In what a Gentile like myself considers an ideal way to celebrate the Festival of Lights, last December (2019) I celebrated Hanukkah by watching a Marx Brothers film every night. It was that or hopping onto the WWE Network to watch Goldberg squash guys like Raven and Disco Inferno during his infamous 173 match winning streak. Shalom!
Watching the Marx Brothers’ films is one of the more challenging movie marathons anybody can experience. Usually there are a number of scenes that are comedy gold, but unfortunately in the middle of that great humor, you’re bored to tears by side plots involving a stolen painting or Zeppo drooling over Thelma Todd.
After those eight nights I realized if you don’t consider Duck Soup the peak of the Marx Brothers’ filmography, you’re a bigger fool than anybody who lent Chico gambling money.
It took the Marx Brothers a long time to get to what’s now considered their cinematic peak. Their first attempt at becoming film stars was a 1921 silent short titled Humor Risk. There’s little known about this lost film since everyone who’s seen it died almost fifty years ago. According to what’s passed down, the few screenings of this film were lackluster. Some say it’s lost to time because it was accidentally tossed away. The most sensational legend claims Groucho burned the negative.
After Humor Risk, the Marx Brothers focused on their vaudeville act until a successful transition to Broadway. At the end of the decade, they gave movies a second chance and signed with Paramount. Their first Paramount film, The Cocoanuts premiered in 1929, and 1930 saw Animal Crackers, both films in which the Marx Brothers adapt their successful Broadway shows for the big screen.
Anyone who’s seen Dracula can predict the shortcomings of these two films. Like Dracula, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers were Broadway plays adapted for sound films in their infancy. Performers are nailed to the stage in order to be picked up by faulty microphones. Even with the limitations, these early Paramount-era scenes viewed on their own are more rewarding than any on-screen joke post-Duck Soup.
The next two films, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers are more effective in capturing what made the Marx Brothers vaudeville icons. Monkey Business has trouble filling its runtime, but Horse Feathers is the second best Marx Brothers film. At an hour and seven minutes, it captures the accelerated anarchy that’s resulted in the Marx Brothers being successfully passed down from generation to generation. The one thing that holds Horse Feathers back is how all four brothers perform a variation of “Everyone Says I Love You” for Thelma Todd. Their films were usually plagued by lackluster side plots, and the one in Horse Feathers is barely noticeable compared to the norm.
After all that, their magnum opus finally happened in 1933.
There’s a number of reasons to argue why Duck Soup is their peak. The first being that it’s the only film that cuts out anything that stalls the Marx Brothers’ sense of humor. Duck Soup is the only Marx Brothers film without a boring couple falling in love. It’s also the only Marx Brothers film without any solos from Harpo and Chico. Marx Brothers purists adore those moments, but anybody else watching these movies from beginning to end will agree those moments stall the momentum.
Duck Soup is unfortunately a farewell tour for the Marx Brothers working unfiltered. Harpo is still a surreal anarchist, and it’s the last time that attitude isn’t tampered with. His idea of a joke is putting someone’s hand into a mousetrap, and he relentlessly torments a man selling lemonade on the street. He also displays a tattoo of a doghouse that features a live dog poking its head out to bark at Groucho. Never again would Harpo be this surreal or blindly chaotic.
Groucho also gets in a few sexual innuendos right before the Hays Code starts being taken seriously. At one moment Margaret Dumont says, “this is a gala day for you,” to which Groucho replies, “a gal a day is enough for me, I don’t think I could handle more.” The dialogue would never be that suggestive during the MGM years.
The beauty of Duck Soup is that it’s a perfectly paced comedy that doesn’t care about the plot. It begins with Margaret Dumont adamant about having Groucho’s Rufus T. Firefly become the leader of Freedonia. Never are we informed what credentials Rufus T. Firelfly has that makes Margaret Dumont so confident in his ability to lead the country. Chico and Harpo hold a variety of jobs ranging from the Department of Defense to working as spies for the other side to selling peanuts on a corner–whatever the next scene calls for.
It’s still unlikely to find a comedy only interested in the next gag like Duck Soup is even though most agree this is one of the all-time great comedies. I’ll never understand how a film as perfect as Duck Soup is only 70 minutes, resulting in one of the most rewatchable films ever made, and still in 2020 you’d never find a wide release comedy interested in doing a similarly fast-paced experience.
If you’re interested in seeing one of the rare times someone captured the rebellious comedic spirit of the Marx Brothers, check out The Monkees’ self titled sitcom. A great episode to start with is “I Was A Teenage Monster,” where the band is hired by a mad scientist to teach the Frankenstein monster, played by Richard Kiel, how to be a rockstar.
Unfortunately few people in 1933 agreed that Duck Soup was the best Marx Brothers film. The reception was lukewarm, and it was considered financially disappointing by Paramount. The Marx Brothers left Paramount, and two years later released a film with MGM, the pinnacle of filmmaking at that time.
If you go from Duck Soup to even an MGM entry as great as A Night At The Opera, it’s clear how watered down the Marx Brothers got. While Louis B. Mayer had no love for them, producer Irving Thalberg adored the Marx Brothers. After disbanding from Paramount, Thalberg picked them up and felt the key to a comeback was telling half the jokes they dished out in their Paramount films. While Duck Soup and Horse Feathers rarely pause, A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races noticeably halt to give movie audiences a chance to laugh without missing the next joke.
The comedic pacing slowed down, and the bad tropes of Marx Brothers films rose from the dead stronger than ever. Not only is Harpo going from being an untamed anarchist to a sympathetic character bullied by Walter Woolf King, but the romantic couples are back and more dreadful than ever. Duck Soup was the last film Zeppo would appear in, and unfortunately he’s replaced by Allan Jones. His deep voice combined with an earnest approach to hacky love songs is the definition of grating.
While the romantic couples of the Paramount era were an inconvenience happening off to the side, they’re now on the main stage. The Marx Brothers are fully invested in making sure they live happily ever after.
For decades, those first two MGM films were considered by most to be the peak of the Marx Brothers’ filmography. Whenever Groucho was asked on things like The Dick Cavett Show, he always credited A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races as being the best. It helps they were the most financially successful films of his career. Along with Groucho’s seal of approval, Queen had two albums titled after the films.
In the middle of filming A Day At The Races, Irving Thalberg passed away from pneumonia at the age of 37. It would be the last time the Marx Brothers’ film career had any momentum. They never successfully partnered again with someone who had a vision for them. The closest they got was Salvador Dali pitching a script titled Giraffes on Horseback Salad that probably made Louis B. Mayer more resentful of them than ever. Billy Wilder also had an idea for a Marx Brothers film titled A Day At The United Nations. Unfortunately this was a concept pitched so late in their careers that one year after it was discussed, Chico passed away at the age of 74 and three years after that, Harpo passed away at 75.
It’s hard to pick one moment post-A Day At The Races that captures how grim it got for the Marx Brothers. Many would agree Go West represents everything wrong during those years. I’d recommend watching Kenny Baker sing “Two Blind Loves in At The Circus.” It’ll make the most polite viewer scream “TURN IT OFF” like George C. Scott in Hardcore.
Experience it for yourself and you’ll see how superior Duck Soup is to the rest of the Marx Brothers’ onscreen contributions. There’s no soul-sucking romantic sub-plot or bathroom break instrumentals. It’s one of the most energetic comedic experiences captured on film. It’s a perfected 70 minute experience that could only come from a group that spent many nights being pelted with tomatoes, pulled off stages with a hook, and sleeping in flea-ridden beds before perfecting a style of humor that’s kept them adored by many almost a hundred years later.