Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Duck Soup (1933)
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Background

The Marx Brothers' greatest and funniest masterpiece - the classic comedy Duck Soup (1933) is a short, but brilliant satire and lampooning of blundering dictatorial leaders, Fascism and authoritarian government. The film, produced by Herman Mankiewicz, was prepared during the crisis period of the Depression. Some of its clever gags and routines were taken from Groucho's and Chico's early 1930s radio show Flywheel, Shyster & Flywheel. Working titles for the film included Oo La La, Firecrackers, Grasshoppers, and Cracked Ice.

It was the Marx Brothers' fifth film in a five-picture contract with Paramount Studios, before they went on to MGM. It was their last and best film with the studio. The film was directed by first-class veteran director Leo McCarey (who would go on to direct The Awful Truth (1937), Love Affair (1939), Going My Way (1944), and An Affair to Remember (1957) - a remake of his 1939 film), and its screenplay was written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby (with additional dialogue by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin). Originally, it was to have been directed by Ernst Lubitsch. The film was devoid of any Academy Award nominations.

The outrageous film was both a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release - audiences were taken aback by such preposterous political disrespect, buffoonery and cynicism at a time of political and economic crisis, with Roosevelt's struggle against Depression in the US amidst the rising power of Hitler in Germany. (This film quote, spoken by Groucho, was especially detested: "And remember while you're out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in here thinking what a sucker you are.") Insulted by the film, fascist Italian dictator Mussolini banned the film in his country. Fortunately, the film was rediscovered by a generation of 1960s college students, and by revival film festivals and museum showings. As a result, the film has attained immortal status. This was the last of the Marx Brothers films to feature all four of the brothers. Their next film (without Zeppo), for MGM and its producer Irving Thalberg, Hollywood's most prestigious studio, was their landmark film A Night at the Opera (1935), with a more developed and polished plot-line.

The irrepressible comedians in this quintessential anarchic, satirical film simply but irreverently attack the pomposity of small-time governmental leaders (Firefly as President), the absurdity of government itself (the Cabinet meeting scene), governmental diplomacy (the Trentino-Firefly scenes), an arbitrary legal system (Chicolini's trial), and war fought over petty matters (the mobilization and war scenes). The non-stop, frenetic film is filled with a number of delightfully hilarious moments, gags, fast-moving acts, double entendres, comedy routines, puns, pure silliness, zany improvisations, quips and insult-spewed lines of dialogue - much of the comedy makes the obvious statement that war is indeed nonsensical and meaninglessly destructive, especially since the word 'upstart' was the insult word (Ambassador Trentino called Firefly an 'upstart') that led to war between the two countries. It also contains a few of their most famous sequences:

The mirror routine, contributed by McCarey, had been used by Charlie Chaplin in The Floorwalker (1916) and by Max Linder in Seven Year's Bad Luck (1921). It was later replicated in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, re-enacted by Harpo with Lucille Ball on a 1950's "I Love Lucy" show episode, and also appeared as part of the opening credits for the 60s TV series "The Patty Duke Show". Actor/director Woody Allen paid homage to the film in his Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) - with an excerpt from the musical number "The Country's Going to War." While attending an afternoon screening of Duck Soup at his local repertory movie theater, one of the film's characters - a depressed and neurotic NY Jew named Mickey Sachs (played by Allen himself), who is afraid of disease and dying - experiences a climactic epiphany that life was meant to be enjoyed, by narrating: "And I started to feel how can you even think of killing yourself? I mean, isn't it so stupid?..."

Unlike many of their other features, there are no romantic subplots (with Zeppo) and no musical interludes that stop the film's momentum - no harp solos for Harpo and no piano solos for Chico. There are, however, a couple of musical numbers that are perfectly integrated into the plot:

Why the title Duck Soup? [Earlier in 1927, director Leo McCarey had made a two-reel Laurel and Hardy film with the same title - and he borrowed the title from there.] The film's title uses a familiar American phrase that means anything simple or easy, or alternately, a gullible sucker or pushover. Under the opening credits, four quacking ducks (the four Marx Brothers) are seen swimming and cooking in a kettle over a fire. Groucho reportedly provided the following recipe to explain the title: "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."

The Story

The film opens with the flag of Freedonia (emblazoned with an "F") flying over the small village. The government of a "mythical kingdom" - the Balkan state of Freedonia, is suffering an emergency. It has gone bankrupt through mismanagement and is on the verge of revolution. The country's richest dowager millionairess, the wide and widowed benefactress Mrs. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont in a welcome return as the perfect foil for Groucho) has offered $20 million to sponsor and support the cash-poor government, but only if it is placed under new leadership:

The government has been mismanaged. I will lend the money, but only on condition that His Excellency withdraw and place the government in new hands.

The opening scene is the classic inaugural ceremony and lawn party for the conferring of the Presidency of the tin-pot republic to a newly-appointed leader, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx), characterized by a supportive Mrs. Teasdale as "a progressive, fearless fighter." She vows: "I will lend the money to Freedonia only if Firefly is appointed leader." Headlines in the Freedonia Gazette read: "FIREFLY APPOINTED NEW LEADER OF FREEDONIA." A sub-article reads: "Mammoth Reception Arranged to Welcome Nation's Leader Tonight - Selection of Rufus T. Firefly Greeted with Cheers of Freedonians."

In the coronation setting (a spoof of all such gala events), royal court guards at the entry announce the guests. Meanwhile, the representative of the neighboring Sylvania [the name of the country where Jeanette MacDonald ruled in Ernst Lubitsch's The Love Parade (1929)], Ambassador and rival suitor Trentino (Louis Calhern), schemes to win Mrs. Teasdale's hand in marriage by wooing the rich heiress (with the ultimate goal of annexing Freedonia to Sylvania). He has hired the seductive, sultry, and sinuous Latin temptress/dancer Vera Marcal (Raquel Torres), who wears a low-cut, revealing gown, to function as a secret agent and keep Firefly distracted [in a satire of all Mata Hari films]:

Trentino: I've given up the idea of a revolution. I have a better plan...I can gain control of Freedonia much easier by marrying Mrs. Teasdale.
Vera: Ha, ha, ha. Maybe that's not going to be so easy...From what I hear, you see, Mrs. Teasdale is rather sweet on this Rufus T. Firefly.
Trentino: Oh, well that's where you come in. I'm going to place him in your hands. And I don't have to tell you what to do or how to...

Firefly's secretary Bob Rolland (Zeppo Marx, in his LAST Marx Bros. film) arrives and assures Mrs. Teasdale, in song, that the absent statesman will appear "When the Clock on the Wall Strikes Ten." When the clock on the wall does strike ten, pretty dancing girls scatter rose petals and kneel in homage between an impressive lineup of helmeted, sword-bearing guards along the entrance way with swords uplifted. The assembled audience sings the national anthem "Hail, Hail Freedonia," but Firefly isn't anywhere in sight. After a long pause and a trumpeters' fanfare, the anthem is sung a second time and all the guests look toward the entrance, but Firefly still fails to enter.

Suddenly, in an upstairs bedroom, the ringing of an alarm clock is heard, and Firefly appears in bed with a nightshirt, nightcap, and cigar. He quickly removes his nightshirt to reveal a suit, and slides down an unlikely fireman's pole into the spacious ballroom hall. He takes his place in the line-up with his own honor guard at the end of the ceremonial line, joining them to wait for his own arrival and holding out his cigar with their swords. He asks one of the guards: "You expecting somebody?"

Mrs. Teasdale notices him and welcomes him (with understatement), and attempts to impose some degree of dignity upon the proceedings, but he assaults her with insults by skipping from non-sequitur association to another:

Mrs. Teasdale: Oh, your Excellency. We've been expecting you. As chairwoman of the reception committee, I extend the wishes of every man, woman, and child of Freedonia. [Notice the continuity error: Firefly's coat has changed from a formal black tuxedo coat with tails, to a gray coat with black edging.]
Firefly: Never mind that stuff. Take a card.
Mrs. Teasdale: Card? What will I do with the card?
Firefly: You can keep it. I've got fifty-one left. Now what were you saying?
Mrs. Teasdale: As chairwoman of the reception committee, I welcome you with open arms.
Firefly (snapping back): Is that so? How late do you stay open?
Mrs. Teasdale (with high regard): I've sponsored your appointment because I feel you are the most able statesman in all Freedonia.
Firefly (insulting her): 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.

She begs him to lead Freedonia to the same heights it occupied when her late husband Chester V. Teasdale was President: "The future of Freedonia rests on you. Promise me you will follow in the footsteps of my husband." Firefly looks straight into the camera, and in his first major line rudely insults his most ardent supporter:

How do you like that? I haven't been on the job five minutes and already she's making advances to me.

Then he engages the widowed Mrs. Teasdale in an insult-ridden conversation, but quickly covers up his insults and shamelessly flirts with her when he realizes she is a widow with money:

Firefly: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Mrs. Teasdale: Why, he's dead.
Firefly: I'll bet he's just using that as an excuse.
Mrs. Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.
Firefly: Hmmph. No wonder he passed away.
Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Firefly: Oh, I see. Then, it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.
Mrs. Teasdale: He left me his entire fortune.
Firefly: Is that so? Can't you see what I'm trying to tell you? I love you.
Mrs. Teasdale: Oh, your Excellency!
Firefly: You're not so bad yourself.

[Firefly's coat reverts back to the black tuxedo here.] When Firefly is introduced to the sleek, impeccably tailored Trentino, Ambassador from rival Sylvania, he immediately insults him a few times, calling him an "old skinflint":

Mrs. Teasdale: Oh, I want to present to you Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania. Having him with us today is indeed a great pleasure.
Trentino: Thank you, but I can't stay very long.
Firefly: That's even a greater pleasure. Now, how about lending this country $20,000,000 dollars, you old skinflint.
Trentino: $20,000,000 dollars is a lot of money. I'd have to take that up with my Minister of Finance.
Firefly: Well, in the meantime, could you let me have $12 dollars until payday?
Trentino: $12 dollars?
Firefly: Don't be scared. You'll get it back. I'll give you my personal note for 90 days. If it isn't paid by then, you can keep the note.
Trentino: Your Excellency? Haven't we seen each other somewhere before?
Firefly: I don't think so. I'm not sure I'm seeing you now. It must be something I ate.
Trentino (insulted): Look here Sir, are you trying to...?
Firefly: Don't look now, but there's one man too many in this room, and I think it's you.

Then, the new Freedonian President meets a "very charming lady," the seductive "famous dancer" Vera, still wearing a slinky evening gown displaying her bosom. Overwhelmed by her appearance, he shows off a number of his own ridiculous dance steps: "I danced before Napoleon. No, Napoleon danced before me. In fact, he danced two hundred years before me." When she seductively suggests dancing with him some time later, he tells her:

I could dance with you till the cows come home. On second thought, I'd rather dance with the cows when you came home.

Firefly dictates a letter to his dentist in the middle of the inauguration. Mrs. Teasdale congratulates him on his coronation and sovereignty: "The eyes of the world are upon you. Notables from every country are gathered here in your honor. This is a gala day for you." He replies: "Well, a gal a day is enough for me. I don't think I could handle any more."

In the song and dance number, "Just Wait 'Til I Get Through With It," Firefly specifies the rules and program planned for his preposterous administration. He threatens, as a repressive, dictatorial ruler, to abuse his power, to be rude, obnoxious, irresponsible, insulting, cynical, and power-mad, ruining the country. [The last verse featured a dirty joke and managed to evade the censors.] Between verses, he plays a "Yankee Doodle" fife and dances around among the guests:

These are the laws of my administration
No one's allowed to smoke
Or tell a dirty joke
And whistling is forbidden...
If chewing gum is chewed
The chewer is pursued.
And in the hoosegow hidden...
If any form of pleasure is exhibited
Report to me and it will be prohibited.
I'll put my foot down, so shall it be.
This is the land of the free.

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 'til I get through with it
The country's taxes must be fixed
And I know what to do with it
If you think you're paying too much now
Just wait 'til I get through with it... I will not stand for anything that's crooked or unfair
I'm strictly on the up and up
So everyone beware
If anyone's caught taking graft
And I don't get my share
We stand 'em up against the wall
And pop goes the weasel.

If any man should come between her husband and his bride
We find out which one she prefers
By letting her decide
If she prefers the other man
The husband steps outside
We stand 'em up against the wall
And pop goes the weasel.

[Firefly's coat again changes back to the gray one at the conclusion of the song.]


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