Sometimes in the history of great films, a great film is not initially appreciated as such. As examples, we have The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, and It's a Wonderful Life, three of the most beloved American movies of all time, all of which laid a gigantic egg at the box office upon their initial release. And it was with perhaps the greatest of all the wonderful films left to us by that wonderful comedy team known as the Marx Brothers.
Duck Soup was the boys' fifth film, coming in the wake of four straight box office smashes by the team. Their previous film Horsefeathers was Paramount Studios' biggest hit of the year. According to most sources, Duck Soup was such a failure at the box office it almost bankrupted Paramount. In fact, after Duck Soup's failure, the Marx Brothers were released by Paramount Studios and were looking for work for several months. At least two other sources dispute the "massive flop" story and while admitting that Duck Soup wasn't as big a hit as their other films, claim it still did alright at the box office. According to one source, it was actually the sixth highest-grossing film of 1933. Whatever.
The film, upon release, received very mixed reviews and, whatever its actual success monetarily, was considered a failure and a disappointment by many, to the extant that many actually believed the Marx's movie career was over after its initial run.
Duck Soup underwent several rewrites before shooting and had several different planned titles, including Ooh La-La, Cracked Ice, Grasshoppers, and Firecrackers before Duck Soup was finally settled upon.
Harpo recalled the filming of Duck Soup to be the most depressing job he ever experienced. Someone kept bringing a radio to the set and everyone would listen to the speeches of Adolf Hitler, the new Fuhrer of Germany, during the shoot, bringing everyone down. This type of atmosphere would hardly seem conducive to such a hilarious and brilliant comedy. Go figure.
Duck Soup contains many classic Marx brothers moments, although it is a rare Marx Brothers movie with no piano interlude by Chico and no harp solo by Harpo. But Margaret Dumont, the greatest straight woman in comedy history, was back to take the constant barrage of insults from Groucho. The fourth Marx Brother, the always-questionable Zeppo, makes his last thankless appearance in Duck Soup. Zeppo was to become a Hollywood agent after Duck Soup, finally refusing to face the great indignity of being regarded as the "unfunny one" of the team. Oddly, Duck Soup is actually Zeppo's smallest role of his five Marx Brothers films. By this time, I guess poor Zeppo had been almost completely reduced to being an afterthought.
Possibly the most beloved comedy sequence in this delightful film is the legendary "mirror scene." In this remarkable bit, Harpo is disguised as Groucho and the two do schtick in front of a "mirror" (actually an open doorway after the mirror was broken), following each other's movements as if Harpo were a mirror image of Groucho. This incredible scene was knocked out fairly quickly one Saturday morning.
The unbelievably inventive mirror scene is one of the most hilarious scenes ever filmed for any movie. First off, the scene is done in almost-eerie complete silence. The dead silence seems to add to the humor. Also, the scene is a rare one with just Groucho and Harpo, who usually did not work well together. Although both are superior funny men, each had his own schtick, and their humor rarely combined well. (Forgive the above hyperbole regarding the mirror scene. Suffice to say that I defy any person, including the most humorless, to watch this scene without succumbing to laughter.)
The mirror bit was not originated by the Marx Brothers, as Charlie Chaplin had created it in his silent film The Floorwalker in 1916. The bit was to be copied many times by others after Duck Soup, most notably by Harpo himself in a great 1955 episode of I Love Lucy with Lucy herself.
The wonderful climactic musical number "All God's Chillun Got Guns" was, incredibly, mostly ad-libbed, and there is no actual record of the number in the final script. It was based on an old Negro spiritual called "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm." Before Duck Soup was going to be released on DVD, there was a rumor that the number was going to be excised, lest it offend African-American viewers. Fortunately, this "politically correct" idea was nixed. In another slightly racist moment, Groucho says the line "and that's why darkies were born." This line was from a then-popular 1930s song. This controversial line was also left intact. Far from being racists, both Groucho and Harpo were proud and outspoken liberals. Chico was apparently apolitical, preferring gambling and women as his main interests.
In a swipe at censorship being promoted by the then-mandatory Hayes Office, there is a scene in Duck Soup revealing Harpo to be sleeping in a woman's bedroom. A man's shoes are shown on the floor near the bed, then a woman's shoes are shown. As the camera pans up, it reveals Harpo in bed with a horse, while his girl is in an adjoining bed, sleeping alone.
Duck Soup was actually banned in Italy by Mussolini, who considered it to be a satire of him. Upon hearing this news, the Marxes were reportedly delighted. The film is a masterpiece of clever puns, inventive sight gags, and rich political satire. When later asked about the heavy political satire, Groucho replied, apparently sincerely, that "We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh." But it is the political jabs and anti-war gags that attracted the college audiences of the '60s to flock to Duck Soup in droves.
One has to wonder how such a rich and funny film could ever die at the box office, and theories do exist. One theory is that Hitler had just come to power and no one wanted to hear about any kind of war, even a "funny one." Another theory is that Franklin Roosevelt had just taken office and the anti-government jabs in Duck Soup hit a bit close to home, this being the height of the Great Depression.
Although Harpo, in his infinite wisdom, regarded Duck Soup as his favorite Marx Brothers film, it took brother Groucho a bit lounger to warm up to it. Along with many Marx Brothers critics, for years he regarded their later films A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, both huge musical MGM extravaganzas, as their superior films. But Groucho viewed Duck Soup again, over thirty years later at a film revival, and was gratified by the ecstatic audience response.
A great number of true Marx Brother aficionados now regard Duck Soup as the brothers' magnum opus. Ironically, Marx Brothers fans are pretty much in complete agreement that, although Zeppo remains largely an object of derision and condescension, the early films made with Zeppo were the boys' funniest and finest works.
Toward the end of his life, Groucho was asked which was his greatest movie. He answered, succinctly, "The war film."
In Woody Allen's 1986 film Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody plays a depressed character who battles the urge to commit suicide. Woody's character wanders into a movie theater and watches Duck Soup, and upon viewing it, realized that life is a wonderful, exciting adventure. He abandons any idea of suicide and goes on to live a happy, productive life. I can't think of a better or more appropriate tribute to a marvelous and unforgettable comedy.
I final note to anyone even slightly considering the idea of committing suicide: Go see Duck Soup. A better therapy I couldn't possibly imagine.