Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1932)

4. Horse Feathers

“Monkey Business” proved so popular in 1931, that Paramount initially considered breaking with tradition up to that point and producing a direct sequel. The Marx Brothers were going to face off with gangsters again. However, in 1932, the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped and killed by gang members. Hoping to avoid controversy, the plan was changed at the last minute to adapt “Fun in Hi Skule,” one of the Brothers' earlier stage shows. The resulting film was called “Horse Feathers,” a now obscure bit of slang meaning nonsense and tomfoolery, because just naming it “The Marx Brothers Go to College” would've been too straight-forward. This late in the game reshuffling would feature the brothers putting their mark on another comedy tradition: the sports farce.

“Horse Feathers” takes place at Huxley University, a prestigious school currently involved in a football rivalry with Darwin College. The film follows Quincy Wagstaff, Huxley's unconventional president. Wagstaff's son, Frank, is a football star and currently romancing the college widow. The two cook up a plot to sabotage the other school's team, with the help of two bootleggers, a dog-catcher named Pinky and an iceman named Baravelli.  Naturally, things do not go exactly as planned.

There's a reason why college and sports are the subjects of so many comedies. Aside from overlapping to absurd degrees, both are concepts that certain people take way too seriously. This makes the subjects perfect fodder for the anarchic shenanigans of the Marx Brothers. Both institutions are roundly mocked. Groucho plays a college president with nothing but contempt for the academy he presides over, opening the film by mocking the other heads of the association. Football, meanwhile, is treated no more seriously. Cheating is the main point of the plot. At the end, whether or not Huxley wins the game is less important than the chaos the brothers cause on the field.

Yet, in many ways, “Horse Feathers” represents a slight step backwards for the Marx Brothers. Compared to the pure comedic chaos of “Monkey Business,” “Horse Feathers” is a lot more subdued. The humor is not quite as unhinged, the characters working more for the system than against it. The musical numbers make a comeback, with Groucho singing “Whatever It Is, I'm Against It” in the first scene. The romantic subplot is totally separate, once again, from the stuff we actually care about. Zeppo is left to a totally lame supporting role, weirdly cast as his older brother's son. It's slightly disappointing, after the comedic highs of the last film.

While the material lets him down slightly, Groucho Marx is as sharp as ever. His opening shots at the faculty, about the speech being duller than his razor or tossing away his cigar, are great. As always, he makes tiny little lines into gut busters. A simple exchange about a bicycle or responding to the question of “Who are you?” are classic comebacks. A stand-out scene has him cracking walnuts with his office phone while debating with his co-workers, showing a suitably irreverent attitude towards running a college. (“Where will the students sleep?” “Where they always sleep: In the classrooms.”) After taking over an anatomy class, he spins a diagram out the blood system into digressions about loosing at cards and other nonsense. At times, Groucho breaks the fourth wall again, asking the audience to leave while the other characters chatter. However, sometimes Groucho's quips border on the mean, especially those directed at Zeppo, who is supposed to be his fictional son after all.

Harpo continues to rampage through the plot, even if its more in service of the plot than usual. His ability to produce things from his pocket goes further then usual. He pulls a cup of coffee out of nowhere. One scene has him messing with a cop, by revealing a collection of badges. Absolutely the best example of this is when he concludes a conversation by throwing a live seal on a desk. He's also as quick with the sight gag as his brother is with a one liner. When asked to “cut the cards,” he cleaves the deck in half with a hatchet. He verbalizes swordfish, the famous password to the speakeasy, in an especially amusing way. A key scene has Harpo and Chico attempting to kidnap the rival school's star football players. This backfires spectacularly and their escape attempt escalates in a nicely absurd way.

Chico's garbled comebacks are very strong as well. The sword gag just keeps building and building. First sturgeon and haddock are misheard. Then Groucho and Chico end up locking themselves out of the building. While Groucho attempts to teach a class, Chico constantly mishears simple bodily terminology, with corpuscles and cirrhosis both being mangled in amusing ways. His attempts to seduce the movie's love interest are interrupted by Groucho, who simply hugs the girl around Chico.

While the song and dance numbers are mostly unnecessary, they are still better incorporated into the film than they were in “The Cocoanuts” or “Animal Crackers.” “Whatever It Is, I'm Against It!” is cute but pretty low energy, at least until the other school officials get up and start dancing. Mostly, the film repeats one song in several different renditions. “Everyone Says I Love You” is performed by each brother in a different style. Zeppo sings a traditional version. Chico's take is accompanied by peppy piano playing. Harpo, naturally, plays the song on the harp, which sadly really saps the energy from the film for several minutes. Groucho's interpretation is played on a guitar but is quickly sidelined when he starts trash-talking a duck and getting annoyed at his female companion's obnoxious baby talk. Seeing the song evolve and change throughout the movie is quite interesting.

As is usually the case, not every gag in “Horse Feathers” works. Harpo making every device in the speakeasy pay out coins is an odd one. So is the scene where characters keep throwing blocks of ice out a window. A scene that has Harpo shoveling books into the fire place actually borders on off-putting. A scene involving spitballs goes on for much too long, not getting funny until the very end. This is also the first time the censorship board of the time were actively interfering with the film. A sequence, involving the three brothers flirting with the college widow, is roughly edited. This is a result of both the film's age and some spicier lines being hastily cut out. This is, thus far, the Marx Brothers movie with the highest number of misses.

Like “Monkey Business,” “Horse Feathers” also runs out of steam before the end. The climatic football game is not nearly as hilarious as it needs to be. There are funny moments here. Mostly in Groucho making derisive comments about women's basketball or betting against the other team. Or leaping out and tackling an opposing player out of nowhere. (He also, amusingly, holds onto his cigar throughout the whole game.) However, the bigger physical comedy gags do not work as well. Harpo trying to grab a hot dog in the middle of the game is mildly amusing but his limbs getting stretched out is a lame gag. And then the film just ends suddenly, any plot importance being shuffled away.

“Horse Feathers” is not a dud. There's more then enough laughs to justify a run time that's just barely over an hour. However, it represents a serious slide back in quality from “Monkey Business,” feeling a lot more like the stiffer first two features the brothers did. I guess this was a symptom of choosing to adapt a play again, instead of writing something original for the screen. Either way, the audiences at the time didn't mind, as the film was another hit for Paramount and the brothers' association with the studio with continue, at least for the near future. [Grade: B]

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