This is my entry for the “Hot and Bothered Blog-a-Thon: The films of 1932 which is today hosted by Once Upon a Screen today, and then tomorrow will be hosted by Cinemaven’s Essays from the Couch. Check out all the great bloggers talking about some of the great movies of 1932. But for me there is really only one film I could possibly talk about….
If there’s one thing you can take away from “Horse Feathers”, it’s that the password is “Swordfish”. Some movies were just made to be funny, and “Horse Feathers” is one of them, in fact you can say that about every movie The Marx Brothers ever made, but “Horse Feathers was made at their zenith. They were at the height of their powers at Paramount studios, where they made five of their finest films including this one, before they were ultimately transferred over to MGM where they gained more popularity but were put on a leash as their films became more plot driven and glossed over with romantic leads and big production numbers; fine for some, but death for a group of disorderly brothers who always gleefully looked like they were about to blow the whole movie business to kingdom come at any moment.
But let me back up a bit and talk about just why The Marx Brothers themselves are so important to the history of movies. The Brothers’ brand of humour was something new to the world of film when they made their debut in 1929. They were zany, off the wall vaudevillians, you couldn’t control them, they were the patron saints of anarchy, they represented something edgy, something dangerous, they were unpredictable, wild, and even a little bit naughty with Groucho spewing double entendres like bullets from a tommy gun zinging past anyone who wasn’t paying attention. The Marx Brothers didn’t so much make movies as they invaded them leaving comedic debris in their wake.
With “Horse Feathers”, the Brothers try their hand at a college comedy, where Groucho’s Quincy Adams Wagstaff becomes the new Dean of students at the imaginary Huxley University. The main plot involves Wagstaff trying to recruit professional football players to help their team win the big game against rival university Darwin, but he inadvertently mistakes two icemen as the ringers he was supposed to acquire at a local speakeasy. One iceman is Baravelli played by Chico Marx, and the other is Pinky a part time dog catcher played by Harpo Marx. The two then enroll into Huxley University and of course chaos ensues usually involving blond bombshell Thelma Todd who the brothers all seem to have a thing for. The film concludes with a highly comical football game that throws sense out the window in favor of sight gags, and Groucho’s occasional one-liners, ESPN called it one of the greatest football related scenes in movie history.
I could talk about the plot which doesn’t really matter, or I could talk about the gags that are funny throughout such as Groucho and Chico going through a vaudeville routine about saying a certain password to enter a speakeasy, or Harpo, cutting a deck of cards with a hatchet, or Groucho singing to the college faculty the song “I’m against it”, in where he declares “I don’t care what they say, it makes no difference anyway whatever it is I’m against it,” a refreshing phrase to sputter when heard today in our PC ruled environment. The film is full of different types of humour either physical, gag filled, pun filled, or musical, it hits all the marks. It even has time for trademark moments for Chico to playfully perform his piano, and Harpo to be at one with his harp, which is the only time a brother ever shows an ounce of seriousness in these films. “ Horse Feathers” and The Marx Brothers seemed to understand the barriers film brought, which was probably the reason they instigated their fourth wall breaks brought on by a bored Groucho listening to one of Chico’s endless piano recitals where he advises the audience to leave the theatre. This approach seems to be telling the audience “Hey this is a movie, and we know you’re watching us, forget the writers, the directors, and the crew, we’re in charge.” That of course wasn’t true, there was a man in charge with director Norman Z. McLeod who also directed W.C. Fields’ great film “It’s a Gift” and Bob Hope’s “The Paleface”. At the time The Marx Brothers could court the best comedy writers in town the same way an Astaire/Rogers film courted the best songwriters, everyone wanted to work with them, that didn’t stop from some adlibbing here and there.
I can’t really argue with anyone who doesn’t like the Marx Brothers, because usually if I find out they don’t, I stop listening to them. Cases could be made for other comedians, but The Marx Brothers to me are untouchable (another spot could be held for Buster Keaton as well); I realize that at this point you may find my opinion somewhat one sided, and it is, at the part of this essay I’m basically gushing, so I ask you to please indulge me. I like to think there was a certain philosophy with how the Marx Brothers viewed the world, for them it didn’t hurt to ruffle a few feathers whether with education as in “Horse Feathers”, or with politics in “Duck Soup”, or with the artsy crowd in their last great film “A Night at the Opera”. To them anyone on their high horse had the right to be taken down a peg or two and they were always there to make sure it was done, they were comedy heroes through and through, what can I say I love them, I love this movie which is without a doubt in my totally biased opinion the funniest movie ever made. Swordfish!