Marx Brothers' Duck Soup satire still delights audiences
Directed by Leo McCarey.
Written by Bert Kalmer, Harry Ruby, Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin.
Starring Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx, and Margaret Dumont.
Tonight at LSC, 7:30 p.m. in 10-250.
By Stephen Brophy
Ten years ago, in Hannah and Her Sisters, one of his two best films, Woody Allen created and played a character afraid of disease and dying who tries various religious panaceas to reduce, control, or at least evade his fear. This quintessential doubting Jew even contemplates converting to Catholicism in a hilarious sequence involving the changes in diet he imagines he will have to endure. In the end he is not saved by religion but by the Marx Brothers, when he chances into an afternoon screening of Duck Soup at his local repertory movie theater. Tonight, thanks to LSC Classics, you too can be saved.
The Marx Brothers were a New York phenomenon, rising to prominence in vaudeville and then on Broadway in comedies like Coconuts and Animal Crackers. Just as they were peaking on Broadway, sound technology was sweeping the film world, and New York stage talent suddenly became highly desirable commodities in that world. The Marx Brothers, like many other theatrical stars, succumbed to the enticements dangled before them and made a few films at the Paramount Studios in New York City before relocating to Hollywood.
The Brothers' films were initially successful, but with the deepening of the Depression, their anarchic style became less popular. Duck Soup has long held a high place in the pantheon of American comedy, but in 1933, when it was released, it was a commercial disappointment to Paramount. Soon after its release, Paramount canceled the Brothers' contract, and they moved on to MGM, where they made A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races under the tutelage of Irving Thalberg before sliding into B-movie limbo.
Whatever the circumstances, we can only be grateful that their comic genius was recorded on film. Duck Soup in particular packs an amazing quantity of gags, japes, and satires into its 70-minute span. There is the wonderful mirror sequence, lovingly recreated years later on I Love Lucy, but never topped. There are the brief musical bits that poke fun at the Busby Berkely musicals of the period. There is the joke about Paul Revere. And of course there are Groucho, Chico, and Harpo running, jumping, and leapfrogging from one lunatic situation to another.
All this hilarity is strung up on a plot at once too complicated and too silly to have any independent meaning. Duck Soup can be read as an indictment of the insanity of war and a critique of the relationship between wealth and political power, but to do so is to miss much of the fun. The movie was banned in fascist Italy because it seemed to be a statement against dictatorship. But it makes fun of the entire range of political arrangements and patriotic icons. Mussolini just didn't get it.
One other artist should be mentioned when credit for the uniqueness of Duck Soup is being handed out, and that is the director, Leo McCarey. McCarey learned the ropes in silent movie days, writing, and supervising the short movies of Laurel and Hardy, and eventually directing four of them. After working with the Marx Brothers he moved on to Six of a Kind with W.C. Fields and Belle of the Nineties with Mae West before winning the first of two Academy Awards for directing one of the screwiest of screwballs comedies, The Awful Truth. McCarey was more compatible with the Marx Brothers' style than any of their other directors, and the perfection of Duck Soup is the proof.