When the Marx Brothers started making motion pictures, they had already been through two successful careers—one as a touring Vaudeville act, and one as Broadway stars. When Groucho stepped in front of the cameras to film The Cocoanuts in 1929, he had already been in show business for 25 years. Comparing their first two sound films, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, with the rave newspaper and magazine reviews of those same two shows when they were on the Broadway stage, it looks, regretfully, that the Brothers past their prime before their movie careers began. They were attempting a type of broad, physical comedy that they were simply getting too old for. But with their third and fourth films for Paramount, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, they got a new director, Norman Z. McLeod, who picked up the pace considerably, and the Brothers became much more confident in front of the camera.
For Duck Soup, the boys were paired with a new director, Leo McCarey, who cut out every second of down time, making for the shortest Marx Brothers film, clocking in at just over one hour. McCarey also ruthlessly chopped out Chico’s piano keyboard acrobatics and Harpo’s turn on the harp, integral parts of the Marx Brothers’s act since at least 1912, although we do get to see Harpo briefly pluck “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” on the strings of an open piano. The musical solos are great in Horse Feathers, for example, but they really have no place in the satire of politics and war, and would have only broken the breakneck pace of the film.
Duck Soup also marks the return of Margaret Dumont, who was sorely missed in Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. Maggie finally followed the Brothers in the move out to Hollywood, and her role in Duck Soup as Mrs. Teasdale, the rich widow who underwrites the government of the fictional country Freedonia, is one of her greatest. Her reunion with Groucho is a relentless onslaught of wisecrack and insults.
Mrs. Teasdale: As chairman of the reception committee, I welcome you with open arms.
Rufus T. Firefly: Is that so? How late do you stay open?
Mrs. Teasdale: I’ve sponsored your appointment because I feel you are the most able statesman in all Freedonia.
Rufus T. Firefly: Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You’d better beat it. I hear they’re gonna tear you down and put up an office building where you’re standing. You can leave in a taxi. If you can’t get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that’s too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff. You know, you haven’t stopped talking since I came here. You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle.
Indeed. The two performers hardly stop to take a breath. The exchange is not strictly verbal, however. “Oh, your excellency,” coos Mrs. Teasdale. Groucho: “You’re not so bad yourself.” Cue raised eyebrows.
Groucho is at his peak in Duck Soup both in terms of verbal delivery and his performance in front of the camera. When Groucho, as Rufus T. Firefly, the newly instated leader of Freedonia, is presented to the arrogant Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania, he pulls a deck of cards out of his pocket and fans them out as if to invite the ambassador to pick a card. When he is ignored, he puts the cards away and hangs down his head, dejected. It is a non-verbal gag that takes only a few seconds on the screen, while unrelated dialogue continues, but it is perfectly executed by Groucho and terribly funny. The celebrated mirror scene, in which Harpo, disguised as Groucho’s character, stands where a once hung, duplicating his every move to hide the fact that he is not in fact looking at a mirror, does not slow down the manic pace of the film, despite the fact that not a single word is utter for over three minutes.
Chico and Harpo, freed from their usual roles as undisciplined musicians, shine in their roles as bungling spies hired by Amassador Trentino. Chico: “Remember you gave us a pitsh of this man and told us to follow him? Well, in one hour, maybe less than one hour, we lose the pitsh. Attsa some work, eh boss?”
The Brothers’ previous film, Horse Feathers, had been a huge hit and was Paramount’s top earner for 1932. The studio wanted to quickly role out another to capitalize on the success. For a while the Brothers entertained the idea of leaving Paramount to set up their own company and produce a film of the hit Broadway play Of Thee I Sing, by earlier collaborators George S. Kaufmann and Morrie Ryskind. While nothing came of that, the central theme of political satire did carry over to their next film. The comedy in a Marx Brothers film often derives from their complete disregard for what they perceived as stuffy and pretentious, be it high opera, art collectors, real estate investors or academia. Duck Soup is one of their greatest satires because it takes on one of their greatest targets—politicians and warmongers. When Mrs. Teasdale pleads with Firefly not to go to war with Sylvania, he retorts “too late, I’ve already paid a month’s rent on the battlefield.” After a musical number (“I think I think we’re off to war!”), they take to the battle field. The ridiculousness of the entire enterprise is revealed as Chico changes from one side to another, then back again, while Harpo optimistically hangs out a “help wanted sign” when Freedonia needs more soldiers, and Groucho changes from a Union soldier’s uniform to a Confederate general’s uniform to a Boy Scout uniform to a Revolutionary War British general’s uniform to Davy Crockett buckskins. But when Groucho was asked about the political significance of the film decades later, he characteristically responded “What political significance? We were just four Jews out for a laugh.”
One of the enduring myths of Duck Soup is that the film was a huge box office flop and Paramount immediately terminated their contract with the Brothers, leaving them without a home so to speak. Duck Soup was not the huge success that Horse Feathers was, but the Brothers were looking for a way out of Paramount anyway, and actually tried to leave to form their own company before Duck Soup when the sudden death of their father left them wanting to patch things up with the studio for the time-being. In any case, Zeppo had had enough, and announced his retirement. His three older brothers would find a new home at MGM, where they would soon make their other best film.