Saturday, May 23, 2009

MARX BROTHERS: Horsefeathers (1932)

From Wikipedia

Horse Feathers (1932) was the fourth Marx Brothers film. It starred the four Marx Brothers, Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo, as well as Thelma Todd as Connie Bailey. It was written by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, S. J. Perelman, and Will B. Johnstone. Kalmar and Ruby also wrote some of the original music for the film. Several of the film's gags were taken from the Marx Brothers' stage comedy from the 1920s, Fun in Hi Skule.


The film revolves around, among other things, college football and a game between the fictional Darwin and Huxley Colleges. (Thomas Henry Huxley was a defender of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.) Many of the jokes about the amateur status of collegiate football players and how eligibility rules are stretched by collegiate athletic departments remain remarkably current.

Groucho plays Quincy Adams Wagstaff, the new president of Huxley College, and Zeppo is his son Frank, who convinces his father to recruit professional football players to boost the Huxley team's chance of winning. There are also many references to Prohibition. Baravelli (Chico) is an "iceman", who delivers ice and bootleg liquor from a local speakeasy. Pinky (Harpo) is also an "iceman", as well as a part-time dogcatcher. Through a series of misunderstandings, Baravelli and Pinky are recruited to play on Huxley's football team; this requires them to enroll as students at Huxley, which, of course, results in nothing but comic chaos throughout the school.

The climax of the movie, often referenced as one of the greatest football-related scenes in movie history, includes the four protagonists winning the football game by taking the ball into the end zone in a horse-drawn garbage wagon that resembles a chariot and which Pinky rides as such.

Musical numbers
"Whatever It Is, I'm Against It"
"I Always Get My Man"
"Everyone Says I Love You"
"Bridal Chorus"
"Wedding March"
"I'm Daffy Over You"

Notable scenes

The opening number features Wagstaff and a group of college professors singing and dancing in full academic robes and mortarboard hats. The song sets the tone for Wagstaff's irreverent view of the school:
I don't know what they have to say
It makes no difference anyway;
Whatever it is, I'm against it!

One famous scene features Baravelli guarding the speakeasy, and Wagstaff trying to get in. The password for entry is "Swordfish". This bit was the inspiration for the title of the movie thriller Swordfish. The sketch includes several jokes about fish, with some puns-within-puns:
Wagstaff: I got it! "Haddock".
Baravelli: 'At's a-funny, I got a "haddock" too.
Wagstaff: What do you take for a "haddock"?
Baravelli: Sometimes I take an aspirin, sometimes I take a calomel.
Wagstaff: I'd walk a mile for a calomel.
Baravelli: You mean chocolate calomel? I like-a that too, but you no guess it.

During this scene, the mute character Pinky wants to come in and is asked the password; he responds by pulling a fish with a small sword stuck down its throat from his coat. At one point Wagstaff and Baravelli are debating the cost of ice. Wagstaff argues that his bill should be much smaller than it is:
Baravelli: I make you proposition. You owe us $200, you pay us $2000, and we call it square.
Wagstaff: That's not a bad idea. I tell you ... I'll consult my lawyer. And if he advises me to do it, I'll get a new lawyer.

The joke immediately after that one illustrates that the Hays Office was not in total control of film scripts yet, and hints at Chico's real-life lifestyle. The essence of this joke would be repeated by Chico in Duck Soup:
Baravelli: Last week, for eighteen dollars, I gotta co-ed with two pair o' pants.
Wagstaff: Since when has a co-ed got two pair of pants?
Baravelli: Since I joined the college.

A notable scene taken from the earlier revue Fun in Hi Skule consists of the brothers disrupting an anatomy class. In this scene, the part of the anatomy professor is played by Robert Greig, a character actor who appeared in over 100 films, many in the role of a butler. He appeared with the Marx Brothers as Hives, the butler, in Animal Crackers. After Chico and Harpo "bear him out", Groucho takes over the class and continues the lecture:
Wagstaff: Let us follow a corpuscle on its journey... Now then, baboons, what is a "corpuscle"?
Baravelli: That's easy! First is a captain... then a lieutenant... then is a corpuscle!
Wagstaff: That's fine. Why don't you bore a hole in yourself and let the sap run out?

Earlier in the scene, he recited this little poem in response to the professor asking the students to explain the symptoms of cirrhosis, which Baravelli mis-hears as "so roses":
So roses are red
So violets are blue
So sugar is sweet
So so are you.

A little later, Wagstaff advises Pinky that he "can't burn the candle at both ends". Pinky then reaches into his trenchcoat, and pulls out a candle burning at both ends.

Foreshadowing the famous 'stateroom' scene from 'Night at the Opera,' all four Marx brothers and the comic villain take turns going in and out of Connie Bailey's room, and eventually their movements pile up on each other's, resulting in a crowded, bustling scene, notable both by Groucho's breaking of the fourth wall during Chico's piano solo, and his constant opening of his umbrella and removing his shoes upon entering the room.

Chico's ridiculous play-calling during the actual football game, (signals like, "You wan-a get-a hurt-a? Well, we gonna do a forward pass." and "Hey diddle diddle, we gonna take the ball up the middle.") is also notable.

The film prominently features the song "Everyone Says I Love You", by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, which was later the title song of the eponymous 1996 Woody Allen movie Everyone Says I Love You. All four brothers perform the song:
Zeppo leads off with a "straight" verse, befitting his usual non-comical characterization:
Everyone says I love you
The cop on the corner and the burglar too
The preacher in the pulpit and the man in the pew
Says I love you.

Harpo whistles it to his horse, and later plays it on the harp. In keeping with his standard mute characterization, he does not sing it.

Chico sings a comical verse, with his standard fake Italian accent, while playing piano:
Everyone says I love you
The great big mosquito when-a he sting you
The fly when he gets stuck on the flypaper too
Says I love you.

Groucho sings a somewhat sarcastic verse while strumming a guitar, befitting his attitude throughout the film of being suspicious about the college widow's intentions:
Everyone says I love you
But just what they say it for I never knew
It's just inviting trouble for the poor sucker who
Says I love you.

Except when Harpo (the dogcatcher) whistles it to his horse, the song is used to serenade Connie Bailey (played by Thelma Todd).

Eventually, Pinky and Baravelli are sent to kidnap two of the rival college's star players to prevent them from playing in the big game. The intended victims (who are much larger men than Pinky and Baravelli) manage to kidnap the pair instead, removing their outer clothing and locking them in a room. In order to escape, Pinky and Baravelli saw their way out through the floor. The saws came from a tool bag Pinky carried with them that held their "kidnappers' tools," which included, among other things, rope, chisels, hammers and at one point, a small pig. This is an example of the surreal edge of Marx Brothers humor, which later became a heavy influence on the Bugs Bunny cartoons.

One direct example of that influence occurs in the speakeasy scene. Two men are playing cards, and one says to the other, "cut the cards". Pinky happens to walk by at that moment, pulls a large meat cleaver out of his trenchcoat and chops the deck in half. This none-too-subtle gag, which was recycled from the brothers' first Broadway show, I'll Say She Is, would be repeated by Curly Howard against Moe Howard in the Three Stooges' 1936 short subject Ants in the Pantry, and by Bugs Bunny against Yosemite Sam in the 1948 cartoon, Bugs Bunny Rides Again.

A picture of the brothers in the "chariot" at the end of the film made the cover of TIME in 1932.


Groucho Marx as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff
Chico Marx as Baravelli the Iceman
Harpo Marx as Pinky
Zeppo Marx as Frank Wagstaff
Thelma Todd as Connie Bailey
David Landau as Jennings
James Pierce as Mullen
Nat Pendleton as McHardee
Reginald Barlow as The Retiring President
Robert Greig as The Biology Professor


American Film Institute recognition
2000: AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs #65

Period references

A term that occurs often in Horse Feathers, but may not be familiar to modern viewers, is "college widow". The term, which is somewhat derogatory, referred to a woman who stays in college after graduation in order to find a husband. It is used to describe Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd). Such women were stereotypically "easy"; in the film, the character is shown as being involved with each of the Marx brothers and the principal antagonist, Jennings.

In this now lost, deleted scene from Horse Feathers, the Marx Brothers are seen playing poker as Huxley College goes up in flames around them.

During the climactic football game, at one point Groucho utters the exclamation, "Jumping anaconda!" This seemingly nonsensical phrase probably is a reference to the notorious stock market performance of Anaconda Copper immediately preceding the Great Depression.

Groucho had delivered other jokes related to the stock market in the Brothers' preceding films (for example, "The stockholder of yesteryear is the stowaway of today" in Monkey Business) and all the Marx Brothers had experienced severe losses in the 1929 crash.

Missing Sequences

The only existing prints of this film are missing several minutes, due to both censorship and damage. The damage is most noticeable in jump cuts during the scene in which Groucho, Chico and Harpo visit Connie Bailey's apartment. Several sequences were cut from the film, including an extended ending to the aforementioned apartment scene, additional scenes with Harpo as a dogcatcher, and a scene where the brothers play poker as the college burns down. (A description of the latter scene, along with a still image, exists from a pressbook from the year of the film's release, however.)

1 comment:


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Fotutely I have seen all Marx Brothers. But not Alan Abel :(