Why the U.S. Sent Back the Duck Soup and Ordered the King Kong

         The Marx brothers comedy Duck Soup, directed by Leo McCarey in 1933, was not a failure, but was not as successful as it could/should have been. King Kong, directed in 1933 by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, was a surprise smash for RKO and could be considered RKO’s cash ticket and one of the films that saved them (for a while) from closing. What changed? Why did the American movie audience decide they would rather see a monster ape tear a city apart, than familiar funny faces cracking jokes? Historically, 1933 was the turning point from distrusting the government to utter faith in the government.

         Before 1933, American film saw a series of movies that reflected the assumption of the people that their government was corrupt and failing. The people had lost faith in their government due to the failure to get out of the Depression. People were looking for someone to blame for their being unemployed and hungry, so they placed the blame on the corrupt government and its inability to control crime.

         Gangster/shyster films, like William Wellman’s 1931 The Public Enemy, showed stories of a successful downfall. The men in the films had no option but to become part of the gangs because they were living in a time where legitimate institutions failed and the law was “stifling.” This was how many people felt before 1933, with no options left and oppressed by the law, which was useless and incompetent. People assumed that the law was incompetent because it was not helping them get out of their troubled state.

         The comedies before 1933 continued this assumption that the government was a “gag.” The Marx Brothers poked fun at the idea of a government. The audience delighted at the Marx Brothers 1930 Animal Crackers, directed by William Heerman, because they were absurd and offered a freeing sense from the rules of the period.

         The New Deal pulled the rug out from these absurd comedies. Duck Soup failed because people wanted a leader and did not want to see their newly planned government be mocked and attacked and did not want to see their values of family be shown as a sham. The comedies after 1933 quickly learned from their mistakes and replaced them with “screwball” comedies that focused more on bizarre predicaments rather than social satires, such as Frank Capra’s 1934 It Happened One Night and Howard Hawks’s1938 Bringing Up Baby.

         The New Deal brought on a new period of films. The Depression was ending and Roosevelt was pushing for farmers and agriculture to be revived. This idea was brought forth in King Kong where it praised the simple and rural life as the solution to the nation’s Depression. The great ape destructs the city, where he feels trapped. People identified with his desperate fight to be free and return to where he came from. People longed for the depression to end and to return to the “good old days.”

         King Kong also showed the trust needed in the government in order for America to survive. Kong cannot be stopped by the men who bring it over but falls to the government airplanes that shoot it down. Beauty may have indirectly killed the beast, but visually the audience saw the government succeed. King Kong helped reinforce the ideas of trust in the government, and possibly may have helped the people accept the need to help in World War II to combat the Kong of Europe, Hitler (who was elected in 1933 as the Chancellor of Germany).

         To conclude, Duck Soup was served to the American audience cold. It came one year too late. When King Kong was served, the American people were ready and willing to believe a gigantic ape could terrorize the country, because the Depression had paralyzed the country. King Kong came at a time when the government was giving solutions and shooting down the depression, so people were thrilled to see this type of movie. The criticism in Duck Soup was unwelcome because it did not offer a solution, just mockery, something a year ago they would have been thrilled to see, but the government had started to do its job again, so the criticism was unwelcome.

Susie Shircliff

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