Film Guide to Duck Soup (1933)

by Erin Glossl, SUNY Fredonia

United States. English. Black-and-white. 68 minutes. Available: VCR.

Director: Leo McCarey
Producer: Herman J. Mankiewicz
Cameraman: Henry Sharp
Story: Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby
Music and Lyrics: Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby
Additional Dialogue: Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin

Groucho Marx (Rufus T. Firefly)
Harpo Marx (Pinky)
Chico Marx (Chicolini)
Zeppo Marx (Bob Roalnd)
Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Teasdale)
Raquel Torres (Vera Marcal)
Louis Calhern (Trentino)
Edmund Breese (Zander)
Leonid Kinsky (Agitator)
Charles B. Middleton (Prosecutor)
Edgar Kennedy (Street Vendor)

Synopsis of Duck Soup

The government of Freedonia needs money to help lower taxes, and the only person that can help them is Mrs. Teasdale. She won't lend the country the money unless they make Rufus T. Firefly president. Mrs. Teasdale holds a giant reception for Firefly, and everyone waits. Meanwhile Firefly has slept in and rushes to the reception, but doesn't seem to realize it's for him. At the reception Firefly accepts the job, which makes the Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania angry. He hires Chicolini and Pinky to spy on Firefly.

When the Secretary of War quits Firefly hires Chicolini to fill the position. When Fredonia declares war on Sylvania it becomes Chicolini's job to get the war plans from Mrs. Teasdale. Chicolini and Pinky go to Mrs. Teasdale's house to get the plans. Chicolini and Pinky both dress up as Firefly. Chicolini breaks a mirror and when Firefly goes to investigate he comes across what he thinks is his reflection. Chicolini tries to imitate everything Firefly does but eventually is caught and put on trial.

During the trial word comes that Sylvania is moving troops to attack Fredonia. Firefly declares war on Sylvania and the whole courtroom breaks into song. Pinky rides out to warn everyone, but gets sidetracked by a pretty girl. A war starts and Firefly, Chicolini, Pinky and Mrs. Teasdale are trapped in a house. Firefly calls for back up; armies, herds of elephants, boaters and monkeys answer the call. Soldiers finally break into the house. But Firefly, Pinky and Chicolini beat each soldier that comes through. Even Trentino comes through, but he is trapped in the door and Freedonia wins the war.

Contemporary Reviews

"Duck Soup." News-Week 2 December 1933, 33.

The author of the article comments that up until Duck Soup, Marx Brother films were just silly skits with no real plot. In the movie Duck Soup, the Marx Brothers deviate from their regular style of comedy. They go and poke fun at everything from diplomatic meetings to musical numbers in films. The author points out that there are some horrible puns made in the movie, but it is still funny. The author states that it is a good film to see if you want pure entertainment. The tone of the review is that Duck Soup is a funny film that requires little plot to make it work.

Hall, Mordaunt. "The Four Marx Brothers." The New York Times 23 November 1933, 24:2.

Hall views Duck Soup not one of the Marx Brother's finest works. Yet, he does say that the movie does have several strong points. The acting of the Marx Brothers is, of course, well done and funny. Hall points out Harpo's use of the scissors on almost anything (clothing, hats). Hall enjoyed the mirror scene and the phony ride of Paul Revere by Harpo. Hall praises the silliness of the songs that interrupt the daily proceedings in Freedonia. The overall tone of the article is positive, but Hall does not give a reason why he did not think it lived up to other films done by the brothers.

"Duck Soup" Time 20 November 1933, 38.

The author of this article gives Duck Soup a mixed review. He says that this film has more plot to it, than previous Marx Brothers films. There are also more sight gags, such as Harpo using a blowtorch to light a cigar and his slight of hand with a lemonade vendor's hat, than in previous films. The author does not believe that Groucho is not up to previous standards, but does not give any real evidence to this comment. However, the author does give the film a positive review on the content and the plot.

Background Information

The Marx Brothers are one of Hollywood's most famous groups of screwball comedians. They filled their films with site gags and witty lines. Their view of the world around them was echoed in their films as they made fun of everything from the government to movies of the time. Yet, behind the scenes the Brothers were extremely different. Even then their screen personalities leaked through and blended with the real person.

Like most comedians of Hollywood, the Marx Brothers started their career in vaudeville. They toured with their mother and aunt and were known as the Six Musical Mascots. When they first started in Hollywood, the Marx Brothers consisted of Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Gummo.

Gummo Marx was one of the original Marx Brothers to start on vaudeville. He joined Groucho to become an independent act. Later Harpo and Chico joined. However, Gummo did not stay with the Brothers. In 1916 Gummo left the act because he believed that he was not much of an actor and could not picture himself staying with his brothers for the rest of his life. Gummo ended up selling boxes and later joined the army. After the army, Gummo later became the Marx Brothers manager.

Groucho is the most recognizable of the four Marx Brothers. On screen and stage he is known for his caustic wit, cigar and fake mustache. Off screen, he is a completely different person. Groucho was actually born Julius Marx, but he eventually absorbed his character so much that he became Groucho. Julius Marx was almost the complete opposite from his on screen personality. Julius had been married twice; both of his wives had been drunks. He also worried about money problems and was so overbearing that he drove his daughters away. Nevertheless, despite all of this Groucho remained a witty character and would act for over fifty years.

Chico was the next to enter the Marx Brothers act. Before joining his brothers, Chico worked for a music publishing company in Pittsburgh. Chico's character was an Italian piano player and usually played the part of the straight man in the shows. As a person Chico is described as a gambler and a lover of women. Any time the Marx Brothers came to a new town or city, the first thing that Chico did after getting to the hotel, was to find the nearest pool hall. Chico was the practical joker of the group. Once during the filming of Duck Soup Chico paid an extra to comment on how bad the script was, right next to Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, the writers.

The next brother to enter was Harpo. Harpo is the silent brother of the group, pantomiming everything and known to play the harp. Harpo was actually named after the harp. Harpo got the idea for playing the instrument because he could not sing or dance. When he finally got the harp, he had no idea how to hold it. So Harpo went to a bookstore and looked for a picture of a girl holing a harp. Once he figured out how to hold it the next problem was tuning it. The problem was that no one could teach him how to do it. So Harpo tuned one string and then tuned the other strings around the first. He played the harp that way for the rest of his life; the strange thing about it was that he had tuned it the wrong way and no one would correct it. In all films that Harpo plays the harp, the instrument is out of tune.

The last Marx Brother was Zeppo. Before he joined the act, Zeppo was a mechanic for the Ford Motor Company. Never really liking show business, Zeppo only joined because his mother asked him so that they could keep the name "The Four Marx Brothers." Zeppo replaced Gummo as the straight man of the group. Although he wanted to expand his role as a comedian, Zeppo never had the chance, being outshined by the other three brothers. Eventually Zeppo became completely dissatisfied with his acting career. Duck Soup was the last movie that Zeppo appeared in. He went on to form his own theatrical agency, which became the third largest company in the US, with over two hundred and fifty clients. However, Zeppo only managed his brother's act once.

Leo McCarey was the man who directed Duck Soup, the last film the Marx Brothers made for Paramount. McCarey was not only director though; he was also a comedian himself. He added several scenes; the most famous was the mirror scene. McCarey was also an important influence among the cast and crew and could get a scene done. The mirror scene took only one morning. Groucho Marx actually attributes the satire on war to McCarey.

The film itself has its own unique history. When it was released in 1933, the film flopped at the box office for two reasons. One was that it was the beginning of the depression and not many people had money to spend on the movies. The other was that film was a satire and sometimes went over the heads of the audience. When the movie was revived in the nineteen seventies, it became a classic because of its spoof on war and the government. Benito Mussolini, the dictator of Italy took the film as a personal insult and banned it from the country. The Brothers greeted this news happily. But, foreign countries weren't the only ones that were upset by the film. In Fredonia, New York, Mayor Harry B. Hickey protested the movie. He claimed that the movie was giving the real Fredonia a bad name. The Marx Brothers to the mayor that he should change the town's name.

Duck Soup is a film that is both visually and intellectually appealing. The actors have very dynamic personalities that help add to their characters. Even when they absorb their characters to their true personality it does not affect their comedy. The Marx Brothers are a group that has gone through many changes and yet still held up the quality of their comedy.

Critical Analysis: Music and Mirrors

What makes an action funny? Is it because there is a major consequence if a person messes up? Is it because the person has been hurt and not seriously? Or is it just the ridiculousness of the situation? These are questions that come up when anyone discusses humor. What exactly makes a situation funny is actually a combination of many factors. The truth is always easily mocked, which is why some comedy acts are so amusing. The Marx Brothers are very capable of doing this in Duck Soup.

Everyone has seen the big fuss that is put together whenever a visiting dignitary visits the United States. It is always so formal and stiff. The Marx Brothers turn this whole affair on its head. First, they mock the entrance of the man of honor. In real life the person is on time and makes a stately entrance. Although there is fanfare to welcome Groucho, the man himself is late. He enters, via fireman's pole, and asks what's going on. Then he proceeds to insult everyone there.

Usually a real president makes some long-winded speech about how he is going to turn the country around, and rattles off a list of everything he's going to do. Groucho breaks into song about how he's going to completely make everyone's lives miserable. Everyone agrees to what Groucho's planning to do by singing back the lines he just said. This is a great way of poking fun at the government, since half the time it really can't keep every promise it makes.

The musical numbers in Duck Soup are not only mocking the government, national anthems and war, but movie musicals. There are two big musical numbers. All of scenes are well coordinated, but have so many site gags in them (Pinky cutting the feathers off of hats) that they are visually silly. On top of that they are promoting the wrong morals, war and corruption in the government, are sung in joy.

On top of the ridiculous musical numbers there are the site gags that are extremely hilarious. The first scene filled with tons of site gags is the meeting between Trentino and his two spies. First the spies don't take anything seriously. They sit in the same seat as their boss. They play a very quick game of baseball with half a cigar.

This scene is also a spoof on spy movies themselves. The main spy, Chicolini, starts to report what he has learned about Firefly. He gives the report in a completely serious voice, just like a spy should, but all he has to report is that he went to baseball games and followed the wrong man. Also Chicolini was given a picture of Firefly so he would know whom he was following. A real spy would be able to find who he was looking for with just that. But Chicolini lost it soon after he received it.

In the meantime Pinky is keeping up the visual gags through this whole conversation. Uses a blowtorch to light a cigar, gluing Trentino to various objects and chasing after the pretty secretary. He also has a tendency to cut any thing he can with his large pair of scissors. When a message comes, Pinky looks at it and then rips it up, since destroying important messages is a spy's job. However Pinky's not tearing up the message to keep the information secret, but out of anger that he can't read.

The most famous scene of the entire movie is the mirror scene. A funny scene because of its complexity and ridiculousness. Chicolini and Pinky are both dressed up as Firefly. Firefly has come across what was once a mirror, and when he looks at it he sees his reflection. Only it's the dressed up Pinky. Firefly tries to make his "reflection" mess up. He proceeds to do several odd acts, such as dancing back and forth, jumping up and down and tricks with a hat. At one point he even switches places with Pinky. The fake "image" is able to keep up; even producing the same hat as Firefly, even though Firefly saw Pinky holding a different one.

The Marx Brothers also make fun of the way the court system and announcements of war were done. Chicolini has been caught and is now accused of being a traitor. Since Chicolini can't seem to defend himself adequately, Firefly decides to become Chicolini's lawyer. No one objects to the ruler of a country defending the person who was spying for the rival country. The court continues and Firefly just makes fun of Chicolini the whole time, not offering any real evidence why the court should let Chicolini go.

Then news comes that the rival country is declaring war on Freedonia. A grave situation, something everyone should dread. So how do you greet this type of news? Why break out into song and celebrate that the countries going to war. Why not, completely serious situations need elaborate dance numbers and happy people singing. While people are dancing and singing, Pinky's back with those scissors again. This time he's clipping the plumes off the over decorated soldiers' hats.

The war is fought, and it seems like Freedonia is losing. Pinky goes out into the battlefield to recruit more soldiers. It's the most logical place to look, where else would you find people willing to fight; they're doing it already. There is also the quick change in uniforms; at one point Firefly is even fighting in his underwear. A closer look at the hats Firefly uses reveals they're different hats from all the wars that America fought in.

The truth is always the easiest thing to mock. No one like long boring receptions, or tiresome presidential speeches. The Marx Brothers took what is boring or very serious and turned it into humorous skits. Add in people breaking out into song at the most inappropriate moments and you have the makings of a funny musical. Site gags that leave the audience wondering at how they could coordinate something that funny helps add to the silliness of the movie. The Marx Brothers were master comedians and were able to pull all this off and make a masterful comedy.

Works Cited

Elvin, John. "Groucho a/k/a Karl?" Washington Times 9 Nov. 1998: 33.

Erickson, Hal and Bruce Eder. "Duck Soup." All Movie Guide. Retrieved 4 April 2001. http://www.allmovie.com/cg/avg.dll?p=avg&sql=A14904

"Duck Soup (motion picture)." Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 99. CD-ROM. Microsoft Corporation, 1993-1998.

"Duck Soup." Rev. of Duck Soup, dir. Leo McCarey. Time 20 Nov. 1933: 38.

Podhoretz, John. "Groucho & Julius." American Jewish Committee Sept. 2000: 62-65.

"Marx Brothers." Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 99. CD-ROM. Microsoft Corporation, 1993-1998.

Marx, Groucho, and Richard J. Anobile. The Marx Bros. ScrapBook. Harper & Row, Publishers: New York, 1973.

Faculty adviser: James Shokoff