Not rated, but there is something that might ruffle some feathers if you know what they are talking about. The movie surrounds the concept of the "college widow". This is kind of an icky topic. I'm going to leave it to you to research it, but it doesn't necessarily mesh with today's politics. Also, the college widow wears some wildly uncomfortable clothing. I tried wrapping my head around one outfit (this is not time for Groucho-style comebacks) and it was uncomfortable. From a 21st Century perspective, the Marx Brothers would probably be charged with assault.
DIRECTOR: Norman Z. McLeod
In college, one of my buddies sat me down to watch Horse Feathers because I had never seen a Marx Brothers movie. I humored him for about seven minutes and then thought it was dumb. It was only once I went on my great journey of artistic discovery that I started to have some love for the Marx Brothers. Duck Soup is absolutely genius and I watched a ton of their movies. I have two very impressive box sets that have made me giggle more than I care to admit. When I thought that I should introduce my students to the Marx Brothers, I chose Horse Feathers. One of them had seen Duck Soup and didn't care for it. I thought, "Horse Feathers might be their second most famous movie that didn't have blackface." Yeah, I realize that Horse Feathers, while being a very entertaining movie, might not be the best starting point in the franchise.
The Marx Brothers' style of comedy isn't really all that different. It's just how much we're allowed to warm up before the real comedy starts. Horse Feathers' big problem lies in its opening. Meeting Professor Wagstaff at the beginning of the movie is a deep end dive into what the Marx Brothers are supposed to be. The Groucho warmup helps with a lot of the movies. These jokes aren't the best of the film, but really are supposed to shake off a lot of the cobwebs that people bring into the theaters with them. As products of the travelling variety show, the Marx Brothers tended to structure their loose narratives around their stage acts. The beginning of a stage act is warming up the crowd. But Horse Feathers' warm up is pretty weak compared to a lot of Groucho stuff. I love Groucho. He's probably not my favorite Marx Brother, but I also could watch Groucho talk for hours. I find him fascinating. But even as a fan, I forgot how dry that opening is. Honestly, Harpo ends up being the true warm-up. The problem with that is that Horse Feathers is an hour-and-eight-minutes. It's not very long. To get through Groucho's warmup means that you are actually though a fairly sizable percentage of the movie. My students were not sold on Horse Feathers. They laughed at parts. But they commented that a lot of these weren't side-splitting laughs. They saw what was funny, but weren't properly warmed up to fully appreciate the rest of humor.
If I analyze a bunch of Marx Brothers movies, I think I might need to hand out MVP awards. I tend to oscillate between Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. Zeppo can always jump in a lake. Honestly, I actually get angry any time that Zeppo is on screen. He's the worst part of any of the Marx Brothers movies. I know that movies need a straight man, but Zeppo even kind of sucks as a straight man. Look at me! I'm getting angry right now at a guy who is probably long dead. (He died in 1979.) Like I mentioned, I'll probably watch Groucho talk for hours on end, but really, the selling point is Chico. Chico might by my favorite kind of humor. I know that I'm forcing every Marx Brother to roll over in his grave (except for Zeppo...he has no right), but puns and plays on words are my favorite. I'm ashamed how much I love the guys who walk around stores and make puns all day. That's Chico and Horse Feathers might have some of the best moments. The interaction with Harpo and Chico asking if he's got a pick is absolutely fantastic. It's no surprise that Harpo is a close second, but Chico still entertains during the musical numbers. The musical numbers always confuse me a bit. I know: Variety Show! But Chico is very entertaining while he plays. His fingers become characters to enjoy. Harpo tends to lose on that front because his scenes are played straight when he goes for the musical number. That's fine, I suppose. But Chico and Harpo steal Horse Feathers. Oddly enough, considering that Groucho is the one who drives the narrative and is technically considered the protagonist, he doesn't have a ton to do. But every time that Chico and Groucho are on screen, they are driving the action. The entire latter half of the movie has them doing some kind of major action. They are the ones who break into the football players' rooms and attempt kidnapping. That sequence alone is pure genius. I don't know why, but the actual football game is the most memorable part of the movie. But I laugh really hard when Chico and Harpo try kidnapping the guys. The saws through the floor is an absolutely fantastic gag. But the football sequence is also fantastic too. Maybe that's what I'm noticing most about Horse Feathers. I like the other Marx Brothers movies because of the wit involved. But Horse Feathers might work best because of its physicality. I completely forgot about Harpo shoveling books into a fireplace. It's fantastic.
What we all noticed about Horse Feathers is how everyone who isn't one of the four Marx Brothers (or three, because I hate Zeppo), kind of is terrible? The movie starts off with the professors all standing around Wagstaff and there's a dance. These actors clearly aren't dancers. I honestly think that they were hired on because they had beards. There's one of the professors who is so off tempo that he just draws attention away from Groucho. How do you possibly draw attention away from Groucho Marx while he's dancing on a desk? But this isn't a one off. The football players from the other university are just the worst. Every single one of their lines are poorly delivered. It's 1932 and expectations for comedy aren't the same that they would be later. I also think that the Marx Brothers are making a lot of the stuff up on the fly. The movie is centered around making the four leads seem competent, so any supporting elements can be phoned in. These were vaudeville actors who weren't used to working with outside parts. They'd probably handle everything themselves. They knew what worked with each other. The stage shows were probably as tight as could be, but the narratives weren't attached. Four people can't represent the whole college. Well, The Kids in the Hall weren't around yet. But I get the vibe that the story was a burden to someone like Groucho Marx. This feels like a studio intervention. They wanted to tell the jokes that they wanted to tell and that would be it. To have a company come in and say that the story needed to be rounded out or it wouldn't be considered a movie might be burdensome. I mean, the movie is an hour and eight minutes. A stage show probably was an hour. The jokes are the center of Horse Feathers. Well, the jokes and the music. But golly, the other elements occasionally just feel thrown in. But the jokes, when they work, are really tight. I can't imagine the process on making a Marx Brothers movie. Probably 90% of the movie was done in the first quarter of pre-production and everything else was probably slapped together. That kind of ties into my thoughts on the whole plot. The plot and consequences seem very simple. If Groucho loses the game, he might lose his job. But he barely is involved with the job. The college widow aspect seems like this is all kind of arbitrary. Perhaps it's the element of being a big fish in a small pond, but I don't really think that there is a story here. The team losing a game means that someone else will be the dean? That's what I'm supposed to understand. It's so odd to think of other sports comedies. There is the big game that the team is supposed to win. But usually, it takes a terrible team and makes them great over a series of small victories. Because the plot is completely inconsequential, the entire movie is about one game against their rivals without any real growth.
But there's something absolutely charming. It sounds like I'm dogging on Horse Feathers. I don't think Horse Feathers would really work in any other fashion. Part of what makes the Marx Brothers work is the casual attitude towards formula. A film is just a way to convey jokes. Yeah, if all movies were like that, there wouldn't be substance or art. But the art of the Marx Brothers lie in the timing of the thing. This is a masterclass in highlighting what matters to a performer. The Marx Brothers know humor. So the story doesn't really work. Who cares? The narrative is a vehicle and nothing more. But in an hour and eight minutes, we get how characters interact and we care about them. Like Chaplin and the Tramp, the comic archetypes are present beforehand. But I care about Harpo the dogcatcher. I don't know why. But he's in this story and I really bond with him really quickly. Heck, I don't even really understand who Chico is beyond his work as a bouncer in a bar, but he really works in the whole scope of the story. Horse Feathers is a classic. But I don't want to be blinded by the fact that it is in the canon, kind of. Horse Feathers is a fabulous movie that pales in comparison to the other films. But standing alone, it works on a comic fun level. It is very entertaining and spotlights what each of the Marx Brothers does well. While I will always recommend Duck Soup, Horse Feathers still works marvelously.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.