Eighty-four years ago, the Marx Brother’s film, Duck Soup (1933), premiered and despite being considered their masterpiece today, flopped. Its anti-war, anti-establishment, anti-politician message (if there can be a message in a Marx Brothers’ film), flew against the zeitgeist. Leader-worship was in vogue in 33, from Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany (both countries banned the film) to even FDR’s America.
Satire and criticism, rampant in the 20s, which was really the Marx Brothers’ decade, was considered politically incorrect in “let’s pull together” ethos of New Deal America. Literally in Duck Soup, the Marx Brothers, un-plugged, un-policed, refuse to close ranks. There is no loyalty to any country. Chico only joins Groucho’s side because “the food is better over here.” Harpo switches sides constantly from spying on Groucho to recruiting soldiers for him. Groucho himself switches uniforms from scene to scene (Napoleonic one minute, Confederate General the next—there was no feverish debate of banning the Confederate flag in those days) as if to say it doesn’t matter who he represents. There is no leftist agitprop about the war Groucho declares—he is not about garnering profits or territory. He simply fights because the other leader calls him an “upstart.” Patriotic hymns mean nothing to them. Establishment representative and foil Margaret Dumont has apples thrown at her by the brothers when she tries to sing the country’s national anthem.
Groucho’s métier, puncturing pomposity, is turned on himself as well. He talks about being caught with his pants down, and talks about shooting people who take his share of “graft.” Disdaining spin, he is quite open about his financial intentions:
“The last man nearly ruined this place, he didn’t know what to do with it.
If you think you’re paying too much now just wait till I get through with it.”
Duck Soup has always had admirers that span the political spectrum. From conservatives such as Winston Churchill, T.S Eliot, and P.J O’Rourke, to lefties like Woody Allen (Allen would use Duck Soup in his film Hannah And Her Sisters, to convince the death-obsessed character he plays to celebrate life and have fun—hard to square such anarchism today with Allen’s wish during the Obama era that the president would assume dictatorial powers). What is significant is who doesn’t admire the film. We’ve already mentioned Hitler and Mussolini, but also Stalin, and his overseas followers such as Communist Party Head Earl Browder (“all real Americans support the war”—1944).
Groucho once replied to an admirer’s comment about how Duck Soup was “sweeping the country “ in 33 that the “country needed sweeping back then.” And this comment was from a New Deal supporter.
Groucho, the most political of the brothers, did not spare his side from his darts. Appearing at a rally for a socialist friend, he asked the parlor pink audience pointedly about how many of them knew the working class addresses of the candidate’s supporters. He castigated those who voted for FDR a third time as “king-makers.” Invited to a White House function, he talked about how the First Lady was off filing her teeth. When liberals were lining up to defend blacklisted Stalinists, Groucho thought American communists “should leave the country and live in Moscow.” Against the Vietnam War, Groucho nevertheless called the sixties left “idiots in the Garden of Eden.”
In our age of red state/blue state cultural wars, it is difficult to see how Duck Soup, with its wild shots at every political group, could be made today. In our era, humor has to make a didactic point. Nothing is more boring than a liberal comedian—just witness how unfunny and shrill Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg are on the View.