The Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup was first released in 1933. At first, many critics deemed the film to be a commercial failure because its popularity paled in comparison to other Marx Brothers’ productions like The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, and The House That Shadows Built. Furthermore, many sensitive American audiences were offended at the rampant “political disrespect, buffoonery and cynicism” at a time of political and economic crisis in the U.S. (Dirks). Still, other Americans delighted at the Marx Brothers’ ingenious satire and clever representation of American beliefs and attitudes during the time. The film pokes fun at the American system, points out the absurdity of an ineffective government, and reveals the triviality of nationalism—all of which reflect common American attitudes during the 1930s.
When the film was released, the Depression was in its severest stage and the American conditions of living had reached their worst. The unemployment rate skyrocketed while bread lines stretched for several blocks in many American cities. The Americans were tired of President Hoover’s stubborn insistence on a laissez-faire economy—which was clearly not working at the time. As Hoover’s term neared its end, many Americans began to doubt the American system. Dislike for Hoover’s pompous policies was apparent in the Election of 1932 in which Hoover was defeated 59 to 472 Electoral votes (“Chapter 36”).
In Duck Soup, Rufus T. Firefly’s ludicrously incompetent government represents the ineffective government system under Hoover that was despised by so many Americans during the time. The “cabinet scene” in which the absurdity of the Freedonian government was revealed had obvious implications to the Hoover administration and struck a positive chord with the American audience which was tired of Hoover’s predictable antics. Firefly demonstrated no concern for the people of Freedonia during the course of the movie—just as Hoover had no concern for the people of America during the course of his term. During the Hoover administration, Americans felt neglected, forgotten, and mistreated by their government; they felt that the government was doing everything in its power to serve its own interests with blatant disregard to the plight of the common person. To many disconcerted Americans, Firefly represented the principle flaws in the American system—namely the inability to function effectively and serve the people in the face of a financial crisis like the Great Depression.
Although the film was written before President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, it nonetheless had important implications to his administration. During the mid- to late-1930s Roosevelt was struggling against the rising power of Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, and the countless other fascist states fashioned during this decade. Roosevelt’s attempts at rallying American support for involvement in European affairs in order to stop the menacing Nazi war machine were met with bitter opposition by the majority of Americans. Determined isolationists—the majority of Americans were isolationist at the time—were reminded of the propaganda disseminated by the government before the start of World War I and were determined to stay out of another European conflict at all costs.
Duck Soup pointed out the often trivial reasons for war during the Trentino-Firefly scenes (Dirks). The war between Sylvania and Freedonia was started because Trentino referred to Firefly as an “upstart” (Uhlin). The starving Americans were in no mood to be dragged into a petty war by their overeager President during this dire time. One particularly offensive quote spoken by Firefly made a lasting impact on many American audiences, simultaneously offending them and opening their eyes to the “trickery” of the Roosevelt administration—and U.S. government in general: “And remember, while you're out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in here thinking what a sucker you are!” This quote represents the dominant American attitude during the late-1930s—namely, that Americans should ignore the fascist threat presented by Hitler and Mussolini and focus on the more pertinent problems at home like unemployment, immigration, and racism.
As a classic film comedy, Duck Soup not only succeeded at revealing American attitudes during the 1930s but set a precedent for future comedies and spawned numerous parodies. As scholars of U.S. history, it is important to recognize the subtle political messages veiled within the film that can teach us valuable lessons about the role of government in society—even today.
Dirks, Tim. "Duck Soup (1933)." FilmSite.Org. 22 Feb. 2007 <http://www.filmsite.org/duck.html>.
Uhlin, Mikael. "The Marx Brothers." Marxology. 22 Feb. 2007 <http://web.telia.com/~u66002771/duck.htm>.
“Chapter 36 - The Great Depression and the New Deal” Course-Notes.org. 22 Feb. 2007 <http://www.course-notes.org/US_History/Outlines/Chapter_36_-_The_Great_Depression_and_the_New_Deal>
You just finished "Duck Soup" and American Beliefs in the 1930s. Nice work!
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