The wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) insists that Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) be appointed leader of the small, bankrupt country of Freedonia before she will continue to provide much-needed financial aid. Meanwhile, neighboring Sylvania is attempting to annex the country. Sylvanian ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) tries to foment a revolution and to woo Mrs. Teasdale, and he tries to dig up dirt on Firefly by sending in spies Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo).
After failing to collect useful information against Firefly, Chicolini and Pinky are able to infiltrate the government when Chicolini is appointed Secretary of War after Firefly sees him selling peanuts outside his window. Meanwhile, Firefly's secretary, Bob Roland (Zeppo), suspects Trentino's motives, and advises Firefly to get rid of Trentino by insulting him. Firefly agrees to the plan, but after a series of personal insults exchanged between Firefly and Trentino, the plan backfires when Firefly slaps Trentino instead of being slapped by him. As a result, the two countries come to the brink of war. Adding to the international friction is the fact that Firefly is also courting Mrs. Teasdale, and, like Trentino, hoping to get his hands on her late husband's wealth.
Trentino learns that Freedonia's war plans are in Mrs. Teasdale's safe 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.
The end of the film finds Trentino caught in makeshift stocks, with the Brothers pelting him with fruit. Trentino surrenders, but Firefly tells him to wait 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.
In the "mirror scene," Pinky, dressed as Firefly, pretends to be Firefly's reflection in a missing mirror, matching his every move—including absurd ones that begin out of sight—to near perfection. In one particularly surreal moment, the two men swap positions, and thus the idea of which is a reflection of the other. Eventually, and to their misfortune, Chicolini, also disguised as Firefly, enters the frame and collides with both of them.
Although its appearance in Duck Soup is the best known instance, the concept of the mirror scene did not originate in this film. Max Linder included it in Seven Years Bad Luck (1921), where a man's servants have accidentally broken a mirror and attempt to hide the fact by imitating his actions in the mirror's frame. Charlie Chaplin used a similar joke in The Floorwalker (1916), though it did not involve a mirror.
This scene has been imitated many times; for instance, in the Bugs Bunny cartoon Hare Tonic, the Mickey Mouse cartoon Lonesome Ghosts, The Square Peg (1959), The Pink Panther (1963), and Big Business (1988). Harpo himself did a reprise of this scene, dressed in his usual costume, with Lucille Ball also donning the fright wig and trench coat, in the I Love Lucy episode "Lucy and Harpo Marx".
The climactic production number ridicules war by comparing nationalism to a minstrel show. One segment is a variant on the old Negro spiritual "All God's Chillun Got Wings" (and was reportedly considered for deletion for the film's DVD release, for fear of offending African Americans):
Shortly after, during the final battle scenes, "rightfully [...] 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 uniforms (first Union and then Confederate), a British palace guard uniform, a Boy Scout Scoutmaster's uniform, and even a Davy Crockett coonskin cap. Meanwhile, the exterior view of the building they are occupying changes appearance from a bunker to an old fort, etc. 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, "[...] and 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." Thomas Doherty has described this line as "sum[ming] up the Great War cynicism towards all things patriotic".
The melodramatic exclamation "This means war!" certainly did not originate with Duck Soup, but it is used several times in the film—at least twice by Trentino and once by Firefly—and would be repeated by Groucho in A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. Variations of this phrase would later become a frequently used catch-phrase for Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny in Warner Bros. cartoons.
In another scene, the film pokes fun at the Hays Code. Due to the code, a man and woman could not be shown in bed together. The camera begins the scene in a woman's bedroom, panning across the foot of the bed. A pair of men's shoes are shown on the floor, then a pair of women's shoes and then four horseshoes. The camera cuts to a shot of the entire room: Pinky is sleeping in one bed with the horse, while the woman is in another bed.
The film's writers recycled a joke used in Horse Feathers in this dialogue with Chico:
Prosecutor: Chicolini, isn't it true you sold Freedonia's secret war code and plans?
Chicolini: Sure! I sold a code and two pairs o' plans!
The street vendor confrontations are also well-remembered pieces of physical comedy: Chico and Harpo harass a lemonade seller (comedy film veteran Edgar Kennedy), egged on by his irritation that they have stolen his pitch.
First, there is a scene involving the knocking off, dropping, picking up and exchanging of hats. Later, Kennedy (a much larger man) steals bags of Harpo's peanuts, and Harpo responds by burning Kennedy's new straw boater hat; in return, Kennedy pushes over their peanut wagon. Harpo responds by stepping knee-deep into Kennedy's lemonade tank, where he imitates a stereotypical Italian grape-crushing peasant; this drives off Kennedy's waiting line of customers.
Just before the Mirror Scene is the Radio Scene. Harpo tries the combination to the safe on a box which proves to be a radio, and it starts blaring the break-up strain of John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever". The music continues despite frantic efforts to silence, and finally destroy, the radio.
Harpo often doffed his hat on-screen, but Chico very rarely removed his Tyrolean hat, even when indoors. For a few seconds on-screen in the earlier scene, Chico's head is uncovered, revealing a wavy wig. Chico had already started going bald when the brothers appeared in their first Broadway production, I'll Say She Is, in 1924. All of the Brothers' natural receding-hairline patterns were similar, but Harpo and Chico covered theirs with wigs (Groucho would later sport an obvious toupee in the films At The Circus and Go West).Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly who, at Mrs. Teasdale's insistence, becomes the leader of Freedonia
Harpo Marx as Pinky, a spy for Sylvania who never talks
Chico Marx as Chicolini, another spy for Sylvania, one who never stops talking
Zeppo Marx as Lt. Bob Roland, Firefly's secretary
Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Gloria Teasdale, a rich widow who underwrites the budget of Freedonia
Louis Calhern as Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania who schemes to have his country take over Freedonia
Raquel Torres as Vera Marcal, a femme fatale who is working for Ambassador Trentino
Edgar Kennedy as a lemonade vendor, who is just trying to make a living
Edmund Breese as Former President Zander, Rufus' predecessor
Edwin Maxwell as Former Secretary of War
William Worthington as First Minister of Finance
Davison Clark as Second Minister of Finance
Charles Middleton as prosecutor
Leonid Kinskey as Sylvanian agitator
George MacQuarrie as first judge
Fred Sullivan as second judge
Eric Mayne as third judge
Wade Boteler as officer at battle headquarters (uncredited)
Carrie Daumery as reception guest (uncredited)
Comparing the original scripts with the finished film, most of the characters' initial scripted names were later changed. Only the names of Chicolini and Mrs. Teasdale were kept. Groucho's character—originally named "Rufus T. Firestone"—eventually became Rufus T. Firefly, while the name of Harpo's character—named Pinky in the final product—was given in the pressbook as "Brownie". "Ambassador Frankenstein of Amnesia" was quickly changed to Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania. Zeppo's character remained Firefly's son until very late in production, finally becoming Bob Roland, his secretary; also, Mrs Teasdale's niece "June Parker" transformed into Vera Marcal, first introduced as Trentino's "niece" before ultimately becoming his companion.
The Marx Brothers' previous film, Horse Feathers, had been Paramount's highest-grossing film of 1932. Encouraged by this success, the studio suggested on August 2, 1932, that they rush out a follow-up. Already at this early stage, the story (provisionally entitled Oo La La) was set in a mythical kingdom. On August 11, 1932, the Los Angeles Times reported that production would commence in five weeks with the famed Ernst Lubitsch directing.
This was a turbulent time in the Marx Brothers' career. Near bankruptcy and reorganization at Paramount Pictures brought fears that money due the Brothers would never be paid; as a result, the Brothers threatened to leave Paramount and start their own company, Marx Bros., Inc. Their first planned independent production was a film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical Of Thee I Sing, with Norman McLeod leaving Paramount to direct. During late 1932 and early 1933, Groucho and Chico were also working on Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel, a radio show written by Nat Perrin and Arthur Sheekman; there was even, at one time, talk of casting the two as their radio characters for the new film (an idea that would eventually be used for the later Marx Brothers film The Big Store).
By October 4, 1932, Arthur Sheekman, Harry Ruby, and Bert Kalmar began writing the screenplay for the next Paramount film, which was now called Firecrackers. Herman Mankiewicz was to supervise production, beginning in January 1933. By December 1932, Firecrackers had become Cracked Ice. Grover Jones was also reported to have contributed to the first draft by Ruby and Kalmar. In The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia, Glenn Mitchell says that "the first script's content is difficult to determine".
On January 18, 1933, Harry Ruby, Bert Kalmar and Grover Jones submitted to Paramount their "Second Temporary Script" for Cracked Ice, and Paramount announced that shooting would commence on February 15. This script shows that the basic story of what would become Duck Soup had been fixed. In February, Paramount announced that the title had been changed to Grasshoppers ("because animal stories are so popular"), and that filming was set back to February 20.
However, on May 11, 1933, the Marx Brothers' father Sam "Frenchie" Marx died in Los Angeles, and shortly afterward the contract dispute with Paramount was settled. The New York Post reported on May 17 that the Brothers would make a new comedy for Paramount, called Duck Soup. Leo McCarey was set for direction of the film. Three days later The New York Sun reported that Duck Soup would start filming in June. Duck Soup's script was completed by July 11. The script was a continuation of Ruby and Kalmar's Firecrackers/Cracked Ice drafts, but contained more elements. Many of the film's clever gags and routines were lifted from Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel, giving Perrin and Sheekman an "additional dialogue" credit.
Director McCarey reportedly came up with the title for the film, having previously used it for an earlier directorial effort with Laurel and Hardy. This continued the "animal" titles of the Brothers' previous three films, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers.
"Duck soup" was American English slang at that time; it meant something easy to do. Conversely, "to duck something" meant to avoid it. When Groucho was asked for an explanation of the title, he quipped, "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."
McCarey also thought up "the very Laurel & Hardy-like sequence in which Harpo and Chico stage a break-in at Mrs Teasdale's house." Another McCarey contribution was the "mirror scene" a revival of an old vaudeville act.
Breaking with their usual pattern, neither Harpo's harp nor Chico's piano is used in the film, although Harpo briefly pretends to play harp on the strings of a piano, strumming chords in accompaniment to a duck-shaped music box that is playing.
The musical introduction to Groucho's character is similar to those in Animal Crackers and Horse Feathers but it did not become closely associated with him as did "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" from Animal Crackers.
Zeppo, as usual, plays, according to James Agee, "a peerlessly cheesy improvement on the traditional straight man", in his final on-screen appearance with his Brothers. He sings with the group (including soloing the first few lines of the first song, "When the Clock on the Wall Strikes 10"). He also sings with the others in "Freedonia's Going to War", filling out the four-cornered symmetry as the Brothers sing and dance in pairs during the number.
The "Freedonia National Anthem" is used frequently throughout the film, both as vocal and instrumental; the entire song seems to consist 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 about 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 introductory scene, showing ducks swimming in a kettle and quacking merrily, is scored with an instrumental medley of the aforementioned songs, and is also the only scene in the film that has anything remotely to do with ducks or soup.Military Polonaise (Chopin) - played over newspaper headline of Firefly's appointment as president of Freedonia
"Sailor's Hornpipe"; "Dixie" - short segments embedded in "These Are the Laws of My Administration"
"Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" - music box, accompanied by Harpo on (simulated) harp, briefly; a few minutes later, in another scene, Groucho says "I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your door in" after he is locked in a closet
"Stars and Stripes Forever" (Sousa) - on radio, turned on (loudly) by Harpo, who mistakes it for a safe
"American Patrol" (Frank W. Meacham) - three of the Brothers playing soldiers' helmets like a xylophone as they march by, while Harpo clips off the decorative tassels (part of a running gag in the picture)
"All God's Chillun Got Guns" (parody of "All God's Chillun Got Wings"); "Oh Freedonia" (parody of "Oh! Susanna"); "Turkey in the Straw" (instrumental) - embedded in "Freedonia's Going to War"
Light Cavalry Overture (Franz von Suppé) - Harpo galloping on horseback a la Paul Revere
"Ain't She Sweet" (Milton Ager/Jack Yellen) - Harpo watching girl in window
"Goodnight, Sweetheart" (Ray Noble) - Harpo and same girl (Edgar Kennedy's character's wife)
Generic cavalry charge - Harpo with horn, in bathtub with Edgar Kennedy
"One Hour With You" (Oscar Straus/Richard A. Whiting) - Harpo with another girl and his horse — segué into a bit of "The Old Gray Mare"
Popular belief holds that Duck Soup was a box office failure, but this is not true. Although it did not do as well as Horse Feathers, it was the sixth-highest-grossing film of 1933, according to Glenn Mitchell in The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia and Simon Louvish in Monkey Business, his biography of the Marx Brothers. However the film was a box office disappointment for Paramount.
One possible reason for the film's lukewarm reception is that it was released during the Great Depression. Audiences were taken aback by such preposterous political disregard, buffoonery, and cynicism at a time of economic and political crisis. Film scholar Leonard Maltin had this to say in his book The Great Movie Comedians:
As wonderful as Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup seem today, some critics and moviegoers found them unpleasant and longed for the more orderly world of The Cocoanuts with its musical banalities. [...] Many right-thinkers laughed themselves silly in 1933—but a large number didn't. [...] The unrelieved assault of Marxian comedy was simply too much for some people.
Years later, Groucho's son Arthur Marx described Irving Thalberg's assessment of the film's purported failure during a National Public Radio interview:
[Thalberg] said the trouble with Duck Soup is you've got funny gags in it, but there's no story and there's nothing to root for. You can't root for the Marx Brothers because they're a bunch of zany kooks. [Thalberg] says, "You gotta put a love story in your movie so there'll be something to root for, and you have to help the lovers get together."
Most critics at the time disliked it because of its "dated" look at politics. Some modern critics are also unimpressed. Christopher Null believes, "the send-up of Mussolini-types doesn't quite pan out. Take the comedy, leave the story."
Even Groucho himself did not initially think too highly of the film. When asked the significance of the film's politics, Groucho only shrugged and said: "What significance? We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh." Nevertheless, the Brothers were ecstatic when Benito Mussolini took the film as a personal insult and banned it in Italy. Also, the residents of Fredonia, New York, protested because they feared that the similar-sounding nation would hurt their city's reputation. The Marx Brothers took the opposite approach, telling them to change the name of their town to keep from hurting their movie.
Despite the tepid critical response at the time, Duck Soup is now seen as a classic political farce. Film critic Danel Griffin believes that Duck Soup is "on par with other war comedies like Chaplin's The Great Dictator and Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, only slightly more unnerving in that Duck Soup doesn't seem to realize it is anything more than innocent fluff." Fellow film critic Roger Ebert believed, "The Marx Brothers created a body of work in which individual films are like slices from the whole, but Duck Soup is probably the best." British film critic Barry Norman was slightly cautious about the Marx Brothers overall, but considered that Duck Soup was their best and included it in his 100 best films of the 20th century.
Revived interest in the film (and other 1930s comedies in general) during the 1960s was seen as dovetailing with the rebellious side of American culture in that decade. American literary critic Harold Bloom considers the end of Duck Soup one of the greatest works of American art produced in the 20th century.
In 1990, Duck Soup was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In 2000, readers of Total Film magazine voted Duck Soup the 29th greatest comedy film of all time. The film also holds a 93% "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It is also one of the earliest films to appear on Roger Ebert's list of The Great Movies.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies – #85
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs – #5
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes:
Rufus T. Firefly: "Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honor, which is probably more than she ever did." – Nominated
Rufus T. Firefly: "I could dance with you ‘til the cows come home. On second thought, I'd rather dance with the cows ‘til you came home." – Nominated
Rufus T. Firefly: "I suggest that we give him ten years in Levenworth, or eleven years in Twelveworth."
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – #60
The United States Library of Congress has added Duck Soup to the National Film Registry, and the film was included in both the original (1998) broadcast of AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies and the 2007 update.
Another testament to Duck Soup's legacy is its influence on Woody Allen films. Near the end of Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), a chance screening of Duck Soup convinces Allen's character that life is still worth living, and he abandons his suicidal impulses. His earlier Bananas (1971), a film chronicling the humorous rise of an unlikely dictator, has been dubbed a "spiritual sequel to Duck Soup."
Duck Soup has had further lasting influence in the world of animation, with homages appearing in various animated television series. The film was spoofed in Animaniacs as the full-episode sketch "King Yakko". One specific gag from the original, the constant singing of the Freedonian national anthem, was spoofed in particular with a Perry Como caricature. Groucho's entrance in the film was borrowed in another Animaniacs cartoon, "The Three Muska-Warners".
Duck Soup inspired parts of Sacha Baron Cohen's 2012 film, The Dictator. A critic for The A.V. Club noted that "Admiral General Aladeen and Rufus T. Firefly share the same bloodline, representing a more generalized contempt for world leaders of any stripe, whether they don a 'supreme beard' or a greasepaint moustache." The Nashville Scene detected "an echo here of that funniest of xenophobe-baiting funnies, Duck Soup." The Rolling Stone claimed that Baron Cohen's film "dodges soothing convention and ultimately merits comparisons to The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup and Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator.
Universal Home Video released Duck Soup on DVD, unrestored but uncut, as part of a six-disc box set The Marx Brothers: Silver Screen Collection, which includes also the Brothers' other Paramount films, The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, and Horse Feathers. Reviewing the set, film critic Mark Bourne writes:
Shortly before this DVD set hit the streets, a pre-release report by nationally syndicated entertainment columnist Marilyn Beck stated that "racially-offensive material" would be edited from this edition of Duck Soup. Specifically, material "that has been deplored and debated in the 'We're Going to War' production number." Beck didn't say what the exact cut was, or who's doing all that deploring and debating, though presumably she meant the "All God's Chillun Got Guns" section. The possibility of new contextually obtuse editing is bad enough. What made her column even more galling was the satisfied tone in her statement that such a "well-made edit makes the film a pure zany joy without an ugly blot in it to spoil the fun." It's a pleasure to report that Marilyn Beck is full of it. No such edits exist in this edition. Another potentially sensitive moment in the film — Groucho's punchline, "and that's why darkies were born," a dated reference to a popular song from the '30s — is also still intact.