Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Duck Soup: Take One

by Kevin Kusinitz

Aaron’s recent posting of the early Duck Soup advertisement is a necessary reminder that great works go through many phases before their completion. An even better example – if I may modestly say – is one I’ve had in my possession since purchasing it at auction for $25 many years ago: an original copy of Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby’s first treatment of Duck Soup. Running 27, double-spaced typed pages, it features the same framework of the movie we all know, while containing several wildly different details.

Let’s start with the cover. The typewritten title, in caps, reads FIRE CRACKERS. That’s been crossed out, replaced by the handwritten Cracked Ice. Above this, in turn, is its handwritten replacement Duck Soup, underlined in red. It seems Kalmar & Ruby themselves were unsure of the title while they were writing it, for Cracked Ice is typed inside on the first title page. But turn to the character page and we’re back to Firecrackers (now one word), which someone has crossed out and re-written as Cracked Ice. Turn to yet another title page and we see Fire Crackers (now two words again). They say when a movie goes through several title changes it’s in trouble. What if the title goes through different spellings as well?

And it’s not just the title that was different, either. Groucho was, as presented on the title page, Rufus T. Firestone; Harpo was Skippy; and Zeppo was Bob Firestone (son of Rufus). Only Chico’s Chicolini remained unchanged. Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania here is Ambassador Felix Frankenstein of Amnesia. And while Gloria Teasdale is the same, Vera Marcal was originally Gloria’s niece, June Parker. Throughout the treatment, the Marxes tend to be referred to by their “real” names rather than their characters (although, near the end, Zeppo’s suddenly becomes Bob Hemingway. I suspect by then Kalmar & Ruby were already deciding that the father/son relationship was going to change).

Speaking of Zeppo, his part appears to have been bigger than we see in the final release. His romance with June Parker plays a key part in this story, fueling Ambassador Frankenstein’s jealousy. In fact, the declaration of war hinges on June’s willingness to marry Frankenstein. Kalmar & Ruby write:

This develops into a burlesque melodramatic scene where Bob, in mock-heroics, says he will give up June for the love of his country. June refuses to be given up, and says she’d rather die than marry Frankenstein, and throws her arms around Bob.

It’s here – in the middle of the story, rather near the end – that the “Freedonia’s Going to War” number takes place. A brief dialogue exchange during the number:

ZEPPO: Father – if we win the war can I marry June Parker?

GROUCHO: Son – if we win the war we’ll all marry June Parker.

Another, greater loss was the elimination of yet another production number on the eve of war, honoring Groucho before he goes off to war:

This scene is done entirely to music from beginning to end, with dialogue in lyric form by Groucho and the guests.

In his book “Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo,” Joe Adamson featured the same lyrics provided in the treatment:

“Of course you’re all aware
A king must have an heir
A son who’ll pass the family name along
Will some one tell me where
I’ll ever get an heir
If the king can do no wrong…”

Like I said, Kalmar & Ruby were already forgetting the father/son business.

Chico’s still the peanut salesman-turned-secretary of war, although here he and Groucho decide to recruit women to spy on Amnesia. Harpo applies in drag, using balloons to pad his chest and rear. (Someone’s put an X next to the section where the balloons pop, perhaps to avoid incurring the wrath of the Hays office.) There’s no sign of Harpo’s battle with Edgar Kennedy’s lemonade salesman here, either. His running gag with Groucho involving the motorcycle is compressed into one early scene, with the twist coming several pages later. The tattoo with the barking dog here is an outhouse featuring an angry man:

His lips move, inaudibly swearing for being disturbed. (This is done in animated cartoons).

Groucho’s romance with Margaret Dumont contains different jokes:

They don’t come any better than you – well, they may come better they don’t come any bigger – and the bigger the better. The bigger the betta you got on a horse the more you lose. And speaking about horses, why don’t you marry me? Say yes and I’ll do everything within my power to get out of it. I’ll go away if it means your happiness.

Lines like that remind us that this was a first draft. (Pointing to cabinet members, Groucho tells Zeppo, “Get rid of these microbes, if you have to use violence.” You can almost hear the writers say to the production staff, “We’ll think of something else.”) An unfinished gag involves Harpo hanging a portrait of himself in June Parker’s bedroom. After he leaves,

June starts to remove her negligee, and is left in her silken undies. As she starts to remove those and her stockings – there is some trick business with the picture of Harpo. (This will have to be explained.)

I’ll say it does – like how did they expect to get away with this actress taking off her underwear?

The war climax is considerably longer here, involving gags that never made the final cut. (Groucho looking through binoculars and seeing a different sight each time – army warfare, navy warfare, a football game, soldiers in the time of King Arthur…) Harpo, riding in an enemy blimp, drops a hook onto Groucho’s headquarters and carries it away. This is followed by “an airplane stunt designed for comedy and thrills, with Groucho and Zeppo in one plane and Harpo and Chico in another.” When the planes crash, Groucho and Zeppo carry on a conversation as they fall to the ground: “Groucho wants to know what time the parachute is due to arrive, and complains that these things are never on time.” When they land at Mrs. Teasdale’s house, they discover that the war ended a month earlier.

Zeppo suggests a double wedding. Harpo and Chico land in the garden and the story will be concluded here among the four boys and the two women.

And that’s where it ends.

As I read the treatment, echoes of the Marxes earlier movies reverberated throughout. The father/son relationship from Horsefeathers. A Groucho/Zeppo letter dictation scene from Animal Crackers. Groucho/Chico double-talk from all their movies, probably going back to the dialogue cards from their silent movie Humor Risk. Groucho calling the fight scene like a radio announcer in Monkey Business is transferred here to Harpo racing his motorcycle around the palace. Even though many of these elements were dropped from the final draft, I have a feeling that audiences of the time still picked up on them by osmosis. And I believe it’s that sense of been-there done-that, rather than the political satire, that caused Duck Soup’s box-office loss. (One amateur Marx Bros. scholar figures that 40% of Duck Soup’s dialogue is lifted from Groucho and Chico’s radio show Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel. That would explain the “additional dialogue” credit to Nat Perrin and Arthur Sheekman. It would also explain a further sense of déjà vu on the audience’s part.)

I have no idea how the treatment – according to the notes, prepared for a staff meeting on Monday, December 5, 1932 – wound up at an auction at the Puck Building in New York over 60 years later. I’m just grateful that it did, and that the fellow bidding against me dropped out after I topped his $20 bid. Even without having it appraised, I think it’s the most valuable piece of memorabilia in my collection. I’m not necessarily referring to a dollar amount, but rather what it means to me as a Marx Brothers fan. The Fire Crackers/Firecrackers/Cracked Ice/Duck Soup treatment is akin to a complete master tape of the “Sgt. Pepper” demos. You can see how it evolved to greatness, but marvel at the work of everyone involved. Even Zeppo and Ringo.

Labels: ,

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to dispell a long held myth. Duck Soup did not lose money at the box office. That fact has always been used as an easy way to explain the Marxs' leaving Paramount. The movie didn't make as much money as the previous films, this fact, and the fact that the Marxs' wanted to start their own production company was the actual reason for them not re-signing with Paramount.

Also, I had the rare and wonderful experience of reading Kalmar and Ruby's draft of what I consider to be their worst film, Go West. It was more Paramount than MGM, which is probably why MGM went with Irving Brechers' lame script.

Nick Santa Maria...

1:04 PM  
Anonymous Kevin Kusinitz said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks "Go West" is their worst movie. Popular consesus would have it as "The Big Store." While often difficult to watch, at least "Big Store" feels like a Marx Bros. movie. "Go West" is more on the level of Carney & Brown.

I wish the Marxes had started their own company instead of moving to M-G-M. Maybe they'd have turned out a few more movies on the level of "Duck Soup."

11:14 AM  
Anonymous The Mikado said...

Okay, how and where did you see the Kalmar-Ruby "Go West" draft?

I've been wondering about that for years.

12:11 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home