Today! Because you’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did –
Duck Soup (1933)
Directed by Leo McCarey
Starring Groucho Marx (x8), Harpo Marx (x8), Chico Marx (x8), Zeppo Marx (x5), Margaret Dumont (x5), Louis Calhern (x2), Raquel Torres, Edgar Kennedy (x3)
There have only been a handful of movies I’ve ever serious proclaimed were my favorite of all-time, at any given point in my life. Sure, for purely comic purposes, I will often lean over to the wife in a movie theater and declare that whatever nonsense we’re watching is my favorite movie ever, usually after Captain America punches someone through a building, but the actual list is much smaller. Prior to ’89, I don’t recall informing of my parents over the morning’s Cheerios that, like, I Am Curious Yellow was now my favorite film – I just wasn’t ranking stuff back then, too busy mastering all the walking and talking that life requires. But, summer ’89, Batman got to the top of the list first, followed without break (I think) by Hook in ’91, Batman Returns in ’92, and then came the cinematic awakening when I put away childish things (shoutout, First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians!) and Unforgiven scaled the film mountain. Given this rapid adjustment of preferences, you’d think that the title would’ve changed hands many times in the subsequent years, but basically since then, only one of two movies has been #1 in my personal catalog. Tomorrow’s film most often has been named my favorite, but in any given month, Duck Soup could supplant it, so interchangeable is my love for these movies.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, if you’ve been following this list even glancingly, given that this is now the eighth Marx Brothers film gaining entry. It’s not even a ballsy pick – Duck Soup is pretty widely regarded as the top Marx vehicle, the funniest of their films, and a truly ahead of its time surrealist film classic unlike anything else they made. Its particular targets of government and war have kept it relevant for decades upon decades, and during most times of national conflict it has managed a minor resurgence into the public consciousness. The entire Marx rediscovery of the early 1970s is credited with college age kids embracing Duck Soup, and the lucky happenstance of Groucho still alive and able to do live performances and popular talk shows (Harpo and Chico had died in the early 1960s). Despite it rapidly approaching its 90th anniversary, this movie still has a remarkable timelessness that only wildly absurd satire might be capable of retaining.
The movie was a significant turning point in the brothers’ careers, but not for the reason you’d guess. Even though it is regarded as their masterpiece now, it wasn’t a huge hit at the time. Their film style would adjust to include more songs, more of a conventional plot, a longer runtime, and side romantic characters in their brief but hugely successful MGM picture run of A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. Zeppo quit the act, their Horse Feathers/Monkey Business co-star Thelma Todd died, and their Paramount contract ended, so there were naturally going to be changes. The shame of it might be that the swing was so wide coming out of Duck Soup – who knows what the next movie might’ve been like, given the trajectory of the pictures they’d been making, had these things not taken place. Perhaps it would’ve been too weird, too extreme to really connect in the mid-’30s (this is often a reason given for Duck Soup‘s step down in profits), but man, it might’ve been glorious.
I don’t remember distinctly when I first saw this film – again, my tracking down of the entire Marx catalog took years in the early ’90s, as most weren’t offered by the two places I primarily rented movies – the local Blockbuster or the Scranton Public Library. But Duck Soup absolutely was in the mix – along with Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers, and A Night at the Opera. I’m confident saying this was among the first ones I saw (glance all the way back to #309 Go West for my Marx introduction story!). I don’t know that it was instantly my favorite – it is just slightly more sophisticated than its contemporaries, so I suspect Animal Crackers was initially dearest to me. But as the years went on, and weirdly war satire became something I was increasingly drawn toward, it leaped to the forefront of their films, and quickly to the top of all movies in general. If you’ve somehow missed Duck Soup all your life, it is never too soon to finally check out. Plus, as a added bonus, it might well be the shortest film on this list (man, I should’ve kept track of that), clocking in at a tight 68 minutes (In fairness, Horse Feathers also lists at exactly this run time).
I know the idea of nine decade old comedy films doesn’t appeal to everyone. I know some people find comedy a locked-in experience to the time period, and that aging functions differently in this genre more than any other. Hell, look at the most popular comedies of the ’70s and ’80s – the world rapidly moved on from them, so how well is anything going to hold up nearly a century later? And yet, Shakespeare still gets read. Mark Twain is still endlessly incisive and amusing. Charlie Chaplin’s legend never fades. And the Marx Brothers brand of disparate comedic stylings mashed together into one familial team, with more than a touch of music hall and vaudeville influencing everything, continue to endure. If you want to track back inspiration for modern comedy, you’d be hard pressed to find anything more important to the entire evolution than the Marx Brothers films of the 1930s.
Also, they’re still really, really funny.
Zeppo and Margaret Dumont both join the Fives, but for slightly different films, with Zep appearing in #261 The Cocoanuts, #149 Monkey Business, #32 Animal Crackers, #55 Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup, while Dumont didn’t appear in the Thelma Todd films, instead making the list for #173 Day at the Races and #43 Night at the Opera. Groucho, Chico, and Harpo appear in all seven of the above, plus Go West, as they become the 17th, 18th, and 19th Eight-Timers we’ve had.
Last movie tomorrow! It’s all almost over, folks! Don’t act like you thought this day would ever come, because I sure didn’t. Hell, I don’t have a plan for beyond tomorrow, besides that I’ll be 41 and am not really cool with it. Yipe!