50 years, 50 films Vol II: Duck Soup (1933)
We sink into the deepest days of the US depression with the greatest film from a team of anarchic geniuses
We will, of course, begin with Jean-Luc Godard. It does seem as if the great man really did say: ”Je suis Marxiste, tendance Groucho.” I guess there was more to it than an expression of affection for the Marx brothers and an attempt to sideswipe left-wing followers (it was more fashionable to call oneself a Maoist in 1968, you see). Though Groucho famously avoided clubs that would have him, there is some kind of unifying philosophy to the Marx Brothers’ comedy. Over anything else, it has to do with an absolute distrust of all sorts of authority. You also get that in Chaplin, Sturges and Lubitsch. But, in the films of the Brothers, disrespect is the transmission that powers the vehicle forward. All politicians, policemen and administrators are there merely to give Groucho and the rest something to play off.
Duck Soup is, nonetheless, probably the only one of the Marx Brothers films that counts as satire. It is now the most celebrated. The films that came before are a little rough and ready. Later MGM movies such as Night at the Opera and Day at the Races are, perhaps, just a little too in thrall to Hollywood values: the distracting romance; the big production numbers. Duck Soup is, to paraphrase Goldilocks, just right. Indeed, it is perfect.
This is, of course, the one where Margaret Dumont — Groucho’s perennial, and allegedly bemused, foil — offers the imaginary country of Freedonia many millions if they appoint the gorgeously named Rufus T Firefly as its leader. Rufus is, of course, Groucho and he has never been naughtier nor more more swift of thought. The Groucho character (always pretty much the same) likes money, food, drink and sex. Or does he? One gets the sense that he actually enjoys the pursuit of those things more than the pleasure derived. Groucho is all about the wanting and the getting. His two most common companions are also full of desire, but Harpo and Chico concern themselves more often with the art of diversion and deviation. They cannot see a stick without playing a stick game. One famous such diversion here sees Harpo aping Groucho’s movements in a missing mirror. It’s actually a classic music hall “bit” and, as such, stands in for a host of such routines that the brothers imported from their stage act.
Duck Soup, a comic assault on the notion of the mad despot, came, of course, at a time when mad despots were much in the news and when their actions were ceasing to be funny. The film also emerges at a point in American history when — unusually for that country — government was coming to look like a very good thing to its people. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had just been elected and the New Deal was set to work its way towards an alleviation of the depression. I mention all this for reason. Duck Soup has, as we mentioned above, become the most critically adored of the Brothers’ films. It’s the one that Woody Allen goes to watch when he gets over his mortal depression in Hannah and Her Sisters. It appears in endless academic papers on the politics of comedy (and the comedy of politics). Yet it was the least financially successful of their films for Paramount.
David Thomson has implied that the political atmosphere may have counted against it at the box office. I doubt that. It seems to me that, though we scowl now, MGM was probably quite wise to flog the Marx Brothers’ comedy in more conventional packages. Duck Soup’s brilliance is bound up with its undeniable oddness. No other film featuring the boys so adroitly accommodated the internal madness of their sketches within an equally bizarre external structure. We should not be surprised. There was a brilliant team of writers on board. Herman J. Mankiewicz produced. The great Leo McCarey was behind the megaphone. Hang on a moment! We made a firm rule that no two pictures in this series would have the same director. Wasn’t McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow mentioned a few episodes ago? It was. But we couldn’t leave out the Marx Brothers and, well, you wouldn’t really call Duck Soup an auteur work. Would you? Anyway, McCarey manages what Hitchcock, Hawks, Godard and Tarkovsky failed to do. So there.
For 1933 we also considered Baby Face, Dinner at Eight, 42nd Street, King Kong, The Invisible Man, Queen Christina and She Done Him Wrong. Read the whole series here.