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Duck Soup (1933)

Duck Soup is all credentials: Leo McCarey directed; Herman J. Mankiewicz produced it; Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby wrote it; Ansel Adams photographed it, mostly at magic hour; it was Marcel Proust's favorite Marx Brothers film; the Duke of Windsor watched it constantly in his years of exile. Are you believing this? Where does that get you? It was the poorest performer of all their Paramount films—there was a time when the University of Chicago economics department was stocked with people who'd done their Ph.D. on "Duck Soup and the Collapsing Cash Nexus" and similar titles. In other words, how could you expect a dazed, defeated, demoralized, and de-walleted population to go to see a film that mocked government when the folks were waiting for a New Deal?

In case you can't place the film, this is the one where Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) will give the nation of Freedonia $20 million if Rufus T. Firefly is appointed its leader (and if she gets the fire in the fly). Aha, you may say, such cynicism and manipulation the affairs of modest third-world nations was far more likely the cause of public despair. Enter Trentino (played by that very respectable actor Louis Calhern), the ambassador from Sylvania (before it was in the TV business), and soon we are on the brink of world war. But why remind the public of that?

Like many Marx Brothers films, Duck Soup has the suspicious air of a few set pieces strung together with Christmas lights and Hollywood was learning with talk and plots and so forth that the manufacture of whole films (as opposed to scene anthologies) was a dirty job, even if you were being paid for it. There has never been a better answer to the question of what holds this film together than glue. The essential ethos of the Marx Brothers (this is Irving Thalberg talking as he prepared to ship them off to Culver City) is to make their fragmentation seem natural. So Thalberg foresaw Marxian nights with a film program continually interrupted by little scenes from Marxist groups. This was a principle applied fully on the BBC years later with the arrival of Monty Python. The show might be over, but still somehow the other programs—the news, Gardeners' Question Time, England v. Pakistan—could not but take on a Pythonesque flourish. This could have revolutionized TV, but the Python boys (who had been to university) asked for ghostly residuals.

Anyway, Duck Soup has the extended routine where Chico (as Chicolini) and Harpo (as Pinky) harass Edgar Kennedy. And it also has Groucho and the mirror, which is enough to persuade you all to get every bit of polished glass out of the house.

If you find you like this sort of thing, you'll be glad to know that The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, and Horse Feathers once existed. There was a moment—we call it sound—when the Marx Brothers made the trip from vaudeville to Hollywood, and it's like Neil Armstrong stepping down onto the moon and landing on a banana peel.

Excerpted from "Have You Seen...?" A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films by David Thomson. Copyright © 2008 by David Thomson. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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