Duck Soup was the fifth movie made under the Marx Brothers' five-picture contract with Paramount, and circumstances surrounding its production were not especially promising. The Paramount company was internally turbulent at the time, and in the early part of 1933 the Marx Brothers became involved in a dispute with the studio about the proceeds of some of their earlier films. Leo McCarey, whom they had selected as their director, was not enthusiastic about the project, and there were difficulties in completing the script. However, eventually all disagreements were resolved, and, amid the usual confusion surrounding Marx Brothers movies, the film was made. McCarey, often described as the only "real" director the Marx Brothers ever had, has said that he did not consider it one of his best pictures; later critics do not agree with him.
The virtue of Duck Soup is its simplicity. The unembellished plot, involving the rivalry of the Ruritanian principalities of Freedonia and Sylvania, is both a parody of the "mythical kingdom" genre and an ideal environment for Marx Brothers material; the setting is, in Gerald Weales's phrase, congenial rather than antagonistic to their style. There are no interpolated harp or piano solos for Harpo or Chico; in fact, there are only three musical numbers in all: a song for Groucho, and two enormous, impeccably staged and filmed production numbers, perfectly integrated into the action. There is no love interest for Zeppo, and no attempt to provide a conventional social framework for the zany personae of the stars.
Within this setting, the story is carried forward almost operatically by a remarkable profusion of gags and comedy routines. A great deal has been written about the sources of these routines; some, particularly those involving Edgar Kennedy, have been traced to the Laurel and Hardy films on which Leo McCarey had worked earlier. Many gags were recycled from other Marx Brothers material; as many as 15 routines were identified in the rediscovered scripts of Flywheel, Shyster & Flywheel, the 1932–33 radio program starring Groucho and Chico. Even the superlative mirror scene has it antecedents elsewhere; it is a traditional vaudeville and music hall number, described by Variety in its 1933 review of the film as "the old Schwartz Bros. mirror routine," and used by others previously on film. But all these apparent borrowings might be viewed as no more than the use of material from a common pool of comedic material going back much further than any of these sources. What is significant in Duck Soup is the aptness of the material selected, and the elegance of its presentation.
McCarey, whose relaxed personality and improvisational methods seem to have combined well with those of his stars, had an unerring sense of what was best about the Marx Brothers style, and a remarkably fresh approach to its use. Harpo is still a satyr in Duck Soup, rather than the pixie he later became, and McCarey is not afraid to let us watch him perform his mayhem. Chico, as the spy Chicolini, perfectly logically chooses to be an Italian peanut vendor as "cover," thereby setting up encounters with Edgar Kennedy's lemonade vendor in routines which combine the rhythms of Laurel and Hardy with Marx Brothers gags. And Groucho, the consummate verbal comedian, has some of his most famous dialogue scenes but also, astoundingly, performs the totally silent, completely physical, and justly renowned mirror scene with Harpo. The film contains the only musical number to feature all four of the Marx Brothers together; it marks the welcome return of Margaret Dumont as Groucho's foil; and it displays wonderful supporting performances by Louis Calhern as a sleek and impeccably tailored diplomat and Raquel Torres as a sinuous secret agent, simultaneously spoofing all Mata Hari movies and providing something for the baldheads to look at. McCarey's timing and that of the Marx Brothers work perfectly together in the overall pacing of the film; despite his insistence that he was most comfortable with physical comedy, McCarey was sensitive to the internal logic of Marx Brothers humor, which takes place at the level of the word or sentence, rather than the concept or situation.
Comparatively few critics liked the film when it was first released. Variety was almost alone in giving it an unreservedly favorable review, and the picture did not do well at the box office. However, later writers on film have had a great deal to say about it, and it has become a favorite with revival audiences. French critics have considered it, with the rest of the Marx Brothers oeuvre, as a work of surrealism. Other writers have treated it as a deliberate satire on government diplomacy, and war, or as an overtly pacifist statement. Most of the people involved with the making of Duck Soup have denied that they were consciously attempting anything other than entertainment, but it is certainly the case that the war in Duck Soup has a very silly cause, and is fought as a very silly war. If depicting a silly war can be construed as making the statement that war is silly, then Duck Soup is a pacifist film.
Duck Soup was the last film the Marx Brothers made for Paramount. When it was completed, Zeppo retired from show business, and Groucho, Chico, and Harpo moved to MGM where, under the guidance of Irving Thalberg, they began A Night at the Opera – an entirely different kind of film, and one perceived at the time as a comeback for the team. Despite its initial lack of success, Duck Soup has come to be considered one of the best and perhaps the most characteristic of the Marx Brothers films. Critical literature about the Marx Brothers and their work now probably exceeds the work itself in volume; indicative of the status of Duck Soup in the Marx Brothers canon is the fact that the periodical devoted in its entirety to Marx Brothers research is called The Freedonia Gazette.
Essay by Annette Fern
Release Date: 1933
Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Raquel Torres, Louis Calhern, Margaret Dumont, Edgar Kennedy, Edmund Breese, Edwin Maxwell, William Worthington, Leonid Kinsky, Vera Hillie, George MacQuarrie, Fred Sullivan, Davison Clark, Charles B. Middleton, and Eric Mayne
Director: Leo McCarey
Writers: Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, dialogue by Nat Perrin and Arthur Sheekman
Source Citation: Fern, Annette. "Duck Soup." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 361-363.