Groucho Marx offered the following explanation for the movie's title: "Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you'll duck soup the rest of your life."
Shortly before this film premiered, the city of Fredonia, New York, complained about the use of its name with an additional "e". The Marx Brothers' response was, "Change the name of your town, it's hurting our picture."
Screenwriters Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar were standing on the set of one day when an extra standing next to them said, "I don't know who wrote this stuff but they ought to be arrested...they should be in a different business." Kalmer, who was known as a rational and calm man, said to Ruby, "I'm going over to hit him. Who does he think he is? He's just an extra!" But before fisticuffs erupted, Kalmer and Ruby were informed that Chico Marx had paid the extra to rib the screenwriters, just for the hell of it.
An early draft of the script introduces Freedonia's new dictator Rufus T. Firefly as an agent for an ammunition company, which led to lots of ammunition-salesman jokes and intertwined with the movie's war theme.
Final film of Zeppo Marx. After the film's premiere, he quit The Marx Brothers, citing a dissatisfaction with movie acting overall, and a weariness with being the butt of jokes regarding him as the "unfunny" Marx brother.
Leo McCarey told Cahiers du cinema in 1967: "I don't like (Duck Soup) so much...I never chose to shoot this film. The Marx Brothers absolutely wanted me to direct them in a film. I refused. Then they got angry with the studio, broke their contract and left. Believing myself secure, I accepted the renewal of my own contract with the studio. Soon, the Marx Brothers were reconciled with (Paramount)...and I found myself in the process of directing the Marx Brothers. The most surprising thing about this film was that I succeeded in not going crazy, for I really did not want to work with them: they were completely mad."
Harpo Marx's character was originally called Skippy, but this was changed to Pinky after his role in Horse Feathers (1932), making him one of only two of The Marx Brothers to reuse a character name in their films (not counting when they used their own names).
Two Paramount contract writers, Grover Jones and Keene Thompson, were both eager and willing to be assigned to the film. They were each hired at different intervals, but both had disappeared from the production after two weeks' work. They simply did not have the stamina and perseverance in dealing with The Marx Brothers.
According to The Marx Brothers biographer Joe Adamson, the elaborate "All God's Chillun Got Guns" musical number was mostly improvised on the set, as there is no reference to it in the movie's final script. It's likely Groucho Marx was referring to the old Negro spiritual "I got Shoes", which repeats the line "All of God's children got..." filling "a song", "a robe", "a harp", etc. Groucho just added "Guns".
The surprising sight gag of the live dog barking out of a tattooed doghouse on Harpo's chest was originally a little different. Possibly because of censorship reasons, the sight gag was changed from a tattoo of an outhouse on Harpo's chest, whereupon Groucho slaps him on the back, causing the door of the outhouse to swing open and a little hand to reach out and shut it again.
Harpo Marx's character Pinky went through several name changes in pre-production. In a 1933 Paramount press-book ad, he's known as Snoopy. For a radio trailer, his character's name was changed to Skippy.
Breaking with their usual pattern, neither Harpo's harp nor Chico's piano is used in the film, although Harpo briefly pretends to play harp on the strings of a piano, strumming chords in accompaniment to a music box that is playing the unlikely chime tune, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" from rival studio Disney's Three Little Pigs (1933).
To help sell the film to theatre exhibitors and the public, the Paramount press department featured a number of contests to get the word out about the newest The Marx Brothers laugh fest. In addition to "Name the Four Marx Sisters," there was also a proposed duck-hunting contest, in which hunters across the fruited plain would bring back their catch to be cooked in one big duck dinner, beginning with duck soup, of course. And then there was the duck parade. Just imagine, to paraphrase the Paramount press materials, after you round up four ducks (preferably from a poultry market or a farmer), dress them as the Brothers, and let them lead the parade, you, the faithful theater manager, could then create more nonstop hilarity by tying the ducks together with a long string. "The ducks will not stay in line but that will only add to the confusion and the excitement," the press materials helpfully added.
The film was influenced by a political play called Of Thee I Sing, by George S. Kaufman (who wrote two of the Marxes' stage plays) and Morrie Ryskind, which took satirical swipes at French and U.S. relations. The Marxes briefly flirted with the idea of adapting the play for the screen. Instead, they incorporated many of the same themes into early drafts of the script.
Comparing the original scripts with the finished film, most of the characters' initial scripted names were later changed. Only the names of Chicolini and Mrs. Teasdale were kept. Groucho's character-originally named "Rufus T. Firestone"-eventually became Rufus T. Firefly, while the name of Harpo's character-named Pinky in the final product-was given in the pressbook as "Brownie".
Popular belief holds that the film was a box office failure, but this is not true. Although it did not do as well as Horse Feathers (1932), it was the sixth-highest grossing film of 1933. One possible reason for the film's lukewarm reception is that it was released during the Great Depression. Audiences were taken aback by such preposterous political disregard, buffoonery, and cynicism at a time of economic and political crisis.
One of over 700 Paramount Productions, filmed between 1929 and 1949, which were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution, and have been owned and controlled by MCA ever since. Its earliest documented telecast took place without fanfare in Asheville NC Friday 3 April 1959 on WLOS (Channel 13); a few months went by, and it was next aired in Grand Rapids 17 September 1959 on WOOD (Channel 8), and Toledo 18 November 1959 on WTOL (Channel 11). Eventually the word got out, and it began to pick up steam. It was first televised in Wichita 24 March 1960 on KTVH (Channel 12), in Indianapolis 20 May 1960 on WFBM (introduced by former actress Frances Farmer), in Milwaukee 3 July 1960 on WITI (Channel 6), in New York City 5 July 1960 on WCBS (Channel 2), in Pittsburgh 17 September 1960 on KDKA (Channel 2), in Johnstown 8 October 1960 on WJAC (Channel 6), in Cleveland 18 October 1960 on WJW (Channel 8), in San Francisco 24 October 1960 on KPIX (Channel 5), in Baltimore 31 October 1960 on WBAL (Channel 11), and, finally, in Hartford CT 9 December 1961 on WHCT (Channel 18) as part of their Gems of the Silver Screen series.
The film was influenced by two other projects that tangentially involved Marx Brothers alumni. Producer Herman J. Mankiewicz had just supervised the shooting of another Paramount comedy, Million Dollar Legs (1932), starring W.C. Fields. Herman's younger brother Joseph L. Mankiewicz had written that film's original story about a fictional country, Klopstokia, beset by chaotic foreign intrigue, nutty spies, and internal political strife. The cast even featured a young actress named Susan Fleming, playing the President's daughter, who was to become Harpo Marx's betrothed two years later.
By the time the film was in production, Harpo Marx was the critical darling of the intellectual community, particularly around the famed "Algonquin Round Table" in New York City, made up of several of the notable literati of the day, like Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. Alexander Woollcott considered Harpo to be the greatest pantomime since Charles Chaplin. Always considered to be the most congenial Marx brother, Harpo nevertheless let the attention go to his head, just a bit. One day on the set, Harpo, in an unusually pretentious gesture, asked Herman J. Mankiewicz to explain the motivation of his character. (As if Harpo was playing anyone else but Harpo...) Mankiewicz replied, "You're a middle-aged Jew who goes around picking up sh**."