Sunday, April 1, 2012
#85 (1998) and #60 (2007) on the AFI Top 100 American Movies
Duck Soup is a 1933 Marx Brothers anarchic comedy film written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, with additional dialogue by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin, and directed by Leo McCarey. First released theatrically by Paramount Pictures on November 17, 1933, it starred what were then billed as the "Four Marx Brothers" (Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo) and also featured Margaret Dumont, Raquel Torres, Louis Calhern and Edgar Kennedy. It was the last Marx Brothers film to feature Zeppo, and the last of five Marx Brothers movies released by Paramount.
Compared to the Marx Brothers' previous Paramount films, Duck Soup was a box-office disappointment, although it was not a "flop" as is sometimes reported. The film opened to mixed reviews, although this by itself did not end the group's business with Paramount. Bitter contract disputes, including a threatened walk-out by the Marxes, crippled relationships between them and Paramount just as Duck Soup went into production. After the film fulfilled their five-picture contract with the studio, the Marxes and Paramount agreed to part ways.
While critics of Duck Soup felt it did not quite meet the standards of its predecessors, critical opinion has evolved and the film has since achieved the status of a classic. Duck Soup is now widely considered to be a masterpiece, and the Marx Brothers' finest film.
In 1990 the United States Library of Congress deemed Duck Soup "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.
* Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly, who, at Mrs. Teasdale's insistence, becomes the leader of Freedonia.
* Harpo Marx as Pinky, a spy for Sylvania who never talks.
* Chico Marx as Chicolini, another spy for Sylvania, one who never stops talking.
* Zeppo Marx as Lt. Bob Roland, Firefly's secretary.
* Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Gloria Teasdale, a rich widow who underwrites the budget of Freedonia.
* Louis Calhern as Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania, who schemes to have his country take over Freedonia.
* Raquel Torres as Vera Marcal, a femme fatale who is working for Ambassador Trentino.
* Edgar Kennedy as a lemonade vendor, who is just trying to make a living.
* Edmund Breese as Zander
* Edwin Maxwell as Former Secretary of War
* William Worthington as First Minister of Finance
* Davison Clark as Second Minister of Finance
* Charles Middleton as Prosecutor
* Leonid Kinskey as Sylvanian Agitator
* George MacQuarrie as First Judge
* Fred Sullivan as Second Judge
* Eric Mayne as Third Judge
The Marx Brothers' previous film, Horse Feathers, had been Paramount's highest-grossing film of 1932. Encouraged by this success, the studio suggested on August 2, 1932, that they rush out a follow-up. Already at this early stage, the story (provisionally entitled Oo La La) was set in a mythical kingdom. On August 11, 1932, The Los Angeles Times reported that production would commence in five weeks with the famed Ernst Lubitsch directing.
This was a turbulent time in the Marx Brothers' career. Reorganization at Paramount Pictures brought fears that money due the Brothers would never be paid; as a result, the Brothers threatened to leave Paramount and start their own company, Marx Bros., Inc. Their first planned independent production was a film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical Of Thee I Sing, with Norman McLeod leaving Paramount to direct. During late 1932 and early 1933, Groucho and Chico were also working on Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel, a radio show written by Nat Perrin and Arthur Sheekman; there was even, at one time, talk of casting the two as their radio characters for the new film (an idea that would eventually be used for the later Marx Brothers film The Big Store).
By October 4, 1932, Arthur Sheekman, Harry Ruby, and Bert Kalmar began writing the screenplay for the next Paramount film, which was now called Firecrackers. Herman Mankiewicz was to supervise production, beginning in January 1933. By December 1932, Firecrackers had become Cracked Ice. Grover Jones was also reported to have contributed to the first draft by Ruby and Kalmar. In The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia, Glenn Mitchell says that "the first script's content is difficult to determine".
On January 18, 1933, Harry Ruby, Bert Kalmar and Grover Jones submitted to Paramount their "Second Temporary Script" for Cracked Ice, and Paramount announced that shooting would commence on February 15. This script shows that the basic story of what would become Duck Soup had been fixed. In February, Paramount announced that the title had been changed to Grasshoppers ("because animal stories are so popular"), and that filming was set back to February 20.
However, on May 11, 1933, the Marx Brothers' father Sam "Frenchie" Marx died in Los Angeles of a heart attack, and shortly afterwards, the contract dispute with Paramount was settled. The New York Post reported on May 17 that the Brothers would make a new comedy for Paramount, called Duck Soup. Leo McCarey was set for direction of the film. Three days later The New York Sun reported that Duck Soup would start filming in June. Duck Soup's script was completed by July 11. The script was a continuation of Ruby and Kalmar's Firecrackers/Cracked Ice drafts, but contained more elements. Many of the film's clever gags and routines were lifted from Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel, giving Perrin and Sheekman an "additional dialogue" credit.
Director McCarey reportedly came up with the title for the film, having previously used it for an earlier directorial effort with Laurel and Hardy. This continued the "animal" titles of the Brothers' previous three films, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers.
"Duck soup" was American English slang at that time; it meant something easy to do. Conversely, "to duck something" meant to avoid it. When Groucho was asked for an explanation of the title, he quipped, "Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you'll duck soup for the rest of your life."
McCarey also thought up "the very Laurel & Hardy-like sequence in which Harpo and Chico stage a break-in at Mrs Teasdale's house." Another McCarey contribution was the now-classic "mirror scene", a revival of an old vaudeville act, which had previously been used in Charlie Chaplin's 1916 silent film The Floorwalker and Max Linder's 1921 short Seven Years Bad Luck.