Personally, I think there are two kinds of people in the world: Duck Soup fans and Night at the Opera fans. These two Marx Brother comedies are classics, and yet so very, very different from each other– a difference highlighted by the fact that one followed the other. After Duck Soup’s modest response at the box office, the Marx Brothers were in a bit of a dilemma. Duck Soup was not quite the flop the Marx Brothers would refer to in their memoirs, but the film certainly was not as good a performer as Horse Feathers. Faced with a perceived lack of bankability, and complaining of financial and creative issues, the Brothers jumped ship from Paramount to MGM, under the sheltering wing of Irving Thalberg. A Night at the Opera was a masterpiece in its own right, to be certain. However, it was a movie rich in formulaic plot bits and heavily reliant on romantic subplots– not a direction the Brothers had gone before. The “Night at the Opera approach” would be the guiding principle of every movie they made after, much to the detriment of their comedy.
In stark contrast, we have the movie they made the year before– Duck Soup. Perhaps the LEAST formulaic movie ever made by the Marx Brothers, and the most interesting and surrealistic. This brilliant, wickedly funny war parody succeeds on so many levels– as satire, and slapstick, as witty wordplay, as a surreal tour de force– it is a lesson in public taste to realize that Duck Soup ‘failed’ and Night at the Opera was their most commercially succesful film.
Roy Blount, Jr. is working on an entire book devoted to the movie DUCK SOUP (it’s no mystery to figure out what kind of person Roy is, btw). You can read about his plans for the book on Harper and Row’s 26th Story site. To quote Blount:
It was a movie, and what a movie: Duck Soup, the Marx Brothers at their most intense, in their finest hour. In Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen’s character, Mickey Sachs, is considering suicide when he happens to see a bit of Duck Soup and has an epiphany: How can anyone even think of killing himself when this world affords such high-low comedy as the Brothers’ spectacular musical number, “The Country’s Going to War,” in which the call to arms involves, among many other rousing elements, takeoffs on gospel (“All God’s Chillun Got Guns”) and the Virginia reel. I feel confident in asserting that there is nothing anywhere else in the history of American culture quite like Harpo’s contribution to the do-si-do.
I’m a Duck Soup man, if you haven’t figured it out. Even to this day, after repeated viewings.. the bit about “All God’s Chilluns got Guns” has me laughing like a hyena.