by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Charles and I ended up following up the Bob Hope Military Christmas Special from 1967 with a film that found its audience among the anti-war counter-culturalists and radicals of the 1960’s even though it had been made over three decades earlier: Duck Soup, the Marx Brothers’ incredible satire of the follies of politics and war, made in 1933 and largely a response to Adolf Hitler coming to power in Germany — an event which put a scare into Jews worldwide and, among the Marx Brothers, especially upset Harpo because his off-screen name had been Adolph (his hatred of his namesake led him to change it to Arthur). In his autobiography, almost inevitably entitled Harpo Speaks, Harpo recalled that during breaks between the shots the Marxes were listening to Hitler’s broadcasts from Germany (he didn’t mention how they understood them — some of them came with English voice-overs but the Marxes, who’d probably grown up bilingual in English and Yiddish, could probably pick up a lot of Hitler’s German from knowing Yiddish), and Hitler’s influence seems to have spilled into the film by osmosis even though Duck Soup is quite obviously a close reworking of the Marxes’ immediately previous film, Horse Feathers.
Writers Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby worked on both and obviously copied the formula of the preceding Marx movie, especially since Horse Feathers had been a blockbuster hit and had landed the Marxes on the cover of Time magazine. In Horse Feathers Groucho becomes the president of a college; in Duck Soup he becomes the president of a country, Freedonia. In Horse Feathers much of the plot centers around the efforts of a rival college to steal the secret football signals of Groucho’s Huxley College (the rival college is called Darwin, a surprisingly intellectual gag almost certainly the work of S. J. Perelman, contributing to his second and last Marx script); in Duck Soup there’s a similar intrigue around Freedonia’s secret war code and plans, which emissaries from the rival country of Sylvania are trying to steal — and when Chico Marx is on trial for trying to steal the secret war code and plans, he says, “Sure, I stole the code and two pair of plans” (thereby making the joke about clothes or tailoring the Marx Brothers insisted on putting in all their shows, in honor of their father, tailor Sam Marx).
Alas, Duck Soup was a box-office flop in 1933 and Paramount Pictures chose not to renew the Marxes’ contract; they wouldn’t release another movie for two years, until A Night at the Opera at MGM in 1935 (though they had been preparing A Night at the Opera with live tours of the film’s key comedy scenes and songs well before it was actually shot, and in the summer of 1934 Groucho played a summer-stock theatre in New England in the role of Oscar Jaffe in Twentieth Century, and as good as John Barrymore was in the movie version the following year, it would have been nice to have Groucho’s reading of this role, which was probably less romantic and more acid, on film). Like such other legendary movies as The Wizard of Oz and Citizen Kane, Duck Soup didn’t find its audience until decades after it was made — in this case during the 1960’s, when young people increasingly disillusioned with their government in general and the war in Viet Nam in particular suddenly discovered that over 30 years earlier a group of filmmakers had made a work that expressed the same spit-in-authority’s-eye attitude they thought they had invented.
Not long ago we had watched the Wheeler and Woolsey vehicle Cracked Nuts, which also cast them in a rowdy farce in which they dueled for control of a Mittel-europan country, and it’s a quite funny film but it’s hardly on the level of Duck Soup. What’s amazing about this movie is that they got away with as much as they did — which probably accounts for its failure in 1933: at a time when America (and particularly progressive and Left America) desperately wanted to believe in the sagacity of its government in general and its president, Franklin Roosevelt, in particular — at a time when America was being told by its president that the only thing it had to fear was fear itself — about the last thing American moviegoers wanted to see was a film that went beyond just “kidding dictators” (the Marxes’ own explanation of what they had done) into an anarchistic lampoon of just about all sorts of authority. (What makes it even more ironic was that Duck Soup’s director, Leo McCarey — himself a comic genius who had teamed Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy at Hal Roach Studios and had directed most of their early movies — later became one of Hollywood’s staunchest Right-wingers, founding member of the pro-blacklist Motion Picture Association for the Preservation of American Ideals and director of the major-studio anti-Communist film My Son John with Helen Hayes and Robert Walker, a film known today only because it was Walker’s final role: he died a week before shooting was scheduled to finish and, rather than be forced to use a double, McCarey was given clips from Walker’s outtakes on Strangers on a Train and used those to complete his part.)
Richard Barrios’ book about the musicals of the early 1930’s said that the original director’s cut of Duck Soup was two hours long, and when I mentioned that to Charles he expressed regret (as did Barrios) that the longer version no longer exists — whereas I thought that perhaps the longer version wasn’t as good: it may have been a typical movie comedy, a lot of brilliantly funny scenes with a lot of dull stuff in between, whereas the Duck Soup we have is a lot of brilliantly funny scenes with nothing in between. Some of the transitions are pretty whiplash-inducing — particularly in the early going when McCarey cuts from the elaborate scenes in the Freedonian government building (a marvelously lavish set — I wonder whether it was built especially for the film or came from some now-long silent epic, possibly Ernst Lubitsch’s 1928 film The Patriot with Emil Jannings as Catherine the Great’s son, the mad Czar Paul — but even if the set was recycled, both the size of the set and the sizable crowds of choristers and extras with which it was peopled indicate that Paramount lavished some impressive production values on a 70-minute program comedy) to the sort of comedy that turned him on more: Harpo and Chico as peanut vendors outside the Freedonian palace having Laurel-and-Hardy style “tit for tat” conflicts with Laurel and Hardy veteran Edgar Kennedy as a lemonade-stand owner next door.
It’s a film that crowds so many running gags into a relatively short running time (including the marvelous one of Harpo as Groucho’s chauffeur, driving a motorcycle with sidecar attached and always managing to leave without Groucho) it ends up dazzlingly funny and almost mordantly disconnected — yet another reason why 1933 audiences didn’t like it: like Citizen Kane (which shared at least one important creative person with Duck Soup, producer/screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz), Duck Soup proudly wore its “movie-ness” on its shoulders. At a time when film technique (especially in Hollywood) was supposed to be unobtrusive, smoothly cutting with the grain of the dialogue rather than against it, with stories well constructed to create the illusion of reality (when, of course, actual reality is messier than even the most loosely constructed movie!), Duck Soup offered a sort of pre-postmodernism, an awareness that this is a movie and the audience watching it knows it’s just a movie.
In this regard I especially like the scene towards the end in which Groucho instructs Zeppo to radio for help to salvage the Freedonian cause in a battle the Sylvanian side is winning (in sequences that seem like deliberate parodies of Universal’s All Quiet on the Western Front) and they receive word that “help is on the way” — and the “help” turns out to be a mishmash of stock-footage clips, from fire engines tearing out of their station (a clip also used in 1933 in a serious context in King Kong) to various athletes to jungle stampedes of elephants and monkeys (from the 1926 Paramount release Chang, a silent documentary by King Kong creators Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack), which we’re obviously supposed to read as a lampoon on the whole idea of stock footage, an “in” gag far funnier now than it was to 1933 movie audiences that did not want to have it rubbed in their faces that all this was illusion.
There’s also the scene in which Harpo locks himself in a room full of fireworks, sets them off while lighting his cigarette and they go off in a tiny space — a gag Jacques Tati used as the big, spectacular climax of Mr. Hulot’s Holiday but which the Marxes just toss off as if it’s no big deal. (One thing that’s always irritated me about Tati is how parsimonious he was with his gags: one of Tati’s features has about as many laughs as one of Chaplin’s or Keaton’s two-reelers.) Duck Soup is a brilliantly funny film and a slashing attack on politics in general and in particular on the egomanias of national leaders and how their self-centeredness leads them to start wars against each other’s countries — and in terms of demented lunacy its true successor is Dr. Strangelove, which likewise lampooned war and political egomania and was made (and was a hit in) the 1960’s, the decade in which Duck Soup finally found its audience.