Duck Soup (1933) Director: Leo McCarey
“I could dance with you until the cows come home. On second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows until you come home.”
The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup is a film of enduring delights. Whereas Horse Feathers is a parody of the elite nepotism in 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, effectively ending the Marx Brothers five film contract with Paramount and fueling a new partnership with MGM, however Duck Soup is simply brilliant. Publicly, in the 1930s 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.
Duck Soup was originally slated to be directed by Ernst Lubitsch -imagine that! The title was taken from Leo McCarey’s earlier Laurel and Hardy film of the same name. There has been much speculation about the origins of the title of the film, but Groucho once said: “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 together on screen.
Summarizing the plot of Duck Soup is impossible, as each Marx Brothers film is a series of chaotic 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 revolution. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) offers $20 million to finance the government under the condition of new leadership: Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx), but he offends everyone, establishes a series of ridiculous ordinances, and leads the country into war against Sylvania, led by Ambassador Trentino (Luis Calhern). Firefly and his fellow Marx Brothers who play spies for Sylvania encounter many scenes of hilarious hijinks, including the famous mirror scene with Firefly and Chicolini miming each other. The film ends when Trentino tries to storm Firefly’s military base but he 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.”
- “Clear? Huh! Why a four-year-old child could understand this report. [aside] Run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can’t make head or tail out of it.”
- “General Smith reports a gas attack. He wants to know what to do.”
Rufus T. Firefly: “Tell him to take a teaspoonful of bicarbonate baking soda and a half a glass of water.”
- “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.”
Rufus T. Firefly: “A gal a day is enough for me.”
- “I could dance with you until the cows come home. On second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows until you come home.”
- “You do suggest something. To me you suggest a baboon. I’m sorry I said that. It isn’t fair to the rest of the baboons.”
- “Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.”
- “You’re fighting for this woman’s honor – which is probably more than she ever did.”
- “I was with him to the very end.”
Rufus T. Firefly: “No wonder he passed away.”
- “Message from the front, sir.”
Rufus T. Firefly: “Oh, I’m sick of messages from the front. Don’t we ever get a message from the side?”
- “I’ll see my lawyer about this as soon as he graduates from law school!”
- “We’re in a mess. Rush to Freedonia! Three men and one woman are trapped in a building! Send help at once! If you can’t send help, send two more women!”
- “You ask me to forget? A Firefly never forgets.”
- “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.