Up-words - Subversive Soup

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Subversive Soup

February 2003

By Dave Rolinson

If any form of pleasure is exhibited
Report to me and it will be prohibited
I’ll put my foot down, so shall it be
This is the land of the free!

The last man nearly ruined this place
He didn’t know what to do with it
If you think this country’s bad off now
Just wait til I get through with it.

            - Rufus T Firefly (Groucho Marx) addresses the people of Freedonia

One of the funniest comedies ever made, Duck Soup (1933) is also one of the most subversive. It has been described as a political satire, even a war satire to rival Catch-22. Its darker edge – which angered audiences during the inter-war period (‘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’) – has made it appeal to the post-Vietnam generation. Strange to report, therefore, that the only people who thought Duck Soup wasn’t a satire were… practically everyone who worked on it!

Duck Soup was the last of the Four Marx Brothers’ classics for Paramount, after The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932). Although the Marxes preferred their more polished MGM vehicles A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937), I’d much rather watch the Paramount films, which give free rein to the anarchistic and chaotic Marx style. By The Cocoanuts, the Brothers had been performing on stage for over 20 years (arguably their best work was never filmed). Most famous today is Groucho (Julius, 1890-1977). The most verbal –  mastering wisecracks, surrealistic interludes and insults that could strip wallpaper – he’s also the most recognisable, with his familiar stooping walk, fake greasepaint moustache (legend has it, daubed one day in the theatre when he couldn’t find his fake tache), puffing on a cigar. Groucho snared the best lines, in the films (‘Look at me, I’ve worked my way up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty’) and beyond. During his solo TV hit You Bet Your Life, he responded to a contestant with 19 kids who argued that ‘I like kids’ with ‘I like my cigar, but I take it out of my mouth every now and again’. Chico (Leonard, 1886-1961), apparently named after his admiration of chicks (in the notorious Marx Brothers Scrapbook Groucho describes Chico’s contribution as ‘fucking and shooting pool’), is the hustler with the appalling Italian accent, mangling language with cringe-inducing regularity.

In Duck Soup, his character Chicolini is tried for treason: ‘Isn’t it true you tried to sell Freedonia’s secret war code and plans?’ with ‘Sure, I sold a code and two pair of plans’... Harpo (Adolph, 1888-1964) is a harp-playing mute (on-screen at least), wearer of blond wig, tatty outfit and manic look, chaser of female extras, a costume-scissoring terrorist prone to send scenes spiralling into chaos. Finally, Zeppo (Herbert, 1901-1979) is often the romantic lead, and, despite being witty off-screen, is lumbered with straight man status (Groucho claimed the best way to test a joke was to tell it to Zeppo – if he liked it, it was thrown out). Un-showbiz, Zeppo had replaced the largely forgotten Gummo (Milton, 1893-1977) when he left the stage act for army service. Zeppo himself would leave after Duck Soup, leaving the more recognised Groucho, Chico and Harpo to be supported by various stars to provide increasingly slushy romantic plots and hit tunes.

Although the college-football-based Horse Feathers had been Paramount’s biggest hit of 1932, plans for a follow-up were scuppered by studio reorganization, financial shenanigans and low-flying lawsuits. Groucho and Chico worked on the great lost radio comedy Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel by Nat Perrin and Arthur Sheekman (which produced at least fifteen routines stolen for Duck Soup) when Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby began a new screenplay. Originally called Firecrackers, then Cracked Ice (plus, after studio intervention along animal lines, Grasshoppers), it was finally called Duck Soup – an American expression relating to something simple or a gullible sucker (though it was also the title of a Laurel and Hardy short directed by this film’s director, Leo McCarey).

Groucho plays Rufus T Firefly, made the new leader of Freedonia after the wealthy widow Mrs Teasdale, played by the indomitable Marx stooge Margaret Dumont, insists she will only continue to bankroll the nation with his august leadership. Groucho steps in to a hero’s welcome (Mrs Teasdale: ‘This is a gala day for you’; Firefly: ‘Well, a gal a day’s enough for me, I don’t think I could handle any more’) and a refrain of ‘Hail, hail Freedonia, land of the brave and free!’. Here he collides with the attempts of Trentino, Ambassador of Sylvania (in an earlier draft, Frankenstein of Amnesia), to marry Mrs Teasdale to get his hands on her principality. The problem is, Teasdale is keen on Firefly, and soon the flirting begins:
Firefly: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Mrs. Teasdale: Why, he's dead.
Firefly: I'll bet he's just using that as an excuse.
Mrs. Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.
Firefly: Hmmph. No wonder he passed away.
Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Firefly: Oh, I see. Then, it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.
Mrs. Teasdale: He left me his entire fortune.
Firefly: Is that so? Can't you see what I'm trying to tell you? I love you.
Mrs. Teasdale: Oh, your Excellency!
Firefly: You're not so bad yourself.
Trentino and Firefly exchange pleasantries (‘Haven’t we seen each other somewhere before?’; ‘I don’t think I’m seeing you now, it must be something I ate’), but Trentino plans his downfall, using exotic dancer Vera Marcel and his trusty spies Chicolini and Pinky to discredit Firefly, destabilise Freedonia or get Mrs Teasdale. Firefly and Teasdale plan for the future (‘I can see you now standing over a hot stove… but I can’t see the stove’), as he offers her ‘a Rufus over your head’ – a nice double-meaning, since, according to Groucho, Dumont rarely understood his dialogue. They even make a date for the theatre: ‘I’ll hold your seat til you get there. After you get there, you’re on your own’.

Groucho meets his government, noting that a Treasury Department report is so clear that ‘a four-year-old child could understand it’ (aside to Zeppo: ‘Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can’t make head or tail out of it’), and agreeing to give the workers shorter hours (‘We’ll start by cutting their lunch hour to 20 minutes’). His Secretary of War quits (‘I wash my hands of the whole business!’; ‘Good idea, you can wash your neck too’), but Groucho hires Chicolini, as he and fellow spy Pinky worm their way into his affairs. Chico (whose contribution to military logic is to suggest ‘we should have a standing army… because then we save money on chairs’) is soon put to work. In an attempt to cause a diplomatic incident to enable him to kick Trentino out of Freedonia, Groucho attempts to insult him, but is so offended by his replies that he slaps him, provoking war. Attempts are made to defuse the situation, as Trentino has ‘a change of heart’ (‘A lot of good that’ll do him, he’s still got the same face’), but Groucho refuses to back down, as he’s already got a month’s rent of a battlefield. As if this wasn’t satirical enough, Trentino’s one last plea for peace fails, after a speech which offers a great indictment of diplomatic thinking:
Firefly: I’d be only too happy to meet Ambassador Trentino, and offer him on behalf of my country the right hand of good fellowship. And I feel sure that he will accept this gesture in the spirit in which it is offered. But suppose he doesn’t? A fine thing that’ll be! I hold out my hand and he refuses to accept it! That’ll add a lot to my prestige, won’t it? Me, the head of a country, snubbed by a foreign ambassador. Who does he think he is, that he can come here and make a sap out of me, in front of all my people? Think of it – I hold out my hand and that hyena refuses to accept it! (Trentino enters.) So, you refuse to shake my hand, eh? (He slaps Trentino across the face with his glove)
Trentino: This means war!

Viewers acquainted with the classic War episode of The Day Today might be surprised to see the tone equalled in Duck Soup’s build up to, and outbreak of, hostilities. There follows a medley of patriotic songs, George Formby impressions, astounding gospel (‘We got guns, they got guns, all God’s children got guns’) and crowd participation. Groucho runs the military machine with such precision to protect Mrs Teasdale (‘We’re fighting for this woman’s honour, which is probably more than she ever did!’) that Chico defects to Trentino’s side. In a bout of what would now be called ‘friendly fire’, Groucho takes the traditional American military route of gleefully machine-gunning his own men. In a frenzied finale, Groucho (in a variety of leader’s uniforms, from General Custer to Davy Crockett) somewhat jammily captures Trentino and the war is won. Everything that is right about the Marx Brothers works superbly: Groucho and Chico’s relative verbal dexterity, and Harpo’s slapstick assault on a street vendor and pomposity-pricking destruction of Trentino’s office, shorn of the romantic sub-plots through which they would later become (to quote John Lennon on the Beatles’ role in Help!) guest stars in their own movie. There are none of their own usual musical interludes - Chico’s piano-torturing (prompting Groucho in Horse Feathers to address the audience: ‘I’ve got to stay here. But there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t go out into the lobby til this thing blows over’), and Harpo’s eponymous instrument-fingering.

The film received mixed reviews, and after the success of Horse Feathers was a conspicuous flop. Apart from the film’s political subtexts, there is much broad comedy, including one of their most famous visual gags. Trying to get Freedonia’s war plans from Mrs Teasdale, Chico and Harpo dress in Groucho’s nightgown, glasses and moustache, resulting in Groucho encountering Harpo (and then Chico) as a mirror reflection, frantically copying his actions. Apparently one of Leo McCarey’s contributions to the script, the mirror routine had appeared on stage and in Charlie Chaplin’s The Floorwalker (1916). McCarey’s role is crucial – with some justification Groucho later called him ‘the only first class director we ever had’. Directors hated working with them, their chaotic attitude prompting one to claim that they didn’t need a director but a referee. McCarey had refused, but signed a new contract when it looked like they would never work for Paramount again. Meeting up for a few beers was one thing, but once moviemaking was on the agenda, it seemed impossible to keep all four Brothers on set at the same time. Once, they suggested everyone meet up at 8.30 the next morning, only to roll in themselves at nearly midday, prompting the conversation: ‘where were you guys?’; ‘why, RKO’; ‘RKO? We’re not making this picture for RKO!’; ‘don’t change the subject!’. The Marxes stuck to a clause in their contract stopping them working beyond 6pm, prompting McCarey to get his own back: after working on a scene for hours, he excused himself to make a phone call, and went home to his wife, leaving the Brothers waiting for hours until an assistant finally pretended to ring McCarey and pass on the news that he’d be bright and early the next day.   

From such chaos came my favourite satirical comedy. Except, it’s probably not really. True, Harpo had visited both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and the film was made against a backdrop of Hitler’s aggressive speeches on the radio. However, its creators insisted that it was just ‘a crazy picture’. Harry Ruby said that ‘We wrote shows and movies for only one purpose: entertainment. That is all there was to it!’, while Arthur Sheekman added: ‘Comedy is best when you upset stuffy people or notions, but that doesn’t mean that you start out with social criticism’. In his 1971 article ‘Duck soup for the rest of your life’, Joe Adamson argued that, whatever Duck Soup is, it’s not a political satire, because no such film could survive the Marx Brothers. This is why frequent Marx writers George Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind refused to let the Brothers loose on their genuinely satirical play Of Thee I Sing. The original Duck Soup script was indeed mutilated in rehearsals, with gags added and cut; Harpo and Chico now humiliated a peanut seller for no obvious reason; McCarey cut out one of the film’s major scenes in a theatre which established Groucho’s dictatorial ambitions; Harry Ruby came in one day and asked Harpo where the hell the mirror routine had come from, to which Harpo replied: ‘This is the scene where they break into Mrs Teasdale’s house’ (Ruby: ‘I’m afraid to ask what they’re breaking into Mrs. Teasdale’s house for’). As Adamson puts it, ‘McCarey shared the view-point that a script for the Marx Brothers is as about as definite as a treaty for the Indians’.

So, to claim it’s a politically radical film might be wide of the mark. But it’s still one of the most gag-packed comedies ever made, with a refreshingly modern sense of wordplay and a plethora of visual material to please even the modern Airplane! viewer. But glimpses of material cut from the drafter version of the script indicate that somewhere at the bottom of a filing cabinet or on the cutting room floor remains an even more subversive Duck Soup than this one:
Firefly: Now that you’re Secretary of War, I want to ask your advice. I’ve been running this country for two weeks, and I haven’t sold one piece of ammunition. How do you account for it?
Chicolini: That’s easy. You no gotta war – how you gonna sell ammunition if you no gotta war?
Firefly: You’ve got a brain after all, and how you get along without it is amazing to me. So you got to have a war to sell ammunition…
The more things change… Imagine their surprise when they realised that there was a city in New York really called Freedonia, the Mayor of which complained at the film’s slur on its name. Cue the inevitable Groucho letter: ‘Your Excellency. Our advice is that you change the name of your town. It is hurting our picture’.

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