Marx Brothers fans – and I’m definitely one – know their work can be divided into two distinct eras. From 1929 through 1933, Paramount released films featuring four Marx Brothers – Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo. “Duck Soup” was the last of the movies the boys made for Paramount. Now, many people – and I’m definitely one – consider it their best, but at the time it was a flop, and Paramount dropped the Marx Brothers like a hot potato.
On stage, though never in the movies, there had been a fifth Marx Brother, Gummo (real name Milton). In the interim after the boys were fired by Paramount, Zeppo (real name Herbert) left the act and joined Gummo in starting a successful talent agency. Zeppo didn’t really have much of a comic persona anyway; he primarily played straight man to the others.
MGM, where boy wonder Irving Thalberg was still in a leading role, hired the three remaining Marx Brothers – Groucho, Chico, and Harpo – and their first MGM movie was 1935’s “A Night At The Opera.”
Zeppo isn’t the only difference between the Paramount Marx Brothers and the MGM Marx Brothers. At Paramount, the boys were more anarchic. But Thalberg – and those who followed him – put more of a story to the brothers’ comedy, and usually had them helping someone out. They were trying to help out young lovers in “A Night At The Opera,” trying to raise money to keep a hospital open in “A Day At The Races,” and so on. In some ways, this undermines the anarchy – part of the fun of the Paramount Marx Brothers is that lunacy is their first priority, and the plot is an afterthought.
Granted, “A Night At The Opera,” their first MGM movie, is one of their funniest – probably because of Thalberg’s craft as a producer. But Thalberg died during the making of “A Day At The Races,” and fans are in general agreement that the MGM Marx Brothers movies go downhill fast from there.
The trouble, of course, is that TCM’s parent company owns the MGM library, so TCM can show the MGM Marx Brothers movies as often as it likes. It has to pay for the rights to the Paramount Marx Brothers movies (strangely enough, it has to pay Universal, which at some point bought the rights to much of Paramount’s classic-era library). TCM shows “Duck Soup” fairly regularly, as well as “Horse Feathers,” and occasionally “Monkey Business,” but hardly ever shows “Cocoanuts” or “Animal Crackers.”
Enough of my quibbling. “Duck Soup” is on tonight, and as I said earlier I think it’s the all-time best Marx Brothers movie. The movie takes place in the fictitious country of Freedonia. The country is badly in debt, and its wealthiest citizen, Mrs. Teasdale, won’t loan it any more money unless Rufus T. Firelfly (Groucho) is appointed leader. Meanwhile, the ambassador for neighboring Sylvania is up to no good and hires Chico and Harpo as spies.
DISCUSSION QUESTION: Whose faith is more misplaced – Mrs. Teasdale, who for some unexplained reason thinks Groucho can run a country, or the ambassador, who thinks Chico and Harpo can overcome their ADD long enough to collect any useful information?
Anyway, this is a Paramount Marx Brothers movie, so as I indicated earlier the plot isn’t really that important. The movie is loaded with all sorts of humor – from verbal jousting to the famous (and completely silent) mirror scene between Groucho and Harpo. It’s just funny, at so many levels.