Flashback
A look back at this day in film history
November 17
Duck Soup November 17, 1933
Duck Soup released

While today the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup is considered a highpoint of classic Hollywood, on its release in 1933, it was a commercial flop that pushed Paramount to terminate its contract with the fraternal funnymen. In 1929, based on the success of the Marx Brothers’ Broadway comedies, Paramount signed them to a multiple picture deal. And for the next four years, the siblings’ zany antics hung together by some slender plot conceits proved box office gold. In each, the boys meet around some central place: In The Cocoanuts (1929), they take over a Florida hotel; in Animal Crackers (1930), a Long Island estate; in Monkey Business (1931), an ocean liner; in Horse Feathers (1932), a small college. But in Duck Soup ––which went through many titles: Firecrackers, then Cracked Ice, then Grasshoppers––the brothers take over the government of Freedonia, a fictitious small country on the verge of war. Critics, for the most part, got the joke. The New York Daily News punned, “If you like duck soup try the hot and spicy dish which the Rivoli introduced to Broadway yesterday…Four different kinds of nuts give it its special peculiar flavor…it is the funniest of the Marx Brothers’ productions.” But theater audiences did not find the film funny; indeed some were offended. While few Americans picked up on the film’s political allusions, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini did and had the film banned in Italy. (Of course, Groucho later commented on the film’s political import by saying, “What significance? We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh.") Elsewhere, the city of Fredonia, New York complained that the mythic land of Freedonia was too close for comfort. Groucho Marx snapped back, "Change the name of your town, it's hurting our picture." In the end, of course, Groucho got the last laugh, as Duck Soup was entered on the AFI list of the 100 greatest films.


More Flashbacks
Nov. 17, 1942
Martin Scorsese born

Hear the name "Martin Scorsese" and you'll most likely remember an iconic scene from one of his seminal modern classics, like the "You talkin' to me?" monologue from Taxi Driver or the gloriously long single-take Steadicam shot through a mob nightclub in Goodfellas.

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November 17, 1942
Baby Marty

66 years ago today in New York City, Martin Marcantonio Luciano Scorsese came into the world; nowadays, he is known to all lovers of film as simply “Marty.” The roots of all of Scorsese’s thematic tropes and preoccupations can be traced back to his childhood: his parents were working class folk living in Manhattan’s bustling, mob-controlled Garment District and, as devout Catholics of Sicilian extraction, made sure that their little boy had religion central as a central part of his life. Indeed Scorsese, like his alter ego Charlie in Mean Streets, was on course to become a priest, but could not resist the pull of his true vocation: cinema. As the Oscar-winning director himself explains in his splendid TV 1995 series A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, movies became a fascination and an integral part of his life early in his childhood after watching films like Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief and Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City and Paisà. (Scorsese would later marry Isabella Rossellini, the great Italian’s daughter with Ingrid Bergman.) Scorsese would regularly go to the movie theater with his father in his childhood and adolescence and from his short films of the 1960s onwards, cast his parents numerous times in minor roles in his movies, never forgetting his debt to them or where he had come from.

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