Horse Feathers (1932)
Written by S. J. Perelman, Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Will B. Johnstone, and Arthur Sheekman
Directed by Norman Z. MacLeod
College comedies have been a staple of motion picture since the silent era with Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman and Buster Keaton’s College being the most memorable. It made sense for the Marx Brothers to follow in those footsteps because, at the end of the day, their movies were often a vehicle to get them on screen doing routines and gags. They take advantage of the setting by using the pending football game as the crux of the plot and a finale set-piece. Some anachronistic elements could confuse contemporary viewers, but it’s not enough to make the movie unwatchable, just demanding a little more attention from the audience.
Huxley College’s president steps down to make way for the era of Quincy Wagstaff (Groucho), who immediately begins his tenure by setting himself up as a perpetual contrarian. His son Frank (Zeppo) encourages Wagstaff to recruit ringers, professional football players to help boost the school’s prestige. Frank is also getting involved with a “college widow” (more on that in a bit), which annoys Wagstaff. Meanwhile, Baravelli (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo) are “icemen” for the mob, delivering alcohol during the Prohibition under the guise of ice for the icebox. Pinky is also a dogcatcher, which leads to some muddled bits. This quartet quickly comes together and, through a series of missteps and mishaps, ends up on the football field in the end.
The movie, like Animal Crackers, is made up of smaller episodes that play to the Brothers’ strengths. Harpo, as the dogcatcher, chases around dogs and crosses path with mobsters and cops, pulling off wild, frantic physical comedy. One of my favorite bits is Groucho arriving at the speakeasy where Chico has been assigned to watch the door. Chico is told not to let anyone in without the password, so Groucho engages in a speedy battle of logic and language that gets the password and ends up with Chico outside the club.
There are numerous instances of period slang that is a little difficult to wrap your head around. “College widow” is used to refer to the older woman Zeppo has become involved with. This was a term that referred to a young woman who remains living near a college after graduation to get access to younger men. It was a derogatory term and something akin to “cougar” maybe.
This was a pre-code movie, as discussed in my review of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, so the writers were able to get away some very obvious double entendres and sex comedy. Groucho makes constant sexual comments about the woman Zeppo is seeing, even becoming enamored with her himself. On a boating date with said woman, Groucho remarks, “I was gonna get a flat bottom, but the girl at the boat house didn’t have one.” There are constant remarks about alcohol and characters drinking. Harpo has a trick where he uses a shot glass with a funnel to empty a bottle of whiskey into his own. There are even missing scenes taken out as the engine of censorship began turning, which had some pretty explicit jokes. During an exchange between Chico and Zeppo’s girl:
Connie: Baravelli, you overcome me.
Baravelli: All right, but remember—it was your idea.
That’s pretty wild for today and even more so during this period of movies.
Horse Feathers isn’t perfect, a great comedy compared to many but not the best of what the Marx Brothers were going to make. It’s still a lot like Animal Crackers with a plot the loosely ties together skits. When you approach it that way, like a Monty Python movie, you enjoy it a lot more. There are many instances of plot consistency, but I’ve never heard anyone say how great the story was in a Marx movie. You show up to see how wild and crazy these guys get.