Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Duck Soup (1933) * * *

DUCK SOUP opens with the flag of Freedonia flying over a small village. The government of a "mythical kingdom", the Balkan state of Freedonia has gone bankrupt through mismanagement and is on the verge of revolution. Fortunately, the country's richest millionairess, the widowed dowager Mrs. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) offers $20 million to bail out the government, but only if it is placed under new leadership.

Mrs. Teasdale: The government has been mismanaged. I will lend the money, but only on condition that His Excellency withdraw and place the government in new hands.

She agrees to donate 20 million dollars if Rufus T. Firefly is appointed its new president. Firefly is a cynical, sarcastic dictator who refuses to play politics by the book. For instance, he reduces workers' hours--by shortening their lunch breaks. Firefly's secretary Bob Roland (Zeppo Marx) arrives and assures Mrs. Teasdale, in song, that the absent statesman will appear "When the Clock on the Wall Strikes Ten". When the clock on the wall does strike ten, pretty dancing girls scatter rose petals and kneel in homage between an impressive lineup of helmeted, sword-bearing guards along the entrance way with swords uplifted. The assembled audience sings the national anthem "Hail, Hail Freedonia", but Firefly isn't anywhere in sight. After a long pause and a trumpeters' fanfare, the anthem is sung a second time and all the guests look toward the entrance, but Firefly still fails to enter.

In an upstairs bedroom, the ringing of an alarm clock is heard, and Firefly appears in bed with a nightshirt, nightcap, and cigar. He quickly removes his nightshirt to reveal a suit, and slides down a fireman's pole into the spacious ballroom hall. He takes his place in the line-up with his own honor guard at the end of the ceremonial line, joining them to wait for his own arrival and holding out his cigar with their swords. He asks one of the guards: "You expecting somebody?"

Mrs. Teasdale notices him and welcomes him, then attempts to impose some degree of dignity upon the proceedings, but he assaults her with insults by skipping from one non-sequitur association to another:

Mrs. Teasdale: Oh, your Excellency. We've been expecting you. As chairwoman of the reception committee, I extend the wishes of every man, woman, and child of Freedonia.
Firefly: Never mind that stuff. Take a card.
Mrs. Teasdale: Card? What will I do with the card?
Firefly: You can keep it. I've got fifty-one left. Now what were you saying?
Mrs. Teasdale: As chairwoman of the reception committee, I welcome you with open arms.
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.
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.

She asks him to lead Freedonia to the same heights it achieved when her late husband Chester V. Teasdale was President: "The future of Freedonia rests on you. Promise me you will follow in the footsteps of my husband." Firefly looks straight into the camera, and in his first major line rudely insults his most ardent supporter: "How do you like that? I haven't been on the job five minutes and already she's making advances to me."

Then he engages the widowed Mrs. Teasdale in an insult-ridden conversation, but quickly covers up his insults and shamelessly flirts with her when he realizes she is a widow with money:

Firefly: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Mrs. Teasdale: Why, he's dead.
Firefly: I'll bet he's just using that as an excuse.
Mrs. Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.
Firefly: Hmmph. No wonder he passed away.
Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Firefly: Oh, I see. Then, it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.
Mrs. Teasdale: He left me his entire fortune.
Firefly: Is that so? Can't you see what I'm trying to tell you? I love you.
Mrs. Teasdale: Oh, your Excellency!
Firefly: You're not so bad yourself.

Firefly is next introduced to the sleek, impeccably tailored Trentino (Louis Calhern), Ambassador from Sylvania, and he immediately insults him a few times, calling him an "old skinflint":

Mrs. Teasdale: Oh, I want to present to you Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania. Having him with us today is indeed a great pleasure.
Trentino: Thank you, but I can't stay very long.
Firefly: That's even a greater pleasure. Now, how about lending this country $20,000,000 dollars, you old skinflint.
Trentino: $20,000,000 dollars is a lot of money. I'd have to take that up with my Minister of Finance.
Firefly: Well, in the meantime, could you let me have $12 dollars until payday?
Trentino: $12 dollars?
Firefly: Don't be scared. You'll get it back. I'll give you my personal note for 90 days. If it isn't paid by then, you can keep the note.
Trentino: Your Excellency? Haven't we seen each other somewhere before?
Firefly: I don't think so. I'm not sure I'm seeing you now. It must be something I ate.
Trentino (insulted): Look here Sir, are you trying to...?
Firefly: Don't look now, but there's one man too many in this room, and I think it's you.

Then the new Freedonian President meets a "very charming lady", the seductive "famous dancer" Vera Varcal (Raquel Torres), still wearing a slinky evening gown displaying her bosom. Overwhelmed by her appearance, he shows off a number of his own ridiculous dance steps, saying, "I danced before Napoleon. No, Napoleon danced before me. In fact, he danced two hundred years before me." When she seductively suggests dancing with him some time later, he tells her, "I could dance with you till the cows come home. On second thought, I'd rather dance with the cows when you came home."

Trentino woos Mrs. Teasdale, tries to foment a revolution, and attempts to dig up dirt on Firefly by sending in inept spies Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx).

Trentino: I've given up the idea of a revolution. I have a better plan...I can gain control of Freedonia much easier by marrying Mrs. Teasdale.
Vera: Ha, ha, ha. Maybe that's not going to be so easy...From what I hear, you see, Mrs. Teasdale is rather sweet on this Rufus T. Firefly.
Trentino: Oh, well that's where you come in. I'm going to place him in your hands. And I don't have to tell you what to do or how to...

Chico and Harpo harass a lemonade vendor (Edgar Kennedy) egged on by his aggravation that they have stolen his pitch. After an earlier scene involving the knocking off, dropping, picking up and exchanging and burning of hats, Kennedy steals bags of Harpo's peanuts, and Harpo responds by burning Kennedy's new straw boater hat. Kennedy in return pushes over their peanut wagon. Harpo gets revenge for this by sloshing his legs in Kennedy's lemonade tank, driving off his customers.

After failing to collect worthwhile information about Firefly, Chicolini and Pinky infiltrate the government when Chicolini is appointed Secretary of War after Firefly sees him on the street selling peanuts. Meanwhile, Firefly's personal assistant Bob Roland questions Trentino's motives, and advises Firefly to "get rid of that man at once" by saying "something to make him mad, and he'll strike you, and we'll force him to leave the country." Firefly agrees to the plan, but after a series of personal insults exchanged between Firefly and Trentino, the plan backfires and Firefly slaps Trentino instead. As a result, the two countries reach the brink of war. Adding to the international friction is the fact that Firefly is also wooing Mrs. Teasdale, and likewise hoping to get his hands on her fortune inherited from her late husband.

In a "mirror scene", Pinky, dressed as Firefly, pretends to be Firefly's reflection in a missing mirror, matching his every move--including ones that begin out of sight--to near perfection until the end of the scene. Eventually, and to their misfortune, Chicolini, also disguised as Firefly, collides with both of them.

Trentino learns that Freedonia's war plans are in Mrs. Teasdale's possession and orders Chicolini and Pinky to steal them. Chicolini is caught by Firefly and put on trial, during which war is officially declared, and everyone is overcome by war frenzy, breaking into song and dance. The trial put aside, Chicolini and Pinky join Firefly and Bob Roland in anarchic battle, resulting in general mayhem.

During the final battle scenes, called the "funniest of all of cinema", Firefly can be seen wearing a different costume in almost every sequence until the end of the film, including American Civil War outfits (Union and Confederacy), a British palace guard uniform, a Boy Scout Scoutmaster's uniform, and even a coon-skin Davy Crockett cap. Meanwhile, the exterior view of the building they are occupying changes appearance from a bunker to an old fort, and so on. Firefly assures his generals that he has "a man out combing the countryside for volunteers." Sure enough, Pinky is wandering out on the front lines wearing a sandwich board sign reading, "Join the Army and see the Navy." Later, Chicolini volunteers Pinky to carry a message through enemy lines. Firefly tells him, "Remember, while you're out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in here thinking what a sucker you are."

The end of the film finds Trentino caught in a makeshift stocks, with the Brothers pelting him with fruit. Trentino surrenders, but Groucho refuses to stop throwing until they run out of fruit. Mrs. Teasdale begins singing the Freedonia national anthem in her operatic voice and the Brothers begin hurling fruit at her instead. The climactic production number ridicules war by comparing nationalism to a minstrel show. One line is a variant on the old Negro spiritual "All God's Chillun Got Wings":

They got guns,
We got guns,
All God's chillun got guns!
I'm gonna walk all over the battlefield,
'Cause all God's chillun got guns!

DUCK SOUP is an absurd, nonsensical and hilarious film that still makes sense. A satire of dictatorships, war and politics, Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo are at their outlandish best here. Running 68 minutes, the movie is fairly short, but chock-full of laughs and lampoons. Released in 1933, during the crisis period of the Depression, the movie was to provide comic relief for the weary American public. But it was a box-office disappointment, both a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release. Audiences were taken aback by such political disrespect, buffoonery and cynicism at a time of political and economic crisis, with Roosevelt's struggle against Depression in the US amidst the rising power of Hitler in Germany. Fortunately, the film was rediscovered by a generation of 1960s college students, and by revival film festivals and museum showings. As a result, the film has attained the status of a classic and masterpiece. This was the last of the Marx Brothers films to feature all four of the brothers, and their fifth film in a five-picture contract with Paramount Studios. Their next film, for Hollywood's prestigious MGM studio, was their landmark A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935), with a more developed and polished plot.

The "Freedonia National Anthem" is used frequently throughout the film, both as vocal and instrumental. It seems to consist entirely of "Hail, Hail, Freedonia, land of the brave and free", contrasting with the final line of The Star-Spangled Banner. The "Sylvania theme", which sounds vaguely like "Rule Britannia", is also used several times. "When The Clock On The Wall Strikes 10", the first musical number in the film, is part of the same scene as "Just Wait 'Til I Get Through With It", Groucho's song over the laws of his administration. "This Country's Going To War" is the final musical ensemble in the film, and is also the only musical number in the Marx Brothers' films to feature all four of the Brothers.

The cast also includes: Edmund Breese (Zander), Leonid Kinskey (Sylvanian Agitator), Charles Middleton (Prosecutor), Edgar Kennedy (Lemonade Vendor), Edward Arnold (Politician), Wade Boteler (Officer at Battle Headquarters), Sidney Bracey (Mrs. Teasdale's Butler), E.H. Calvert (Officer in battle sequence), Davison Clark (Minister of Finance #2), Louise Closser Hale (Reception Guest), Carrie Daumery (Reception Guest), Maude Turner Gordon (Reception Guest), Verna Hillie (Trentino's Secretary), Edward LeSaint (Secretary of Labor), George MacQuarrie (First Judge), Edwin Maxwell (Freedonia's Secretary of War), Eric Mayne (Third Judge), Dennis O'Keefe (Bridegroom at Firefly's Reception), Frederick Sullivan (Second Judge), and Dale Van Sickel (Palace Guard). John Leipold composed the original music. The screenplay was written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby with additional dialogue by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin. Leo McCarey directed.

What does "Duck Soup" mean? It was a familiar American phrase in the 1930s meaning something simple or easy, or a gullible sucker or pushover. The introductory scene, showing 4 ducks swimming and cooking in a kettle and quacking merrily over a fire, is the only scene in the film that has anything remotely to do with ducks or soup. Groucho provided the following recipe to explain the title: "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." In 1990 the United States Library of Congress deemed DUCK SOUP "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.

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