Everything Ducky Ducks

A few years ago, the American Film Institute had the audacity to name “Duck Soup” (1933) merely one of the top five comedies ever made. I have no idea what they could have been thinking; it clearly is number one. Of course, I suppose I should have been satisfied that AFI ranked my favorite movie ahead of 95 other bona fide comedy classics.
Regardless, the picture has four key selling points: Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo. This was the only Marxist party America ever took to heart. Together, they represent a cross section of American humor. Groucho was the fast-talking huckster whose machine-gun patter was the rage of the early sound film age. Silent Harpo was the darling of period critics–paying homage to the lost pantomime of the silent screen. Chico harkened back to an earlier age, when dialect comedy was the norm in American vaudeville. In fact, while Chico maintained his Italian shtick for the duration of their act, in the team’s early days Groucho used a German dialect, while Harpo briefly assumed an Irish persona. But words in any dialect proved too stressful for him, so his act evolved into what was then labeled a “dumb” or silent act. Groucho’s dropping of German had a more dramatic catalyst–World War I. When anything German suddenly became an affront to America, Groucho saw the “liberty cabbage” writing on the wall.
The odd man out in the “Duck Soup” equation was Zeppo. As the youngest brother and the last to join the team, there was little space left for another flashy comic persona. Yet, if one continues the analogy between the Marxes and American humor, Zeppo would be the new age romantic male–the leading man who also could play comedy. Movies in the 1930s often had a sappy romantic subplot, a narrative device frequently true of Marx pictures. However, it always seemed more palatable if Zeppo was part of the assignment.
Ironically, in real life, Zeppo was considered the funniest Marx brother. Moreover, so inspired were his mimicry skills that he essentially played understudy to his brothers. That is, Zeppo seamlessly could substitute for them in an emergency, with no one being the wiser. Sadly, since his regular team role was invariably small, nobody seemed to miss Zeppo when he doubled for someone. He pulled the plug on this largely thankless comedy career with “Duck Soup,” his last screen appearance.
I also am a major “Duck Soup” fan because of the film’s multiple comedy a genre diversity. At the movie’s most basic entertainment level, one enjoys the Marxes as celebrated examples of personality comedy. Groucho’s outrageous antics as the president of a small European country, from declaring war on a whim to appointing a peanut vendor (Chico) to his cabinet, often push “Duck Soup” into the realm of dark comedy. The picture also is an affectionate parody of the musical–the most pervasive of genres in the early 1930s, given the then-recent introduction of sound to cinema.
At the picture’s most provocative best, “Duck Soup” manages to sell all three genres simultaneously. For instance, when the Marxes sing and dance “This Country’s Going to War,” with all the peppy enthusiasm synonymous to the musical, they spoof a genre as well as indict a society that can so naively send the young off to die.
Personally, the biggest selling point of “Duck Soup” is having Leo McCarey as the director. My favorite megaphoner, McCarey had several Oscars in his future at the time of this Marx movie. He would win a Best Director Academy Award for the screwball classic “The Awful Troth” (1937). The populist “Going My Way” (1944) would bring him a statuette for both story and direction. He was the filmmaker who both teamed and molded Laurel & Hardy, as well as gifting comedy connoisseurs with such other gems as “Ruggles of Red Gap” (1935), “Love Affair” (1939), and “My Favorite Wife” (1940). One arguably could call McCarey American cinema’s greatest guru of laughter.
Paradoxically, McCarey was less than thrilled to be directing the Marxes. The team was famous for being difficult to control–and motivate. But surprise of surprises, McCarey would make history as the only director to put his own distinctive signature on a Marx Brothers movie, as well as making this the team’s greatest work. So what did the young Irish director bring to the picture?
First, he recycled a comedy strategy originally devised for Laurel & Hardy– a phenomenon since labeled tit-for-tat. This scenario showcases comic combatants patiently and politely taking turns wrecking havoc on each other’s possessions, while the competing owner courteously looks on. McCarey applied this most creatively to the world of Stan and Ollie in a short subject entitled “Big Business” (1929), where the boys are selling Christmas trees door-to-door, only to encounter their frequent screen nemesis, James Finlayson. For the Marxes’ lust foray into a tit-for-tat situation, McCarey imported Laurel & Hardy regular Edgar Kennedy. The use of the technique for “Duck Soup” then involved an ever escalating comic conflict between peanut vendors Chico and Harpo, and lemonade stand owner Kennedy.
Second, the “do it visually” McCarey reworked a sketch he had originally created for underrated comedian Charley Chase. What evolved was the most acclaimed sequence of “Duck Soup”–the “mirror scene,” where Harpo, amusingly disguised as Groucho in his nightgown and cap, magically passes as his brother’s reflection. Indeed, Harpo wonderfully matches the elaborately funny tests of the mustachioed brother–ranging from a zany dance to wiggling his backside. This comic jig is not officially over until Chico (also made up as Groucho) appears, and suddenly Groucho has two reflections! Lewis Carroll’s Alice had nothing on McCarey’s Marxes.

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