|Professor Wagstaff …
|Frank Wagstaff …
|Connie Bailey …
Horse Feathers: Giving It the Old College Try
Every comedy team in the first half of the century had to do their lampoon on college life. Lloyd’s The Freshman, Keaton’s College, Chaplin’s The Circus— okay, maybe not that last one, but it’s named in the same spirit– all took on the raucous world of academia in a time where it was concerned with pants hiked up to their elbows and everyone was eager to head down to the big game.
Enter the insanity of the Marx Brothers. Groucho is newly in charge of Huxley College, Chico is an ice deliveryman, Zeppo is Groucho’s son (!) and a football player, and Harpo is a dogcatcher. Groucho ropes all three of them to participate in the big game against their rival, Darwin. They’re also all chasing after Connie Bailey (Todd), the ‘college widow’ who plays all sides.
Horse Feathers is probably the most musical of their Paramount pictures, as every brother gets a shot at the romantic ditty “Everyone Says I Love You.” Zeppo is sincere, Chico and Groucho make theirs a little silly, and Harpo, believe it or not, strums out the tune on a harp. Bailey, who is trying to use the brothers to get their football playbook, meets these overtures with bemusement.
If you’ve seen a college movie before, you know that we’re all headed towards the big game. Harpo and Chico attempt to kidnap the opposing team’s star players and wind up kidnapped themselves; things get better from there after they saw through the floor and make a run to the stadium via a horse drawn garbage truck.
Really, any description that gets into Horse Feathers is just going to be a list of routines. Harpo chases a dog and catches a policeman. Chico on the inside of a speakeasy and Groucho on the outside trying to come to terms with some kind of a password to enter. No one cares about the football game as much as their card game, at least until hotdogs become involved.
That may be to Horse Feathers‘ discredit. The Marx Brothers are a force of pure anarchy, who dislike and resent any attempts to bring order to the world, but it does sometimes seem like they get caught up in doing the same couple of routines with variations on wordplay and scenarios. While the film pointedly lashes out at college for being nothing but a place where the students sleep and football is the only thing that arouses any interest (even the co-eds seem curiously neutered), this well of humor isn’t exactly untapped. As a movie, it’s fine, but in the grand schema of college comedies, it’s not anywhere near the head of the pack.
What Horse Feathers does much better than Monkey Business is that it’s consistent. There’s no dropoff in the second half, and all of the musical interludes are integrated much better. Thelma Todd is livelier in Feathers, and the whole enterprise simply feels more alive. While that doesn’t make it as funny as Animal Crackers or as subversive as Duck Soup, it’s a fairly solid film that fits solidly in the group’s second tier of films.
And for those of you who have never seen another Marx movie, that last paragraph probably reads as gobbledygook. Horse Feathers is a fine Marx Brothers film and a very funny comedy. That’s all you’ve got to know.
Chico: The One With the Accent
Since I touched on my love for Zeppo last time, I thought that it may be fun to discuss probably the least appreciated of the other brothers, Chico. I once saw a discussion with TCM host Robert Osbourne that had him noting that he always found Chico to be the most natural actor of all of the brothers. And you can see that, too: Groucho and Harpo have fleeting little moments in some of their films where they look noticeably nervous or awkward, but Chico invests every scene with unabashed gusto.
He’s not the wiseacre that Groucho is and he’s not the loveable mug that Harpo is, but instead occupies his own special place. The character of Chico operates on pure illogic, often confusing words and phrases into a miasma of nonsense. Where Groucho owns his language, flipping it around to do with as he pleases, and Harpo has mastered non-verbal communication as a language, Chico is the connection holding them together: a fugue state of incomprehension that doesn’t sneer at the world but constantly misinterprets it in goodwill.
I read one thing a while ago (and yes, this is that attention to detail I’m so well known for) that discussed Chico’s accent, and made note that while it certainly derives from vaudevillian ethnic humor, the accent is so bad that no one is offended by it. Since the accent is so bad, it gives Chico an extra layer that makes him seem false or off; this is often exploited, as when he’s a spy for Sylvania or attempting to kidnap a pair of football players.
One can take this as innate xenophobia, of Americans always making the one with the accents seem duplicitous. However, I think because of the ridiculousness of the accent, it becomes a comment on how Americans view easily identifiable accents rather than an exploitation; it becomes a joke about American xenophobia rather than an example of it.
As for the man himself, Chico was the oldest of the five Marx brothers, an his life story outside of the pictures or stage seems to involve a great many gambling debts and women. There’s even the old joke that he was talked into betting on the outcome of the horse race in A Day at the Races, which, obviously, was rigged for the purposes of the story. He lost.
I like paying attention to Chico since he doesn’t grab the frame as often as Groucho or Harpo but plays the perfect foil for both. Here’s one of my favorite bits of his from Horse Feathers, which would inform a few other great bits in A Day at the Races and Duck Soup.
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Groucho, talking to Chico as they crawl into a bar: “That’s no way to go into a speakeasy! That’s how you come out!”
- “The trustees have a few suggestions they would like to submit to you.” Groucho: “I think you know what the trustees can do with their suggestions.”
- Groucho shares a deep connection with Queen in his choice of boats: “I was gonna get a flat bottom but the girl at the boat house didn’t have one.”
Here are some extra screenshots I took. Click on any picture to enlarge!
Trivia & Links
- Here’s all of the brothers singing “Everyone Says I Love You” since, you know, I can’t hold back from ya’ll:
- As mentioned before, the film is censored in its current form. Marxology details a few of the cuts and details just what this film is parodying.
- The eternally precious Movie Diva goes into the Brothers’ history and life story, even leaving some room for some amusing Zeppo anecdotes:
Zeppo became a very successful agent, and his brothers were among his clients. It is said that whenever contract negotiations stalled, he always threatened to rejoin the performing Marx Brothers.
- Immortal Ephemera takes on supporting actor David Landau, who plays the villain here. He goes through Landau’s short but incredibly prolific film career.
- John Greco at Twenty Four Frames explains the joke about a Huxley/Darwin rivalry, and also goes into Thelma Todd’s death a bit more in the footnotes. It involves oral sex, so you know you want to read it.
- Doctor Macro has a number of scans from the picture as well as a bevy of posters. One funny thing I noticed looking at this: Harpo’s sign in his hat changes from ‘Dog Catcher’ to ‘Kidnapper’ later in the film. It’s like a resume; got to keep it up to date!
- Mythical Monkey talks about the history of the Marx Brothers– they’d been performing together for twenty years when this film was made– and has a lot of cool pictures of the guys when they were younger. He also mentions that he used The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia as a source, which I can indeed confirm as a fun and handy read. He also covers Horse Feathers on its own here.
- Another Old Movie Blog talks about the musical interludes that the Marxes so often launch into. They make no sense, and, thus from a Marx perspective, make perfect sense.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- Listed in the Wikipedia List of Pre-Code Films.
- This film is featured in the Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection, and is available for individual purchase on Amazon and can be rented from Classicflix.
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