The Marx Brothers remain among the film comedy titans of the 20th century, along with Keaton, Chaplin, Fields, and Laurel & Hardy, all of whom will forever reside atop the Mt. Olympus of comedy. The Marx Brothers made only thirteen films in a twenty-year period, with Duck Soup, released on November 17, 1933, often considered to be their best.
After enjoying a successful career in vaudeville and on Broadway, the brothers signed a five-film deal with Paramount Pictures. Their first two films, Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, were filmed in Astoria Studios in Queens, New York (while the filming Cocoanuts by day, they were still performing the stage version of Animal Crackers on Broadway each night).
They moved to Los Angeles in 1931, where they filmed Monkey Business, Horsefeathers, and Duck Soup, their fifth and final — and arguably their most polished — film for Paramount.
The script was written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, who had co-written the brothers’ previous film, Horsefeathers, as well as the songs performed in the Marx films to that date. The director of Duck Soup, Leo McCarey, had already demonstrated his tremendous creative talents and influence at Hal Roach Studios, having a hand in creating some of the best comedies anywhere at the time. Groucho later referred to McCarey as “the only first class director we ever had.”
Beginning with Groucho’s grand entrance as Freedonia’s new president, Rufus T. Firefly, Duck Soup maintains a fabulous and consistent quality of both verbal and visual hilarity from start to finish (the film runs only 68 minutes), and — for the first time in a Marx Brothers film — without a tedious romantic subplot featuring two young lovers nobody cares about, or even the usual solo musical numbers by Harpo and Chico.
The plot of Duck Soup centers on the personal clash between Firefly and neighboring Sylvania’s ambassador, Trentino (Louis Calhern), which, of course, leads to both countries declaring war on each other.
Trentino hires Chicolini and Pinky (guess who) to spy on Firefly for him. Why he put his faith in them is anybody’s guess.
They find time to harass a local lemonade vendor (the wonderful Edgar Kennedy, who made quite a name for himself at Hal Roach Studios).
There’s also the astounding sequence with Harpo and Chico both disguised as Groucho, thus befuddling Mrs. Teasdale before culminating in the celebrated “mirror scene” (suggested by McCarey, but based on similar scenes from the silent movie days).
Chicolini is then put on trial for treason, where the puns fly with reckless abandon.
This leads into a deliberately campy and over-the-top musical number as Freedonia enthusiastically prepares for war with Sylvania, followed the climactic battle sequence, which is filled with still more puns, slapstick, and Groucho’s ever-changing choices of military uniforms.
It has often been written that Duck Soup received negative reviews and poor box office returns, prompting Paramount to decide against offering a new contract to the team. This is contradicted not only by simply reading the reviews themselves, but also by the fact that the film was the sixth-highest grossing film of 1933 — not a shabby accomplishment at all.
Photoplay raved, “Again the four Marx Brothers crash through with a package of hilarious nonsense that is rib-tickling fun for all who don’t care whether their fun has reason to it. They’re all mixed up this time in a revolution and other troubles in mythical Fredonia — and what a land it must be, judging from what happens! But the action is fast, the dialogue is faster, and the Marxes fastest of all. It’s a riot!”
Variety was also quite taken with the film:
“Practically everybody wants a good laugh right now and Duck Soup should make practically everybody laugh. The picture should draw and please all over. The laughs come often…although in this instance more care appears to have been taken with the timing, since the step-on gags don’t occur as frequently as in the past. But a picture that contains enough howls to lose some of them without the losses being noticed needn’t fret. …In place of the constant punning and dame chasing, Duck Soup has the Marxes madcapping through such bits as the old Schwartz Bros. mirror routine, so well done in the hands of Groucho, Harpo and Chico that it gathers a new and hilarious comedy momentum all over again. Everything’s in keeping with the tempo of the production, the Marxes personally staying on top of the story at all times and on top of the music as well.”
The New Movie Magazine also offered praise:
“With each fresh appearance of the Four Marx Brothers in films, the plot of the production grows thinner, the puns become more atrocious and the whole affair, for some mysterious reason, seems funnier than any of its forerunners. Duck Soup is no exception. Groucho, Harpo, Chico, with Zeppo playing straight, can take ancient gags and the most venerable situations and by some sort of goofy hocus-pocus, turn these shopworn matters into enduring hilarity…the trio are goofier than ever with Groucho rising above the others.…Duck Soup should come like a reviving breath of air, straight from the insane asylum.”
Meanwhile, while Harpo was in Russia for a series of performances (more about that from me soon), the Marx Brothers’ future plans became the source of speculation in the trade papers, via erroneous reports that ultimately lead up several blind alleys. Variety reported on December 12 that the team had made a deal to continue making films with Paramount. “Re-signing of the Marx Brothers at Paramount kills plans of the quartet and Sam Harris for a Broadway musical in January. Plans had been completed when the Paramount deal washed them out. Chico and Groucho, who left for New York Friday will remain in the east for three weeks. Arrival of Harpo from Russia around Christmas will be their signal to return to the coast and start working on their first picture yarn. Production will get started around March 15.”
In reality, the Marx Brothers: a) were never to return to Broadway as a team, b) did not remain a quartet beyond Duck Soup’s release, and c) did not sign a new contract with Paramount. The studio indeed passed on renewing their contract. While Duck Soup made a respectable showing at the box office, the studio’s new favorite of that year was the woman who had saved it from financial disaster, Mae West.
This left the brothers without a studio for the following year (and Variety with a bit of egg on its face). Zeppo at this time chose to hang up his straight man’s suit to become an agent. But the brothers maintained their standing among the top five Paramount stars of 1933, along with West, Bing Crosby, Harold Lloyd, and Frederic March. Others claiming top honors at the studio included Carole Lombard, Burns & Allen, Jack Oakie, and W.C. Fields.
So, while Paramount did indeed let the brothers go once Duck Soup was in the can, they found a new home at M-G-M.
While A Night at the Opera enjoyed its lofty status among comedy fans and film historians for several decades, a debate has also emerged among Marx aficionados. A common assessment today is that the Thalberg/MGM approach to comedy filmmaking was not a good fit for the brothers. Back at Paramount, their features gave audiences ample servings of Marx anarchy in each film, interrupted only by an occasional love song by a lead romantic couple. At M-G-M, the team, now given to expressing compassion for vulnerable folks around them, was simply not what the Marxes were about.
This isn’t an entirely new assessment. Upon the film’s release, critic Andre Sennwald noted his reservations about the new creative turn the Marxes had taken:
“Although A Night at the Opera is vastly superior fun, my impression is that several of the earlier Marx carnivals have provided more continuous merriment than their current madhouse. That, I suspect, is because with age I grow more resentful of the half-witted romantic business that insinuates itself into even the best film entertainment. I am jealous of every minute that Groucho, Harpo and Chico are missing from the screen while the lovers bleat of the sweet emotion and grow cow-eyed in its service.”
Furthermore, evaluations of the team and their films in more recent decades have consistently ranked Duck Soup above A Night at the Opera. For instance, Entertainment Weekly’s list of the top all-time comedy films placed Duck Soup at #7, and Opera at #31. The book The 50 Funniest Movies of All Time, by Kathryn Bernheimer and published in 1999, placed Duck Soup at #3, but had no spot on the list for Opera at all. The following year, the American Film Institute’s 100 Funniest Films of all time also ranked Duck Soup at #3, A Day at the Races at #59, and Monkey Business at #73, but no place for A Night at the Opera. However, the film was added to the National Film Registry in 1993, following the addition of Duck Soup in 1990.
But that’s a story to delve into with more detail at another time.
Until next time…
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Read my previous articles about comedy history at the links below, and at the links below:
“Halloween with Abbott & Costello” https://garryberman.medium.com/halloween-with-abbott-costello-2d39a21bbbba
“Buck Privates: An Appreciation” https://garryberman.medium.com/buck-privates-an-appreciation-da7b7d645fab
“Whatever Happened to Comedy Teams?” https://garryberman.medium.com/whatever-happened-to-comedy-teams-7e243b5c9d45
“Pie in Your Eye: A History of the Pie-in-the-face Gag” https://garryberman.medium.com/pie-in-your-eye-a-history-of-the-pie-in-the-face-gag-4dd8c31286a0
“Stars For a Cause: The Navy Relief Show of 1942” https://garryberman.medium.com/stars-for-a-cause-the-navy-relief-show-of-march-1942-af2ff6edf8d9
“Mary Kay and Johnny: Television’s First Sitcom” https://garryberman.medium.com/mary-kay-and-johnny-televisions-first-sitcom-835fec303b5e
“The First Person to be Censored on TV was…Eddie Cantor? https://garryberman.medium.com/eddie-cantor-the-first-person-to-be-censored-on-tv-78b56c68cae1
“A Tribute To Our Funniest Sitcom Moms” https://garryberman.medium.com/a-tribute-to-our-funniest-sitcom-moms-ed3f5757fe73
“Television’s Greatest Sitcom Dad?” https://garryberman.medium.com/televisions-greatest-sitcom-dad-ef2dab761525
“Breaking the Fourth Wall (in comedy)” https://garryberman.medium.com/breaking-the-fourth-wall-in-comedy-51edfa9f88f0
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