A look back at this day in film history
December 16
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
Dec. 16, 1977
Saturday Night Fever opens

When Saturday Night Fever was released on December 16, 1977, the movie made John Travolta a star and prompted the start of a global disco revolution.

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December 16, 1967
America catches Saturday Night Fever

In December 1977, people lined up to see newcomer John Travolta dance his way into American history as Tony Manero, the paint-store clerk with a white leisure suit, a major attitude and the dance moves back it up. The idea for the film began as a 1975 investigative article in New York Magazine called “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” by British rock journalist Nik Cohn. Interested in the emerging disco scene, Cohn detailed a group of Bay Ridge working-class kids who lived to dance on the weekends at their favorite disco. Unfortunately, just before the film came out, Cohn came clean that he had made up the whole story. But such a confession could not stop the juggernaut that was about to become Saturday Night Fever. Media mogul Robert Stigwood saw the film as a perfect cross-promotional vehicle between his music company RSO (Robert Stigwood Organization) and his emerging film productions. The idea paid off, as both film and movie seemed to reinforce the other’s popularity. Travolta shot into stardom, and the album sold over 20 million copies, becoming the top selling album in history until Michael Jackson's Thriller six years later. The dance/music concept was repeated with John Travolta: first in a 1980 country version, Urban Cowboy; and then in a less than successful 1983 sequel Staying Alive, directed by none other than Sylvester Stallone.

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