Flashback
A look back at this day in film history
November 21
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
Rocky November 21, 1976
Rocky premieres

Though Rocky, released November 21, 1976, tells the great underdog story of Rocky Balboa, the tale of how the movie got made is arguably an even more inspirational example of an outsider beating unthinkably long odds.

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November 21, 1944
Harold Ramis born

Harold Ramis, born today in 1944 in Chicago, is the kind of director that Hollywood loves.

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November 21, 1924
Scandal at Sea

On 21 November 1924, Hollywood’s elite, such as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford, gathered to bury Thomas Ince, the man who’d practically founded the studio system. After working for years as a silent film actor, he graduated to director, engineering an assembly line procedure that became the prototype for studio productions. Ince put his theories of production into practice in 1912 when he found his own studio “Inceville” –– which later moved to Culver City to become Culver Studios –– and started to churn out western after western. But in November 18, 1924, at the young age of 41, Ince died of acute indigestion on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht Oneida. Or so the death certificate said. But many attending his funeral on November 21 believe something else happened, something Hearst’s absence all but confirmed. The story being whispered about town was that Hearst killed Ince by accident. Believing that Chaplin was having an affair with his mistress Marion Davies on his own yacht, Hearst had taken a shot at a man he believed to be the little tramp, only to discover afterwards that he had fatally shot Ince in the head. The rumors grew so fierce that the San Diego District Attorney was forced to open up an investigation, but by that time there was little evidence to examine, and no one willing to talk. One possible witness, entertainment reporter Louella Parsons, remembered nothing. Of course, immediately after the trip Parsons had coincidently been promoted from Hollywood reporter to nationally syndicated columnist, thus initiating her own dynasty. (The suspected murder was dramatized years later in Peter Bogdanovich’s 2001 drama The Cat’s Meow).

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