Remember the Classics: Paramount Serves its Perfect Dish in ‘Duck Soup’

Remember the Classics: Paramount Serves its Perfect Dish in ‘Duck Soup’

A film comes together similar to a main dish, a mix of ingredients following a recipe established by the kitchen. For a film, that kitchen that controls the ingredients and creates the recipes that distinguished the dish from another kitchen is the production studio. Classic Hollywood’s Big Five studios ( Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and RKO Radio Pictures) created distinct styles, that diversified the market and took advantage of their differences. Paramount Pictures was highly successful during the times of early Hollywood and showed their style with their recipe for Duck Soup (1933) .

What is Duck Soup?

Duck Soup is the comedic tale of:

“Rufus T. Firefly, the cynical, sarcastic, and money-hungry leader of a fictional country called Freedonia…When the ambassador of neighboring country Sylvania attempts to overthrow Firefly-and win Dumont’s affections-Firefly declares war on Sylvania” – Lee Pfeiffer, Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Duck Soup was a witty political satire that unfortunately did not perform well at the box office, yet was arguably is considered in tune with Paramount’s reputation and has grown as part of the Marx legacy into a well-regarded film. Paramount was known for an exotic flair in the design of sets and costumes and the fictional setting of Freedonia captured this. In comparison to their competition, Firefly’s Freedonia mansion is not as lavish as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Grand Hotel (1932) nor has the cozy simplicity of Warner Brothers’ Casablanca (1942) nightclub, but certainly provides a European eloquence that can entice a viewer. Paramount was not afraid to be extravagant, and create an energy in their film and proved this in incorporation of music. Duck Soup produces

“two enormous, impeccably staged and filmed production numbers, perfectly integrated into the action” – Annette Fern, Film Reference.

What separates Duck Soup’s “This Country’s Going to War” from “Somewhere over the Rainbow” (MGM/ The Wizard of Oz) or “As Time Goes by” (WB/ Casablanca) is the pacing. Much like the film’s dialogue, it chooses to be an alternative to slower paced delivery and contrast that with non-stop humor or movement.

The Stars of Paramount

The Opening credits revealing the four stars of 'Duck Soup'.
The Opening credits revealing the four stars of ‘Duck Soup’.

Classic Hollywood studios’ success was largely dependent of the stars they could land and how they were brought to the screen. Paramount found comedic gold in their five picture deal (back then actors and actresses signed contracts with specific studios and agreed to a specified amount of films which is no longer how things are run now a days) with the Marx Brothers. The Marx brothers ( Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Gummo, and Zeppo) share a lot in common with Paramount’s biggest star Mae West. The Hollywood Revuediscusses how Mae West and the Marx brothers both transitioned from stage performances and that both pushed the envelope with risqué or lewd humor prior to production codes. How Groucho Marx plays off actress Margaret Dumont could be seen as a reversal of Mae West’s routine of poking fun of any sexual tension.

Image of Mae West, Paramount Studios biggest star at the time.
Image of Mae West, Paramount Studios biggest star at the time.

Paramount was also known to allow for more freedom to their directors and in this case it was more or less the Marx Brothers themselves. Director Leo McCarey had left the creative forces behind the scene on a shorter leash and in return it paid off. Duck Soupwas seen as “the comedy family in their honest form” and threw it all onto the screen as it was

“chaotic and anarchic, full of wild vaudevillian mischief and crass humor”

– Jeff Saporito, Screenprism

Paramount and the Marx brothers’ philosophy with the comedy in their films was to keep the people laughing, and the story of the film was more loosely woven as set-up and a device to deliver a joke or satirical message. Duck Soup really shows the stitched together skits of the Brother’s comedy routine: The mirror pantomime, the lemonade vendor hat swaps, and other scenes of the Marx zany trademarks.

The Marx brothers performing a now well practiced acting exercise in a pantomime mirror routine.
The Marx brothers performing a now well practiced acting exercise in a pantomime mirror routine.

The Marx Beyond Paramount

An image from the Marx return and reinvention of themselves in 'A night at the Opera' [credit: MGM]
An image from the Marx return and reinvention of themselves in ‘A night at the Opera’ [credit: MGM]

This style of comedy and story was drastically different in the brothers’ MGM debut film A Night at the Opera. The Marx brothers ended their five picture deal with Paramount and after some time away from the screen, the brothers return in a revitalization film with Paramount’s great rival MGM. MGM showed the pure contrast in style from Paramount as their Marx brothers film

“contains less jokes than previous Marx films, but the design was that less jokes would equal more effective laughs… a story would be told that allows the audience to root for and identify with the characters” – Jeff Saporito, Screenprism

MGM wanted to create a film that told a story that was funny, Paramount wanted to create a film that would make audiences laugh.

Closing Re-Marx

Duck Soup was the perfect recipe for Paramount picture, as it was daring in how only Paramount was at the time. Paramount found themselves that in order to compete with the other studios, that they needed to trust in their stars and not be afraid of controversy. Duck Soup was not afraid to have people laughing at war in a world after The Great War (World War I) and really needed a good laugh as the economic Depression deepened. The Marx Brothers and Paramount formed the perfect marriage to deliver such a laugh.


Reference:

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