DUCK SOUP (1933)

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“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.”–Roger Ebert on the Marx Brothers

The Marx Brothers were, understandably, the darlings of the surrealists; and that should be a red flag to contemporary audience members belonging to the religious cult of Hyperrealism.

I say that up front because I have watched this film in the company of such alien types as the Hyperrealists. Their melodramatic, aggressive reactions were the same as I saw in a showing of the films of  Busby Berkeley (be forewarned: a series on Berkeley is coming). Naturally, I saw it as my aesthetic duty to cut those sophistic assailants down to size.

The Marx Brothers, perhaps, are the quintessential comedy team with an edge. exhibits a comparable level of surrealism, but as a predominantly solo act, he’s a mono whisper compared to the quadrophonic Brothers. 1930s audiences showed themselves to be a somewhat more imaginative lot (not by much) than us in that they not only accepted the Brothers level of unhinged zaniness, but they even made stars out of them.

Still from Duck Soup (1933)Note that “but not by much,” because Duck Soup (1933) was the Marx Brothers most revolutionary film, a surrealist-politico masterpiece, and it totally bombed at the box office. This resulted in the Brothers being released from their Paramount contract.  MGM and Irving Thalberg were quick to snap them up, but Thalberg, a self-confessed fan, knew he had to polish their act in order to increase their accessibility.

The MGM films that followed Soup retained a certain level of  zaniness, but it was noticeably diminished.  The new producers added musical numbers aplenty (the songs in Duck Soup are minimal and non-intrusive—and although I love musicals, saturating a Marx Brothers film with dance numbers is a really bad idea), and sacked the bland Zeppo (the sole good move). The best of the Thalberg lot was probably Night At The Opera (1935) directed by Sam Wood, a fleetingly competent commission director. Wood lacked the consummate craftsmanship and idiosyncratic comedic intuition of Duck Soup director Leo McCary. McCary had cut his teeth with some eccentric peers. He started as an assistant to  and had worked, as a writer, with Chaplin, Stan Laurel, and W.C. Fields.  With Wood and Thalberg reigning the Marx Brothers in, a slow descent into the pedestrian was inevitable.

Still, we have Duck Soup, which has rightly been lauded (by those who know better) as the great anti-war masterpiece (along with 1964’s Dr. Strangelove). (Although, if I remember correctly, the late critic Leslie Halliwell preferred Fail Safe to ,’s film, a judgment I’ve never fully understood).

The irreverence displayed in Duck Soup should delight any weird movie lover. Nothing is sacred. Much to FDR’s dismay, patriotism was lampooned, as was religion: “We got guns! They got guns! All God’s children got guns!” Hallelujah! Bourgeoisie society is likened to fascism, and the boys libidos are raging.

Groucho is new President, Rufus T. Firefly, and his kingdom is the fictional Freedonia (only W.C. Fields could come up with wackier names). The object of Rufus’ affection is the aptly named Mrs. Teasdale (the hilarious —stocky, unattractive and no spring chicken, she couldn’t even make a local commercial today). Mrs. Teasdale is a wealthy widow, and Groucho’s painted mustache and ceegar have come ‘ a courtin’ her—and his ceegar is noticeably stiff.

The antagonistic neighboring country Sylvania has sent two spies into Freedonia (Chico and Harpo—go figure). Of course, this is a set-up for nonsensical dialogue, political intrigue, seductive vamps, surreal one-liners, even more surreal slapstick (during the eventual war), and raging testosterone.

A cabinet meeting scene is typical. Rufus is handed a report: “Your excellency, here is the treasury Department report. I hope you find it clear.” “Clear? A four-year old child could understand this report.” Rufus then hands the report to secretary Zeppo and instructs him: “Run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can’t make heads or tails out of it.”

Of course, Zeppo ignores him and goes about his business. And that’s sort of reaction led to much of the complaining I heard during the screening of the film. The unrealistic exchanges throw many modern audiences off. “He didn’t even respond to what she said!” “He looked at the camera!” and so on.

While Duck Soup was a subversive anti-status quo film, it was not rejected by the masses at the time because of all the unrealistic zingers (one of which will immediately be recognized by fans of the Addams Family movies, but then that’s old business). Rather, it’s unpatriotic irreverence went too far for a nation trying desperately to unite together during the depression (which few of us could fathom, I’m sure!) and for a nation on the brink of war. However, escapism was the order of the day, and the Marx Brothers were happy to oblige.

Although their films were probably not considered weird in their day, they have evolved into time capsule misfits because of shifting aesthetics and ideologies. That Duck Soup is still, unfortunately, frighteningly relevant possibly goes unnoticed.

The film is often callous, cruel, uncouth, and laced in spiked Jewish humor, but it never resorts to dumbing down to its audience. And that is a refreshing change of pace.

6 thoughts on “DUCK SOUP (1933)”

  1. I’ve marked Duck Soup as a “List Candidate.” I could definitely see naming as one of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. I’d like to know what the readers think, though. Some may think it’s too mainstream.

    1. I saw Duck Soup on television when i was very young–probably in the 5-6 year old range–and it seemed to mesh perfectly with my budding sense of the bizarre. I’ve seen it so many times since and it has become such a comforting experience that it no longer seems overtly weird. That said, it should probably make the list. The one-liners (“If you think of it bring some cheese”), non-sequitors (“Get out and never darken my towels again!”) and one-off absurdist visuals (a phonograph record becomes a clay pigeon to be thrown and shot at, a barking dog emerges from a doghouse tattoo, etc.) are jarring, funny and genuinely strange interruptions and the brothers’ defiantly irrational behaviors butting up against the cultural and political minutiae of Freedonian society make for a consistently surreal comic atmosphere. I’ve been too immersed in the Marx Brothers brand of humor for too much of my life to notice without effort, but objectively “Duck Soup” is a deeply weird film.

      With regards to Margaret Dumont: She was the perfect foil because her befuddlement was genuine. She had played essentially the same role in a couple of the Marx Brothers Broadway shows and in the movie adaptations of those shows (The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers), so she was used to the way they operated. She also, quite famously, did not understand their humor, asking Groucho (whose real name was Julius) backstage one evening “What are they laughing at, Julie?” Groucho adored and respected her–indeed she was the one person he found he couldn’t effectively insult because she could never understand that she was being insulted!

  2. I think this should definitely be in the list. The first 45 minutes or so are your more or less standard satirical, slightly odd Marx brothers material, but the last 20 minutes of the film (starting with the war room scene) go full on surrealism. It changes a screwball satire into an attack on the very idea of governments and war.

  3. A very important point about this film is that it was made at a time when most of the films on the List would have been illegal to show anywhere, even Japan. So relative to the time it came out, it was very weird indeed. It was a flop because its target audience were genuinely shocked by the concept of a satire about gleefully amoral lunatics starting a war for pleasure and profit. It’s as hard to imagine now as people actually fainting when they saw Lon Chaney’s face in The Phantom Of The Opera, but they simply didn’t get it because they weren’t ready, and that in itself is fairly weird.

    It’s a great pity that the movie’s failure obliged the Marx Brothers to lighten up their act, because, amongst other things, this was the moment when they caught on that letting Harpo stop the film for several minutes to perform a perfectly straight musical number was a bad idea. Apart from pointlessly slowing things down, when somebody with his screen person does something like that in character, he stops being the anarchic clown and becomes a dead-eyed leering weirdo doing something “nice” to try to make us like him. Here, there’s a very definite “we’re not going to do that any more” moment when Harpo seems to be about to attempt it, but the instrument itself won’t let him.

    In this film, Harpo is so out of control that he barely seems human. Groucho isn’t above going to war for absurdly selfish reasons without a shred of guilt, but Harpo simply destroys anything within reach like a slapstick Hannibal Lecter. And at one point it’s as heavily implied as they can get away with that he’s uninterested in human females but willing to have sex with a horse. I’m not even sure the horse is female!

    Chico is as usual a cut below those two – his “pretending to be Italian when I’m clearly not” schtick got tired pretty quickly – and poor old Zeppo is so irrelevant that the opening titles feel obliged to inform the audience in large letters that the team is called “The Four Marx Brothers”, complete with drawings of them, so that people will catch on that he’s supposed to be one of them.

    But overall, it combines blistering satire with crazy comedy in a fashion way ahead of its time, and totally unmatched by the likes of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Imagine if the Marx Brothers had made that! Groucho Marx as Hitler – we can but dream… Chico as Mussolini, of course. And Harpo as Stalin. Now THAT would make the list!

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