Once upon a time, there was a Marx Brothers film called Duck Soup.
Irving Thalberg thought it defined everything that was wrong with the Marx Brothers, and for decades they agreed with him.
Groucho once described the film as "lousy".
Then, in the late nineteen-sixties, the Marx Brothers were rediscovered by the university generation, who - with the boundless confidence of youth - fancied they saw something of their own superficiality in the artistic profundity of the team's comic invention. Duck Soup became a favourite because, as well as merely anti-establishment, it appeared explicitly anti-war. They also liked the fact that it did away with various other things they were too hip for, like romantic subplot and musical solos. From here, it began its swift mutation into the greatest Marx Brothers film of them all, an opinion Groucho lived to endorse just as heartily.
Tellingly, perhaps, it is cited as evidence for both the unfair dismissal and the wilful misappropriation that the film flopped at the box office on original release, when, in fact, it did not. Behind both lies a fine, if imperfect comedy film. Let's have a look at it.
0.01 - Duck Soup
As we know, the title Duck Soup did not originate with the Marx Brothers, having already been used for a Laurel & Hardy short, reappropriated here by the film's ex-Roach director, Leo McCarey.
It also turned up in the title of this 1941 cartoon (mingled with the title of a second Laurel and Hardy film).
But what does it actually mean?
According to Michael Quinion's World Wide Words site, the phrase is a synonym for 'an incredibly easy task', along the lines of 'a piece of cake'. Hence this tin of 'Duck Soup hand cleaner' ("It's duck soup with Duck Soup!")
But as for its actual origin, Qunion draws a blank:
Could the image be of a sitting duck, one that was on the water and easy for a hunter to shoot? Could it be that duck soup was especially easy to prepare? (I’m told that isn’t so.) Might it even refer to a pond with ducks floating on it, which figuratively was already duck soup? All these have been tentatively put forward by various writers who were feverishly exercising their imaginations in the absence of solid fact.
Groucho, the legend goes, preferred a simpler explanation:
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.
2.20 - Who is the first guest announced at the Firefly reception?
According to the published script (a transcription, not the original screenplay) it's the sensible-sounding "Honourable Secretary of Finance and party." The DVD subtitles prefer a joke, and signal it as such with a foxy little exclamation mark: "The Honourable Secretary of Finance and Parking!"
I'm sticking with the script.
2.59 - "This is Miss Vera Marcal"
I'll say she is.
The harp and piano solos are not the only casualties of this pared to the bone screenplay.
With the return of Margaret Dumont to the Marx family, there is also precious little room for this character, cut from the Thelma Todd cloth but played by the scorching Mexican spitfire Raquel Torres.
A short-burning Hollywood flame (after debuting in 1928 she made ten of her remaining eleven films between '29 and '33), Torres rode the wave of Hollywood's first Latin-American craze. An unmistakably pre-Code presence on screen, Raquel specialised in uninhibitedly sexual characters, and performed with a candour contrived to drive the Breen Office to distraction; Soup was one of four she slinked through in '33. Excluding an uncredited bit in Mae West's Go West, Young Man in 1936, it proved to be her final year in Hollywood.
. .The same year, she also appeared as the leader of a tribe of hot Amazonians alongside Wheeler & Wolsey (and future Marx associates Esther Muir and Henry Armetta) in So This Is Africa, written by Norman Krasna. Other films include 1931's Aloha (also starring Thelma Todd), 1930's Estrellados (a Spanish-language Buster Keaton film, also starring Carlos Villarías, Hollywood's Spanish Dracula) and 1930's The Sea Bat ("the Jaws of its day" according to Halliwell, and according to the posters: "THE MOST STIRRING ROMANCE ADVENTURE YOU'VE EVER GASPED AT!") She's particularly good, as an extremely annoying character, in The Woman I Stole, as Fay Wray's rival for the affections of stolid Jack Holt.
Gorgeous she may be as the duplicitous Vera, but she might as well be Zeppo for all the use the film seems to have for her. It looks at one point as though we're in for some good hi-jinx when she joins Harpo and Chico in their efforts to rob Mrs Teasdale's house but the script, as ever, gives her virtually nothing to do and soon excuses her from the fun. Perhaps without that mirror scene we'd have had the musical solos and some more of Raquel. .
3.44 - "I want you to meet His Excellency's secretary, Bob Roland..."
Just one more time, Zep...
I understand you've had it with the outfit and you don't want to make movies anymore. Well okay then. Just come on once more, introduce your big brother in song and then let him completely take over.
Tell you what, we won't even make you hang around while he's doing it: it'll be just like in Animal Crackers... You can disappear completely once you've done your bit, then stay out of the film for as long as you like, just pop up here and there when you're needed to take a letter or something...
What's that? You were a fully-fledged member of the team and a passable romantic hero in Monkey Business? We know you were; we know you were. And what? You sang a solo number and joined in at the climax of Horse Feathers? I hear you, Herbie, I hear you. Yeah, I did hear that you're said to be the funniest off-screen brother, too. Whattaya know, eh Herb? But this script has no room for you to do anything other than introduce your brother. Them's the breaks, I guess. Better luck next time, maybe. Huh? Oh sorry; yeah, I forgot. Well, it's like I say. Them's the breaks, kid; them's the breaks.
Zeppo Marx's Film Career (1929 - 1933)
4.00 - The clock on the wall
A curious reversion to the structure of Animal Crackers, that is to say to the structure of a stage show, where the previous two movies had been so fluently cinematic: another long introductory song to announce Groucho. This one, however, is a bit of a dud. It's not funny. It doesn't try to be funny. It just wastes time.
Then we have 'Hail, Hail Freedonia' repeated several times as Groucho fails to show up. This is presumably inspired by the bit in Crackers where the guests keep interrupting Groucho to sing 'Hooray for Captain Spaulding' over and over again when he tries to speak. But in that film they are being irrational, so it's funny. Here they're doing it for a reason. And it doesn't even pay off comedically. Dumont simply spots Groucho in the line and the film proceeds. Compare all this to the opening scene of Horse Feathers.
At least the film is free to begin now, six minutes and ten seconds in, with some prime Groucho-Dumont banter:
"Oh, your excellency!" "You're not so bad yourself."
6.45 - "You better beat it: I hear they're gonna tear you down and put up an office building where you're standing!"
Or, as the DVD subtitlers apparently consider more amusing, or perhaps just less taxing to type: "You better beat it or they'll tear you down and put up offices."
A quintessential Groucho line, I thought - until I heard Roland Young deliver it almost word for word in another Paramount comedy made the year before. This Is The Night is directed, intriguingly enough, by Frank Tuttle, who had originally been assigned Horse Feathers.
As a Groucho line, I always thought that the idea of Dumont being torn down and replaced by an office block was a cruel jibe at her bulk. (It's preceded by the line "Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself...") But here, delivered by Roland Young to willowy Charlie Ruggles, it's just a meaningless gag, as Young threatens to "tear you down and put up an office building where you now stand."
The way it plays, you'd think Groucho said it first and Young is cribbing, but no. Incidentally, This Is The Night also features Thelma Todd at her most bewitching, and is heartily recommended to all.
12.00 - "If you run out of gas get Ethyl, if Ethel runs out get Mabel."
Ethyl being Ethyl fluid, which any dunce can tell you is our old pal Tetraethyl lead, blended gaily, not to say impishly, with 1,2-dibromethane and 1,2-dichlorethane, as patented with typical devil may care abandon by the Ethyl Corporation of Virginia.
If you want to know more, ideally in the words of someone who takes this kind of thing more seriously than me, you may find yourself itching to click here.
Ethel, on the other hand, is a girl's name, hence Groucho's joke. I spell this out not because I ordinarily have a low opinion of your capacity to unravel puns, but merely as a precaution, because the DVD subtitlers spell it 'Ethel' throughout, thus taking a simple gag and burying it alive.
Lou Costello experiences similar confusion in Hold That Ghost (1941):
BUD: If a car drove up here and asked you for ethyl, what would you do?
LOU: I'd say that she don't work here anymore.
BUD: No, no, no, you'd put ethyl in the car!
LOU: Why would I do that? I don't even know the girl. She's got no right hanging around here.
12.20 - Sylvania
Literally forest land in Latin, indicating that the ancient Romans used the phrase 'forest land' rather more often than we do, seeing as they felt the need to invent a specific word for it. It's been used in a variety of fictional contexts, don't ask me why, as well as being the real name of several towns in Australia, Canada and the US.
Our first visit to this Sylvania makes for an interesting scene for a couple of reasons.
First, because it has the great Leonid Kinskey in it as the agitator. Always welcome, Kinskey was at his best at this time, as Paramount's in-house wild-eyed revolutionary loon. Lubitsch had just finished using him to wonderful effect in Trouble In Paradise. ("Phooey, phooey, phooey!")
Second: note that Trentino is plotting the overthrow and conquest of Freedonia. So Firefly is right to go to war, isn't he?
13.03 - Spy stuff
Chico at last! And in a glorious sequence, kicking off with Harpo entering backwards with a mask on the back of his head. (The revelation here that Harpo is spying for Trentino makes relevant the odd touch of his taking Groucho's photograph in the earlier 'His Excellency's car' sequence.)
This moment is duplicated, somewhat more elaborately but still with deerstalker hats, in the Three Stooges short We Want Our Mummy (1939). Here all three Stooges enter in like fashion, complete not only with reverse masks but reverse jackets and shoes as well.
The ensuing dialogue with Louis Calhern here is among the very best in the Marx canon. Calhern is the best straightman the team had enjoyed since Louis Sorin in Animal Crackers, and the scene has breathless energy, invention and good jokes. It's also a reminder of how funny, and how uniquely funny, Chico can be when given the right material, and how wrong it is to write him off as 'the third one', or even - as some seriously claim - Groucho's straightman. Atsa some joke.
Bask in a little of it:
Monday we watch Firefly's house, but he no come out. He wasn't home. Tuesday we go to the ball game but he fool us: he no show up. Wednesday he go to the ball game and we fool him. We no show up. Thursday was a double-header; nobody show up. Friday it rained all day. There was no ball game, so we stayed home and we listened to it over the radio.
17.05 - Groucho in the Chamber of Deputies
The momentum is maintained in this wonderfully spiky dialogue scene, with Groucho getting his first chance to let fly with a few insults. "Sir, you try my patience!"
"I don't mind if I do, you must try mine some time."
And Zeppo's back for his quarter-time pit-stop, albeit sat there like a lemon not saying anything.
23.07 - "You know he went with Admiral Byrd to the pole?"
He being Chico's dog, and here's the photo to prove it!
Actually, though experience has taught me to mistrust consensus and never give with confidence an opinion based solely on the certainties of others, it apparently seems overwhelmingly likely that Rear Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd, Jr. (1888 – 1957) did not, in fact, fly to the North Pole in 1926 at all, but rather got pretty near before turning back and falsifying his log-book.
A man after Chico's heart, then: you can't help wondering if the dog put him up to it.
23.20 - Chico vs. Groucho
If I had to choose the one regular feature of the Marx Brothers formula I love the most, I think it would just have to be the Chico-Groucho duologues. I love the way they spiral off from prosaic beginnings to the wildest flights of absurdity; I love the way each man keeps topping the other in comic invention, and I love the fact that Chico usually wins. Only Chico can beat Groucho at his own game, and reduce him to shivering frustration with the obtuseness of his logic.
Like almost everything that's good in Duck Soup, this one is rushed, way shorter than their classic encounters in The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, but fully as inventive in the word play. The ending is magnificent: Chico suggests the deployment of a standing army on the grounds that they will save money on chairs, whereupon Groucho grabs him in a stranglehold and kicks him out of the room. It can only be because he didn't think of the joke first.
20.05 - The dog in Harpo's chest
A very effective process shot, and the moment, used in a trailer to advertise a season of Marx Brothers films in the Christmas of 1983, that first attracted me to the team.
A strange little joke, probably McCarey's, very effective, perhaps his best original contribution to the film.
26.30 - Zeppo enters wearing half a hat
Bit late in the day to start getting laughs, son. Take a letter!
34.38 - "I'm letting you off easy: I was going to ask for the whole wig."
Groucho's typically gallant codicil to his request for a lock of Mrs Teasdale's hair is a pretty straightforward insult gag, until one remembers that it is generally believed that Dumont was genuinely bald and always wore a wig for real. True, myths grow around this woman like fungus on a log, but I've never read of this claim being challenged. So which is it: Dumont myth or almost unbelievably cruel joke?
35.40 - "The Headstrongs married the Armstrongs, and that's why darkies were born."
Like laughter when Kitty Carlisle begins to sing, we must now accustom ourselves to the sharp intake of breath that invariably accompanies this line whenever the film plays in rep. But in the first place, Groucho is not using the word 'darkies' himself, merely citing the title of a popular song.
Second, he is citing it for no contextually valid reason whatever, but merely for the hell of it, in exactly the same way that he says "be alert or papa don't go out at all" and "A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich and You from the opera Aida".
In the third place, the song That's Why Darkies Were Born (written by Ray Henderson and Lew Brown, and first featured in the 1931 George White's Scandals) is plainly intended to satirise complacent attitudes, with only the use of the word 'darkie' itself lending itself to any other possible reading:
Someone had to pick the cotton,
Someone had to pick the corn,
Someone had to slave and be able to sing,
That's why darkies were born.
Though most famously performed by Kate Smith, it was also recorded by Paul Robeson, everybody's favourite Stalin apologist.
39.30 - The harp and piano solos that never were
Apparently there is still some uncertainty as to whether they were shot and edited out or never shot at all. It seems certain that they were not edited out of the finished film itself, though it is possible that they may have been shot and then the surrounding footage re-shot without them. Whichever is the case, it is obvious that it was at this point that they were intended or at least suggested for inclusion. It is generally believed that they were excised on McCarey's orders.
Photographs exist of Chico playing the piano on this set, but then, he would. I for one would rather they had been included, though I accept that "I for one" may on this occasion the literal truth.
.40.25 - Chico applies a greasepaint moustache!
It takes a moment or two of reflection for the funniness of this to strike. In order to imitate Groucho, Chico does what he would do if he was improvising the facial appearance of any moustached man: he draws it on with greasepaint. But he's sat at Groucho's own dressing table, and the greasepaint is on the table... So this must be the greasepaint that Firefly himself applies every morning...
44.40 - The Mirror Scene
Here are two interesting features of this sequence not always recognised on a first watch. Firstly, the mirror is not on a wall but in what should be the doorway between two identical rooms. Secondly, the broken glass, clearly visible when Harpo first breaks the mirror, instantly disappears.
47.10 - Chico on Trial
The trial receives front page coverage on The Freedonia Gazette, a newspaper which, almost imperceptibly, is subtitled "an independent newspaper published in the interests of the people":
. Also making news in Freedonia that week: 'Foreign Radio Artists Arrive', 'Mayor and Aid in Train Wreck', and, my favourite, 'Woman Driver Gets Jail Term'.
(Later, of course, the Freedonia Gazette became the name of a long-running, well-beloved and now much-lamented Marx Brothers fanzine.)
Interestingly the paper claims that Firefly is to prosecute. In the event, so far as he does anything, he seems to be defending, with the prosecution left in the capably menacing hands of Charles Middleton, another draftee from Roach. Good stuff, this scene:
"Give me a number from one to ten."
50.42 - "I suggest we give him 10 years in Leavenworth or eleven years in Twelveworth."
At the time, the largest maximum security federal prison in the United States, located in Leavenworth, Kansas. Bugs Moran and Machine Gun Kelly are among its more famous guests. Nowadays it plays host to a variety of rapping bankrobbers and dogfighting sports personalities.
51.30 - "Why, the cheap four-flushing swine!"
A poker term. A four flush is a hand one card short of a full flush: four-flushing therefore means bulffing or empty boasting. I'm bluffing myself here. I'm not a poker player and I haven't the least clue what any of this nonsense means. But according to a fascinating little site I've discovered called Wikipedia, the term 'four-flusher' can also refer to a welcher, piker, or braggart. The term, of eighteenth century origin, regained a measure of popular currency when Oklahoma Governor Charles N Haskell used it to describe President Theodore Roosevelt.
51.48 - Freedonia's Going To War / All God's Chillun Got Guns
Surely the oddest song number in any Marx film: parts of it good; parts of it bad, but all of it strange. It's so strange it certainly holds your attention, and makes you feel like you're watching good stuff, but I don't know. That bit where they do a parody of Oh, Susannah in silly voices with Chico pulling a silly face. And the extras all kicking their legs up and holding contorted poses... Is it good? I just don't know.
Harpo at least has a bit of visual fun, and there's the nice bit where they all play a tune on the soldiers' helmets; this, of course, is what cheers up Woody Allen's character when he thinks he's going to die in Hannah and Her Sisters.
All God's Chillun Got Guns parodies the negro spiritual All God's Chillun Got Wings, which had also served as the title of a 1924 play by Eugene "Why, you couple of baboons" O'Neill. Rather charmingly in the present context, one verse begins "I got a harp, you got a harp / All o' God's chillun got a harp."
The song later served as inspiration for All God's Chillun Got Rhythm performed famously by Judy Garland and, of course, by Harpo and friends in A Day at the Races.
Incidentally, this whole sequence, and the above-mentioned song parody in particular, is probably the film's most generous bequest to those who would read satiric anti-war intent into the film. Slim pickings, say I.
55.30 - Harpo on the horse
A long and strikingly untypical sequence, which non-American readers may need reminding references Paul Revere's midnight ride. All very Laurel & Hardy, it features a cracking blonde (accompanied by an instrumental rendition of Ain't She Sweet) who should be, could almost be, but finally isn't Thelma Todd. Edgar Kennedy's back for more horseplay, and there's horseplay of a more literal sort as Harpo goes to bed with his horse, we see shoes and horseshoes on the floor, and the sound of neighing and comedy music fills the soundtrack. McCarey, go home!
57.40 - The battle scene
This final sequence has a few dud McCarey ideas (the library film of animals and athletes racing to Freedonia's aid certainly clangs) but overall it's as sound as a pound. The constantly changing uniforms (including, at one point, that of the boy scouts) is an agreeably carefree touch, there are some good jokes and, it has to be said, some strikingly cynical and black ones. The ending is hurried, and it just sort of gives out, but that's okay; the same thing happened in their previous three movies. It ends well.
62.02 - Chico's rhyme
What does he actually say? Well according to my script, it's:
Rrrrrrrrinspot, vonza, twoza, zig-zag-zav, Popti, vinaga, tin-li-tav, harem, scarem, merchan, tarem, tier, tore...
So now you know.
62.30 - "Goodbye, Mont Blanc, goodbye."
Here's where I show my ignorance more than usual: I'm sure this refers to something pretty straightforward, but I don't know what. Anyone?