One Theory as to Why “Duck Soup” Didn’t Do As Well

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Today is the birthday of the great Hollywood screenwriter, producer and director Joseph Mankiewicz. The list of important movies Mankiewicz had a hand in, in one or more of those three capacities, is too long to list here, nor am I inclined to do so.

Lately, I’ve been getting comments from some readers: “Why didn’t you include such-and-such in your post? How could you omit x, y and z?” Because, my little d-ahlins, this is my BLOG, not an online encyclopedia. I write about what is of interest to me, what speaks to me, and then I share it. A blog is about the intimate, personal interactions between a writer and the subjects he loves to write about. Lest there be any confusion, if you’re looking for some kind of definitive “science” or even “history”, I urge you, DON’T COME HERE. If there is some aspect of this subject that interests you that I haven’t covered, why that’s wonderful — write your own flippin’ blogpost about it, and take it somewhere else, preferably someplace far across the ionosphere. Because the not-so-secret subject of every post on this blog happens to be Trav S.D. 

NOW. MANKIEWICZ. While, as I say he made many classics starting in the latter days of silents and culminating with 1972’s Sleuth, today I am just looking to point you to some of my favorite crazy comedies of the early 30s.  I think a couple of these pictures (written or co-written by Mankiewicz) help explain the tepid box office response to the Marx Brothers Duck Soup in 1933. Both Million Dollar Legs (1932) and Diplomaniacs (1933) are extremely surreal, zany political satires set in fictional principalities not unlike Duck Soup’s Freedonia.

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In Million Dollar Legs, W.C. Fields plays the President of a fictional country called Klopstokia, who rules his country by virtue of his superpowers (the titular legs refer to an attempt to win the 1932 Olympics using super speed). The film features an all-star comedy cast including Fields, Jack Oakie, Lyda Roberti, Andy Clyde, Ben Turpin and Hugh Herbert.

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Diplomaniacs stars Wheeler and Woolsey as a couple of unsuccessful barbers on an Indian reservation, who go to make their pitch at an International peace conference run by Edgar Kennedy. (Hugh Herbertand Louis Calhern are also in the film).

Both of these movies are full of that crazy, nonsense humor that was so popular in the early 30s and was not the exclusive property of the Marx Brothers: breath-takingly strange  sight gags, constant puns, and a comic strategy of constant disorientation. Diplomaniacs came out in May of 1933, Duck Soup came out in November of that year. As brilliant as Duck Soup is, we watch it with a comfortable cushion of 80 years between us and it. If we were watching it in the middle of 1933, we would have found it very similar to the previous 4 Marx Brothers films, and all too similar to Million Dollar Legs and Diplomaniacs. “Louis Calhern as a diplomat again?

Which all goes to say these two films are well worth watching – – they are completely strange and hilarious, as are a couple of others released around the time, which Joseph Mankiewicz also had a hand in as screenwriter, the all-star If I Had a Million (1932, featuring W.C. Fields again, and practically everyone else at Paramount), and Alice in Wonderland (1933, ditto).

Here’s part one of Million Dollar Legs (two and three are also available on Youtube as well):

For more on comedy film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 

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