Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Duck Soup (1933)

Their Hollywood careers started in 1929 with Cocoacuts and they continued to release one film per year with titles including Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, and Horse Feathers. 1933 would mark the next release for the Marx Brothers and keeping with the animal titled names, this one would be named Duck Soup. The four brothers, Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo, had made a name for themselves with audiences around the country performing on stage, in films, and even in radio. (Minus Harpo, of course, as he didn’t speak.) A Marx Brothers film was an anticipated production for movie goers and the studio alike as they were a big draw in theaters. Once again the four would run amuck on the silver screen with wise cracks, visual gags, and physical jokes. They were on top of the Hollywood game and they knew it.

Duck Soup is a Marx Brothers comedy where they carry out their humor veiled in a story about a fictitious country of Freedonia appointing a new leader who has issues with a foreign ambassador whom attempst to overthrow the country, ultimately leading to war. The wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) appoints Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho)of the struggling nation in turn for her financial aid to the bankrupt country of Freedonia. Little does Firefly know that the ambassador from Sylvania (Louis Calhern) has plans to Freedonia swallowed up into his own home country. Enter Chico and Harpo as two spies named Chicolini and Pinky hired by the ambassador to infiltrate Firefly and his leadership. Of course we know these three are not all to wise and perform as series of hilarious evens as Firefly appoints Chicolini as his clueless secretary of war and Pinky as his all too goofy driver. Through many disputes and insulting gags war is declared, allowing the Marx Brothers parody many historical wars as they battle Sylvania ultimately claiming victory.

Here we have an all time classic silly comedy. Once again the four brothers do what they do best. We get many of the classic Marx Brothers humor in their various gags, while some parts of their normal act are left out. We get the perfect comedic timing and random quips of Groucho. We see the tag team comedy styling of the English misusing Chico and the silent goofball that is Harpo. Zeppo is once again the straight man brother as his role is the rather overlooked secretary to Firefly, simply being the set up man for Groucho’s punch lines. There are a couple of musical numbers, an aspect of their shows since their time on the stage, even including a grand number as the movie moves to war, and even a small number  featuring Zeppo’s vocal talents, but there is the exclusion normal Chico entertaining piano playing and Harpo’s harp skills. It is from this film we get the famous mirror gag. Harpo, dressed as Groucho, mimics his brothers every move to convince him that he is looking at a reflection of himself. Though not the first time this gag was ever performed, it did set the bar to how it would forever be executed as it brings the perfect amount of hilarity to the screen. The gag would be copied innumerable amount of times ever since.

This film mark a very interesting time in the history of the Marx Brothers as they were top comedic performers at that period. They were well known and well exposed, even through the relatively young medium of radio with Groucho and Chico lending their voices to radio shows. Paramount hit gold when they signed the team. By the time they were to make this, the final film of their contract, the two parties were at odds with each other, leading to the brothers to leaving Paramount to the splashy MGM studios. Zeppo would however not go along, leaving the group as the often overlooked brother playing the straight man. He would transfer himself on to a second career as a engineer and theatrical agent. Zeppo would not miss the screen as he would be a multi-millionaire thanks to his skills as an engineer.

The last films with the four brothers. (Zeppo would leave the group.)
To support the brothers and their humorous ways would be a cast of small character actors. First off was the ever present Margret Dumont, who Groucho would call “fifth Marx brother” as she was seen in most of their films, mainly as the romantically perused woman of Groucho’s characters, and a perfect setup for many of his jokes. Louis Calhern, who played the protagonist as ambassador of Sylvania, was a character actor in films, yet to find much significant success. Then there was his female confidant, the spicy Mexican-born actress Raquel Torres, giving the men a little eye candy in the picture. Brought on to direct the film was a veteran comedy director Leo McCarey, who had worked with some of Hollywood’s most loved comedians and stars, including Eddie Cantor in A Kid From Spain and even Gloria Swanson in Indiscrete.

Initially when the film was released, the picture was considered a disappointment. Failing to bring in equal numbers to their previous film, Horse Feathers, and critics panned the picture as being too silly, giving the initial feeling that this was a flop. Ironically time shows these preliminary thoughts as untrue. The film may not have brought in as much money as the previous Marx Brothers film, but in 1933 the movie industry was in a valley of the financial rollercoaster the business was going through. Despite the numbers and the critics, the picture was in fact the sixth highest grossing film of the year, and though the film was originally thought too silly, the critics through time would fall in love with the humor. Not only was it thought to be one of the greatest comedies of all time, landing on AFI’s top comedy list at #5, but also as one of the greatest films of all time. AFI would honor it as its #85 film in 1997, and vote it even higher in 2007, moving up to #60. It also dons the list of films preserved for its significance in American cinema within the archives of the Library of Congress, one of libraries earliest inductees in 1990.

Duck Soup would be hailed as a classic comedy, inspiring comedic actors, writers, and comedy all together with its quick wit and creativity. It can plainly be seen throughout the 20th century this film had a lasting impact. From classic Warner Bros. cartoons including the infamous Bugs Bunny to scenes in the 1950s classic sitcom I Love Lucy, the jokes would be reintroduced to many audiences recreating some of the classic gags. The Marx Brothers were over the top, but they were beyond hilarious and behind their many silly comedies can be seen their creative genius spread throughout history of Hollywood. Duck Soup is a fun movie for those that just want to be entertained and have a laugh, forgetting their worries of real life. Bear in mind you must expect silliness, and be able to not expect anything serious, otherwise you will be frustrated. The Marx Brothers are a distinct taste of comedy and if you allow it to, it will entertain you beyond what you think it can for those few short minutes we watch the images flicker on the screen.

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