Horse Feathers (1932)
“The Maddest Comics of the Screen!”
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Cast: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx
Synopsis: Quincy Adams Wagstaff, the new president of Huxley University, hires bumblers Baravelli and Pinky to help his school win the big football game against rival Darwin University.
More inspired lunacy from the four Marx Brothers sees Groucho playing Quincy Adams Wagstaff, the new President of Huxley University. Quite how an oddball like Wagstaff came to be offered such an illustrious post is never explained, but his attitude towards his new employers’ old traditions is neatly summarised in the way he pulls on the beards of the crusty old professors as he sings a song called Whatever It Is, I’m Against It.
Wagstaff’s son Frank is a student at the college, and is played by Zeppo in what might be cinema’s only instance two brothers playing father and son. Frank explains to his father that the school needs a couple of new football players if Huxley is to have any chance of beating arch rivals Darwin (geddit?) in the upcoming match. He knows of a couple of players who hang out in a local speakeasy, but when Wagstaff goes there to sign them up, he mistakenly ends up recruiting bootlegger Baravelli (Chico Marx) and dog catcher Pinky (Harpo Marx) while the two ringers are snapped up by Darwin’s coach.
Horse Feathers culminates in a typically bizarre and surreal scenario which sees Huxley making use of a chariot in order to score a touchdown in the big match, but before we get there the issue of Frank’s romancing of ‘college widow’ Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd, who also appeared in the brothers’ previous movie, Monkey Business) and his father’s unconventional attempts at breaking them up, have to be addressed. Todd makes a sultry and feisty foil for Groucho and might have found herself a niche in the Brother’s subsequent films had her life not been cut short a few years after this movie was filmed. Ironically, although Groucho and Zeppo are the ones competing for her attentions, it’s only with Chico that she shares any degree of sexual chemistry.
Horse Feathers shows the Marx Brothers at the top of their game. Their world is one of deconstructed mayhem in which everything and everyone exists purely to be ridiculed and satirised, so to search for any kind of meaning to the plot is pointless. It’s all fairly exhausting thanks to a breakneck pace and short 68 minute running time, but will please those who delight in the Brothers’ anarchic brand of humour. Although the screenplay is credited to a quartet of writers, a number of the skits are taken from the Brothers’ old stage routines.
(Reviewed 22nd August 2014)