If you need something to distract you from taxes, COVID-19 and world affairs, the News-Gazette film series will screen “Duck Soup,” the Marx Brothers’ 1933 comedy classic, at the Virginia Theater on Saturday April 30 at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.
When wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) saves the small country of Freedonia from bankruptcy, she insists that Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) be its leader. The reason for this request remains a mystery, as Firefly is a terrible diplomat and an even worse suitor for Mrs. Teasdale. Even before taking office, he antagonizes Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) of neighboring, more powerful Sylvania, and spices up his romantic overtures to the philanthropic dowager with insults and leers (the latter not always directed at him). ).
With his own designs on Freedonia, Mrs. Teasdale and her money, Trentino employs the world’s worst secret agents, Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx). Originally sent to steal Firefly’s battle plans, Chicolini eventually becomes his Secretary of War, and Pinky becomes a Freedonian Paul Revere.
“Duck Soup” parodies governments, musicals and Ruritanian romances. “Ruritanian romances” included a series of 1930s romances, musicals, and adventure films set in petty monarchies tucked away in picturesque corners of Europe populated by aristocratic characters.
Named after the fictional country of Ruritania in “The Prisoner of Zenda” and two other popular 19th-century novels by Anthony Hope, these films offered pure escapism for viewers grappling with the real-life effects of the Great Depression.
Although it was not as successful at the box office as previous Marx Brothers releases, “Duck Soup” has since been considered a comic book highlight and ranks fifth on the 100 Greatest Movies list. America’s Funniest Stories from the American Film Institute.
Running gags include Groucho alternately or simultaneously wooing and insulting Dumont and Harpo’s propensity to cut anything that hangs or protrudes. Puns and insults abound, evidenced by Firefly’s cross-examination of Chicolini, based largely on a routine from the Marx Brothers’ Broadway musical debut hit, “I’ll Say She Is.” , which never made it to the cinema screen.
Some classic slapstick also appears, such as Chico and Harpo’s protracted feud with lemonade seller Edgar Kennedy (the master of “slow burn” comics) filled with flaming hats and Harpo splashing his feet in Kennedy’s lemonade offer . Best known, of course, is the iconic scene where Chicolini and Pinky dress up as Firefly, and Pinky ends up impersonating Firefly’s mirror image.
The Marx Brothers are not behind the memorable mirror gag; French comic Max Linder, Charlie Chaplin and others did it in silent comedies. But the Marx version became the definitive version, repeatedly imitated in cartoons and live-action comedies. Harpo himself covered it with Lucille Ball on the show “I Love Lucy” in 1955.
Decades of Vaudeville touring brought the Marx Brothers to the Virginia Theater, and Harpo would later claim that it was in Champaign that he stopped speaking on stage.
Their subsequent Broadway success led to a deal with Paramount, beginning with adaptations of their second and third Broadway hits, “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers.”
Although the Marx Brothers never received writing credits for their films, their on-set improvisation stamped their distinctive mark on everything they did — often to the frustration of named screenwriters. The big musical number here, “All God’s Chillun Got Guns,” for example, would have been crafted almost entirely on set.
Their directors varied greatly in talent and prestige, most simply pointing the cameras at the brothers and letting them riff. But in “Duck Soup” they were working with Leo McCarey, one of the best comedy directors of the 1930s. He first teamed up with Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy, and in the 1930s directed Eddie Cantor, WC Fields, Charlie Ruggles, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Mae West, Harold Lloyd and Charles Laughton (in a rare comedic turn in the 1935 Oscar-nominated film “Ruggles of Red Gap”). McCarey won an Oscar for directing Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in ‘The Awful Truth’ (1937), another classic comedy, and in 1944 became the first director to win Academy Awards for Best Picture, Direction and the screenplay for “Going My Way,” a romantic comedy starring Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald.
So McCarey definitely had his own ideas about comedy, and he exerted more control over the brothers. It dropped Harpo’s harp solo, Chico’s gag piano number, and a song aimed at Zeppo. And he added the feud with the lemonade vendor (who looks like he could easily have been a bit Laurel and Hardy) and the mirror gag.
“Duck Soup” was the last Marx Brothers film to include Zeppo (the youngest brother, who mostly did songs rather than jokes). It was also their last film with Paramount before moving to MGM and bigger budgets, increasing the intrusions of serious musical numbers and bigger romantic subplots not involving the brothers.
Paramount went through several equally uninformative titles: “Oo La La! (with Ernst Lubitsch slated to direct!), “Firecrackers”, “Cracked Ice”, “Grasshoppers” and, finally, “Duck Soup” to bring it in line with Marx’s previous hits with animal-related tracks – “Animal Crackers “, Monkey Affairs” and “Horse Feathers”.
Meanwhile, the brothers were aggressively suing Paramount for money still owed to them from “Monkey Business”.