Why “Horse Feathers” is My Favorite Marx Brothers Picture

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As you may have seen in my earlier post, several Marx Brothers movies vie for the spot of my favorite, but if pressed, really pressed, I would concede that my candidate for the top slot is Horse Feathers. There are many reasons for this. It was written by their funniest writers (Kalmar and Ruby, S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone). It contains great Kalmar and Ruby songs. Directed by Norman McLeod, who’d also directed Monkey Business it is highly cinematic (as opposed to the stagebound Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers.) The college setting is conducive to satire and vaudeville comedy (we’ll talk more about both aspects subsequently). It’s the one movie in which Groucho shows off his musical skills on guitar.

And…it has the best role for Zeppo. People laugh when I say that, but you know what? Any movie that casts a member of a comedy team (and a talented one at that) and then doesn’t use him to full advantage gets demerits, no matter how excellent other aspects are. The best potential use of Zeppo in the context of the Marx Brothers was as a parody of a juvenile, or leading man, and that’s what he is here. In Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, as opposed to their vaudeville sketches, they had Zeppo AND another juvenile, making both of them seem at least half redundant. In Monkey Business, they started to figure out how to better use him, and in Horse Feathers it comes into full flowering.

Here Zeppo plays a suspiciously middle aged looking college student whose entire devotion seems to be to his social life, in particular screwing the “College Widow” (i.e. a gold-digger of rich college boys) played by the irresistible Thelma Todd. (Her blonde bombshell role is intriguing; it gives us a glimpse into what a team-up between the Marx Brothers and Mae West or Jean Harlow might have been like). Groucho is inexplicably the president of the college. And Chico and Harpo are two “partners” (an ice man  and a dog-catcher) who, through an accident, are hired by Groucho to be football players for the team.

The Owl and the Pusssycat
The Owl and the Pussycat

Ironically, I’ve always found the film to have what I consider the true energy of a romantic comedy as you might find it in Shakespeare, say, a play like As You Like It. This is strange because at best it’s a parody of that, and it’s quite cynical. Connie Bailey (Todd) is a slut (don’t worry, I never use the term pejoratively, she’s a lady with a large sexual appetite). But it’s not like this is between her and ONE beau. But all the aesthetic markers are there. There’s a symmetry, in the four of them pursuing her. There’s the beauty of the four of them serenading her. Chico’s is the least beautiful, but the most real, on a meta level. Watch him and Thelma on the piano bench. They are flirting, and it is not a performance. There is sexual chemistry. Groucho’s is the most overt parody, as he sings to her on a boat, but the scene is beautiful — bucolic — nonetheless. And Harpo”s harp serenade is the most beautiful of all, as is the sweet kiss Todd blows to him afterward. And like all classical comedies it ends on a wedding, ostensibly to Zeppo, whom we can’t even see, although at the last minute all three of the others jump on the bride. Also, consider this small detail. We actually like the Marx Brothers characters, are interested in them and are paying attention to them. Which is much more than can be said about the supposed romantic leads who are cast opposite them in their movies. Thus I find myself caring much more about the romance between the 4 brothers and Todd’s character than ANY of the soporific meat puppets the producers usually saddle us with as “romantic leads”.

The amount of satire in this movie and in Duck Soup has often been overstated by intellectuals. In a vague, general way, yes. But it’s ultimately no deeper or more specific or more significant than the satire you will find in many Mack Sennett comedies — a general idea that stuffed shirts and arbitrary authority and conventions and hypocrisy are bad, and freedom and fun and happiness are good. Its most striking satirical points seem to happen on the visual level, in images like Groucho pulling a bunch of professors’ beards, or Harpo shoveling a bunch of books into a roaring fire. Another satirical element, the opening number “I’m Against It/ I Always Get My Man” is the song I usually cite for my favorite song in any musical, ever.

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If you think about it, the movie’s concept of what academia is, is pretty crude, very much from the outside. It’s like the writers got all their ideas of what a university is from vaudeville joke books (odd, given that Perleman was an Ivy League man). The most obviously vaudevillian section is the classroom scene, which has its obvious antecedent’s in the team’s many vaudeville sketches, including “Fun in High Skule”. The professor (Robert Grieg) is just there to feed them lines. It’s a comedy sketch. Try to analyze it as an actual “class” and it falls apart. Never do that. (Shudders)

H’m…what else. The revolving door love-making scene in Connie Bailey’s apartment is the clearest survival of the Napoleon scene in I’ll Say She Is, soon to be making its way to a theatre near you!

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And the extended football game sequence really became the model for any comedy sports game that’s been filmed since.

For more on comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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