Duck Soup (1933) Director: Leo McCarey
The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup is a film of enduring delights. Whereas Horse Feathers is a parody of the elite nepotism integral to the status of higher education, Duck Soup is a parody of the fascistic dictatorships of the 1930s. Lamentably, the film was considered a commercial and critical failure in its day, ending the Marx Brothers five film contract with Paramount and fueling a new partnership with MGM. Publicly, the film was considered offensive for its cavalier treatment of war and fascism. In fact, Mussolini was so distraught upon viewing the film that he banned it across Italy. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the film gained favorable opinion, especially among college students.
It was originally to be directed by Ernst Lubitsch and received no academy award nominations. The title was taken from Leo McCarey’s earlier Laurel and Hardy film of the same name. Groucho once said of the title: “Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, mix them together. After one taste, you’ll duck soup the rest of your life.” The film is the last to feature all four Marx Brothers.
Summarizing the plot is impossible, as each Marx Brothers film is a series of vignettes and absurdist scenes. However, I will try to give a brief synopsis. It tells the story of Freedonia, a struggling, mismanaged country (Balkan state) on the verge of a revolution. Gloria Teasdale offers $20 million to finance the government under the condition of new leadership, Rufus T. Firefly, who offends everyone, establishes a series of ridiculous ordinances, and leads the country into war against Sylvania, led by Trentino. He and his fellow Marx Brothers encounter many scenes of hilarious hijinks, including the famous mirror scene with Firefly and Chicolini. The film ends when Trentino tries to storm Firefly’s military base but gets stuck in the door and surrenders as Firefly throws old fruit at him and Teasdale shouts: “Victory is ours!”
Some memorable lines from Groucho Marx include:
- “I danced before Napoleon. No Napoleon danced before me. In fact, he danced 200 years before me.”
- “…could you lend me $12 until payday? 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.”
- “I could dance with you until the cows come home. On second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows until you come home.”
- “All I can offer you is a Rufus over your head” – in a proposal for marriage to Teasdale.
In his autobiography Harpo Speaks, Harpo tells of traveling to the USSR to perform several days after the release of the film. He was stopped and questioned by the police and ordered to play his harp to prove it was not a weapon.
Duck Soup is another masterpiece from the Marx Brothers and should be viewed many times by lovers of great films.