Duck Soup (1933)
Written by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Arthur Sheekman, and Nat Perrin
Directed by Leo McCarey
Duck Soup is arguably the Marx Brother’s masterpiece. It is their last pre-code movie meaning it’s their last chance to push the boundaries of content in cinema. Duck Soup is also the perfect mix of the Brothers’ anarchic style and a semi-cohesive narrative structure. We still get gags and skits, but they feel much more connected to what is happening to the characters. Duck Soup wasn’t the smash hit that Horse Feathers was, and there was a lot of conflict between the Marx Brothers and Paramount during and after the production. The movie would mark the end of their relationship with that studio and send them to MGM for their next feature.
Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) is appointed the new leader of the nation of Freedonia at the behest of the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont). Why he is being given this position remains a mystery, much like Wagstaff’s ascendency to President of Huxley University in Horse Feathers. There is a plot afoot in neighboring Sylvania to invade and conquer Freedonia, but it hinges on driving a wedge between Firefly and Teasdale. Ambassador Trentino hires Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo) as his spies to gather intelligence on Freedonia. Of course, they end up being terrible hires and provide him with nothing of substance. Everything culminates in an explosive and insane war between the nations with Marx Brothers dead center.
As soon as it was clear Horse Feathers was a massive success, Paramount pushed them to begin work on a follow up for 1933. Paramount got behind on money they owed the Brothers, and this caused the rift. Production on their next move heralded some big names in Hollywood like Ernst Lubitsch and Herman Mankiewicz. It all culminated in the death of their father, which made the Marxes move to come to an agreement and get what will be their last Paramount picture.
Duck Soup is full of visual gags that make the picture more cinematic than previous efforts, though there is still a slight staginess to certain scenes. The most memorable moment occurs when Chicolini and Pinky break into the royal palace and disguise themselves as Firefly, complete with greasepaint mustache and cigar. Pinky breaks a mirror and must pose as Firefly’s reflection, which draws suspicion from Freedonia’s ruler. The ensuing mirror act is a revival of a bit that the Marx Brothers did in their vaudeville days, and its pulled off masterfully. Being siblings and working in entertainment together for decades is what makes such a performance possible. Each actor knows how to read the other so well that they don’t have to think too long to see the move they need to make. Improv comedy has been a lot more formalized with institutions like the UCB Theater, but the Marx Brothers were molding the beginnings of what that would be.
There are even digs at the Hays Code, which was rolling out at the time. Pinky on a Paul Revere-like ride ends up being invited upstairs by a young woman. We cut to his shoes and her shoes on the floor, then their clothes, then a pan up to her in bed and Pinky and his horse in a separate bed. This bit was likely intended to mess with censors who would be about to make a note that it had to be cut before the punchline reveal.
There is an ongoing bit between Chicolini, Pinky, and a lemonade vendor that involves stealing his hat and setting it on fire in a roasted peanut cart. This is one gag that doesn’t really have a direct connection to the plot but is a perfect example of a recurring type of joke in the Marx Brothers’ catalog: The Brothers picking a random person and driving them insane. The scene would just keep going with particularly Harpo upping the ante through sleight of hand and quick thinking. You aren’t sure whether to feel bad for the vendor or laugh by the end of the sequence.
The finale of the movie is a complete descent into madness and absurdity. As war breaks, we cut between Firefly strategizing in his palace to stock footage of fights and military skirmishes. Each time we return to Firefly, he is wearing a different uniform, including a British palace guard, a Boy Scout, and finally deerskin clothes and coonskin cap a la Davy Crockett. Bombs start falling, and by the end, the small shack the Brothers have holed up in crumbles to pieces. This is no masterwork of narrative structuring but a complete celebration of nonsense and silliness.