firely on are Chicolini and Pinky (Chico and Harpo), who serve not only as Secretary of War and chauffeur, respectively, but also as the most incompetent double agents in history, infiltrating Freedonia's government on behalf of Trentino only to get sidetracked by scissors, doorbells and a cantankerous lemonade vendor.
"Well, you remember you gave us a picture of this man and said follow him? Well, we get on the job right away and in one hour—even-a less than one hour—"
"—we lose-a da picsh. That's-a pretty quick work, heh?"
Providing brilliant support are Margaret Dumont and Edgar Kennedy. Kennedy was a veteran of the Hal Roach Studios, and a master of what is known as slow-burn comedy, with laughs derived from a gradually increasing show of anger. Dumont, simply put, was the most talented straight-(wo)man in the history of movie comedies.
In consciously setting out to make the best Marx Brothers movie ever, director Leo McCarey ruthlessly streamlined the story, eliminating every element not directly related to producing laughs. In addition to cutting the usual harp and piano solos, he also cut a scripted romance between Zeppo and Raquel Torres (who played dancer Vera Marcal) as well as Zeppo's number "Keep On Doin' What You're Doin'" (recycled a year later for the Wheeler and Woolsey comedy, Hips Hips Hooray), effectively reducing the youngest Marx Brother to a bit player in his own movie.
McCarey also beefed up the supporting cast, calling in veteran actors Calhern and Kennedy for key parts, writing two classic sequences involving Harpo, Chico and a lemonade stand for the latter (it was Groucho himself who talked Margaret Dumont into playing Mrs. Teasdale). As a result, the Brothers finally found themselves working with a cast of expert straightmen whose set-up lines and reaction shots heightened the payoffs of the Brothers' already brilliant jokes.
In addition, McCarey's experience as a director of top comedy acts (Laurel and Hardy especially) shows in his ability to tether otherwise unrelated gags and one-liners to the framework of the story. On paper, Duck Soup is no more cohesive than Monkey Business or Horse Feathers, but McCarey is forever stitching scenes together with repeated dialogue, visual cues and recurring gags. $20 million is mentioned several times and many scenes are introduced with the Freedonian national anthem. Three times you see Groucho in bed, three times you see Chico or Harpo at the peanut stand. Several scenes involve eating—peanuts, donuts, crackers, apples. We see Groucho at his desk more than once—first in the newspaper photo that introduces him, then for a cabinet meeting, then yet again for a conversation with Zeppo and a sequence involving Harpo and the telephone. For that matter, we see Harpo on the telephone in two scenes, and Chico once as well. And, of course, there are recurring gags involving Harpo and scissors, a blow torch, a motorcycle, an alarm clock and Edgar Kennedy's hat.
These links, though unobtrusive, satisfy the mind's instinctive need for order and create a resonance that keeps the momentum of the picture from jerking to a halt every time the story changes gears.
"Duck Soup," wrote Roy Blount in Hail, Hail, Euphoria!, "is a seamless blend of just about every form of American comedy up to its time," and I attribute this versatility to Leo McCarey. As a source of inspiration for many of Duck Soup's gags, McCarey dipped into the bag of silent comedy tricks he had learned at the legendary Hal Roach Studios and came up with several scenes crucial to the film's success, including the three-hat gag, the break-in scene from Laurel and Hardy's Night Owls and most unforgettably, the mirror scene, which the Schwartz Brothers originated for the stage, and which showed up again in Charlie Chaplin's The Floorwalker and Max Linder's Seven Years' Bad Luck, but which was never essayed more brilliantly than by the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup.
Most importantly, McCarey provided visuals that for the first—perhaps, only—time in the Marx Brothers' career matched their subversive, surreal wit. I'm thinking particularly of the battle scenes at the tail end of the movie, when Groucho changes uniforms with every shot and the army of elephants, monkeys, dolphins, swimmers, fire engines, etc. that responds to his call for help. But there's also the scene where a dog emerges barking from Harpo's chest, and another scene where Harpo climbs out of Edgar Kennedy's bath in full-dress uniform. (That McCarey used these tricks to turn what in previous movies would have been a plot-heavy resolution into an surrealist's dream is just another reason why he was the best director the Marx Brothers ever worked with. In fact, I'm willing to bet all the surrealists' efforts combined had less impact on attitudes about war and authority than this one Marx Brothers movie. But I digress. Again.)
But of course ultimately Duck Soup is about the Marx Brothers and simultaneously reigned in and unleashed by an expert director of comedy, they were never better. Groucho was never more comfortable in front of the camera. Harpo, the act's unrestrained id, is not as wild as he was in such movies as Animal Crackers, but his bits are better integrated into the flow of the film than ever before. And Chico has the best role of his career, serving not just as a foil for Groucho's wit and Harpo's destructive impulses, but as a showcase talent in his own right. (If you want to read more about the Marx Brothers themselves, click here, but I'm warning you in advance, few who venture there ever return to talk about it.)
In terms of box office, Duck Soup wasn't quite the flop of legend, turning a modest profit, but nevertheless grossing less than any of its predecessors. Ironically, we most desperately seek meaning at those moments when the world most forcefully reminds us that life has no meaning, and in 1933, as the world teetered at the edge of the abyss, audiences had no taste for Duck Soup's bitter recipe. Because let's face it, while at first blush Duck Soup is delightfully silly and absurdist, its underlying riff—that our leaders are fools, that our institutions are corrupt, that young men and women die in wars for no reason, and that, above all, people are born to torment each other without hope of ever getting along—is as bleak and jaundiced a world view as Hollywood ever committed to film. That's not a message a paying audience is prepared to receive on an empty stomach, and in 1933, there were plenty of empty stomachs to go around.
Fortunately, the Marx Brothers signed with Irving Thalberg shortly after Duck Soup's premiere and at MGM, the Brothers made two of their most successful movies, A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races. Audiences were in the mood to laugh at the Marx Brothers again. They've been laughing ever since.
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