DUCK SOUP (1927) – Our first glimpse at the “real” Stan and Ollie

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The following is my entry inĀ The Silent Cinema Blogathon, being hosted Oct. 24-26, 2015 by the blogĀ In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click on the above banner to visit the blogathon and read an assortment of great blogs related to the era of silent movie classics!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Duck Soup‘s interest for movie academics might be more historical than hysterical. Yet even on that basis, it’s as worthy of L&H buffs’ attention as Unknown Chaplin is to Charlie Chaplin fans, or The Beatles Anthology is to Fab Four aficionados. It’s a worthy addition to the L&H canon, and it helps make our mental image of them more complete.

For years Duck Soup was a lost movie, and it was assumed the film was one of Stan and Babe’s back-burner Pathe numbers, where they each performed in the movie but not as a team. Then a print turned up in the 1970’s and showed that Stan and Ollie were (or should have been) a bonafide team from the start. Ollie badly needs a shave, but other than the vagabond garb, Stan and Ollie were far closer to the way we now “know” them then they were in their other Hal Roach/Pathe productions. Why they “began” as a team and then went back to doing separate appearances in the same movie remains one of movie comedy’s great unanswered questions.

But there’s enough recognizable “Stan and Ollie” byplay to warrant at least one viewing. For one thing, Duck Soup is the quite recognizable origin of its talkie version, Another Fine Mess (1930). Both films were based on an old vaudeville sketch written by Stan’s dad (though Pop later complained loudly about what his son had done to the source material).

Duck Soup shows Stan and Ollie on the run from local police, though unlike the talkie version, they are not trying to avoid arrest but are instead trying to avoid the zeal of a sheriff looking for help in putting out a forest fire (Was this a common kind of recruitment in 1920’s Los Angeles?). In later films (with their personas more firmly established), whenever Stan and Ollie are on the run from the law, it’s usually due to their fear of authority figures. Here, the cause is just plain laziness.

Anyway, Stan and Ollie hide out in a millionaire’s mansion, and as luck would have it, the millionaire is out of town and has advertised for boarders to rent the house. Ollie and Stan quickly assume the disguises of the millionaire and his maid.

And “quickly” is the key word here. The most unrecognizable element in this L&H film is its frenetic pace, making it closer to typical Hal Roach/Pathe fare than to the later, more leisurely paced L&H shorts. Also, there are no particularly memorable “set pieces” here — unlike Another Fine Mess, where Ollie revels in his disguise, or Stan has a hilarious conversation with the wife of the would-be boarder (Thelma Todd).

Yet it still makes for fascinating viewing, not least because of its view of a surprisingly undeveloped ’20s Los Angeles. The movie also shows that even from the beginning, Stan and Ollie intuitively worked as a team–it just took their own movies a little while longer to figure that out.

TRIVIA NOTE: Duck Soup proved to be an especially sturdy movie title. Six years after Laurel & Hardy used it, former L&H associate Leo McCarey nabbed it for his classic Marx Bros. movie; nine years later, Hal Roach nabbed it back for an Edgar Kennedy short subject. Maybe Judd Apatow will be using it next.

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The Marx Brothers in DUCK SOUP (1933) – Political-party hearty

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Duck Soup was initially a box-office flop — perhaps because it was released during the Great Depression, when the public didn’t want to believe that its leaders were hopeless. The movie was “re-discovered” by college students during the anti-Establishment 1960’s, and it has been rightly hailed as a comedy masterpiece ever since.

Its wisp of a story begins with Mrs. Teasdale (perennial sidekick Margaret Dumont), a wealthy widow who has singlehandedly financed the nearly bankrupt country of Freedonia. When pressed for another loan of $20 million, Mrs. Teasdale agrees to lend the money on the condition that her favorite politician, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx), be allowed to rule Freedonia. (A wealthy contributor using her money to buy a candidate? Who’d have thought it?)

This Firefly guy certainly inspires confidence. In his first ten minutes as Freedonian president, he oversleeps through his inauguration; makes his entrance down a firepole; puts the make on his financier; and delivers a musical inaugural address (linked below) with the refrain, “If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait ’til I get through with it.”

The only thing Firefly gets right is his take on Trentino (Louis Calhern), his political rival in the country of Sylvania. Trentino wants only to win over Mrs. Teasdale so that he can take over Fredonia, a political strategy that Firefly has already usurped. Trentino hires two spies, Chicolini and Pinkie (Chico and Harpo Marx), in the hopes of uncovering some dirt that will discredit Firefly. This plan fails on two counts: 1) Firefly is more eager to discredit himself than any political opponent could ever be; and 2) Chicolini and Pinkie aren’t exactly married to their work. (Their idea of political rivalry is to monopolize the local peanut-stand concession and drive their competitor [silent-film slow-burner Edgar Kennedy] either out of business or around the bend.)

This political sub-intrigue is a lame excuse for some of cinema’s most superb sight gags, wordplay, musical interludes, and unique lessons in animal husbandry (in a blatant nose-thumbing at the censors, Harpo sleeps with a horse). Legendary comedy director Leo McCarey stuffs all of this into a lightning-paced 70 minutes, so even if you don’t like the movie (highly unlikely), you don’t have to bear it for very long.

For decades, countless people — including many involved in the making of this film — have argued that Duck Soup is not a political satire. Try telling that to the makers of the films Primary Colors (of whose Clinton burlesque the Marxes surely would have approved) or Wag the Dog (whose view of war as a means to a political end seems to have been mainlined from Duck Soup). Every year, this mind-bending comedy looks more and more like a documentary.

Here’s my favorite number from the movie — maybe my favorite Groucho number ever…