Duck Soup (1933) by matthew c. hoffman

The following is a transcript from our presentation on 4/7/16. The Clark & McCullough shorts we screened, False Roomers and Jitters the Butler, went over very well and put the audience in high-gear for Duck Soup. The audience reaction to all the films was terrific. We even had some kids in attendance tonight, and hearing them laugh at the Marx Brothers made it all worthwhile.

Tonight we are showcasing two comedy teams. One is perhaps the most famous team in movie history. The other… all but forgotten. Though they are worlds apart in our collective consciousness, both teams inhabited a similar, madcap universe. Leonard Maltin, in his Great Movie Teams, wrote of the “genuine sense of the bizarre that made Clark & McCullough unique.” Indeed, one will find some inventive and even surreal moments with downright weird effects in their comedies. Few fans, except the most ardent, remember them, but in their day, they were stars whose popularity on Broadway was on a par with the Marx Brothers.

Clark & McCullough
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Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough both hailed from Springfield, Ohio. Clark first met McCullough when he was in 4th grade; McCullough was four years older. Their childhood friendship led to a tumbling act that became a theatrical partnership in 1900. They performed as part of a minstrel troupe and later, as a circus act. They were in the Ringling Brothers Circus by 1906. But they were more than just tumbling clowns, and after six years of such acrobatics they formed their own comedy act. Following stints in burlesque and vaudeville, the two became stars of musical comedy on stage, much like the Marx Brothers who were on their way to becoming Broadway stars. They made a foray into film with the Fox Studio in 1928 only to return to Broadway. Clark & McCullough made a more lasting impact in Hollywood when they returned a second time in 1931.

While at the RKO studio, the team made a series of two-reel shorts. Clark, with his painted-on glasses and cigar, was the fast-talking dynamo and McCullough, his laughing straight man in the fur coat. Most of these films were extremely entertaining and featured fast-paced dialogue and original sight gags. Their partnership ended in 1936 with the tragic suicide of Paul McCullough. Clark, who was always the dominant comic of the two, went on to have a great solo career on stage. Some of their best shorts included Odor in the Court, which you can find on YouTube, and Kickin the Crown Around, which was a satire on Prohibition involving salami smugglers. Clark & McCullough play two diplomats in one of those mythical nations Hollywood loved to invent: Jugo-Jaggon. We believe it’s somewhere near the Kingdom of Freedonia, our next destination!

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Duck Soup is perhaps the most perfect Marx Brothers movie. It encapsulates the spirit of lunacy that made their early movies so exceptional. After this film, their style would be packaged into more traditional Hollywood scenarios, often incorporating subplots involving young lovers. But in 1933, they were free to be themselves at Paramount—a studio that actually knew something about comedy. It was the studio of Ernst Lubitsch and W.C. Fields. As a result, Duck Soup best reflects their anarchistic spirit. The brothers mocked everyone, from lofty institutions to society matrons. If their adversaries were high-hat or pompous, they were sure to fall victim to Groucho’s withering put-downs.

Though much of their humor rested in dialogue, as in Groucho’s wry observations, puns, and verbal exchanges with his brothers, particularly Chico, Duck Soup displays a variety of comedic forms. There is the political satire of the film’s basic premise, the slapstick of the lemonade stand, and the pantomime of the mirror sequence in which one brother mimics the actions of the other as though they were looking into a reflection of themselves. The routine had been done before by other comics, but only the Marx Brothers took the absurdity of the moment to a new level. No attempt is made to actually fool the other brother with any sense of realism.

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The success of Duck Soup is in part due to a director who understood his performers: Leo McCarey. In The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia, Glenn Mitchell writes, “To McCarey may be attributed several ingredients of Duck Soup, including the title: it had been used for an embryonic Laurel & Hardy two-reeler released early in 1927 and would see additional service as a 1942 short starring Edgar Kennedy. Kennedy’s presence in the Marx film was probably at McCarey’s instigation, especially as he engages Harpo and Chico in the type of leisurely, exchanged violence McCarey had pioneered at Roach. Another legacy is the very Laurel & Hardy-like sequence in which Harpo and Chico stage a break-in. Their unsuitability to the task, locking themselves out after gaining admission, bears strong similarity to a Laurel & Hardy short of 1930, Night Owls. McCarey adapted such motifs to suit the Marxes.”

Duck Soup is a film I had played at the LaSalle Bank Theatre in Chicago as part of a double feature with the Wheeler & Woolsey film Diplomaniacs, which we played here a couple weeks ago. I almost played Duck Soup at the Library in my Screen Deco film series, but showing a Marx Brothers movie because of its high style set design would be a lost cause. Who’s going to concentrate on the Art Deco sets when the Marx Brothers are on screen? So I’m glad we’re able to present one of the greatest American comedies of all-time now as part of Legends of Laughter 2.

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