Horses Feathers

Horse FeathersSynopsis: The four Marx Brothers – Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo – are at the top of their game in the uproarious parody of college life, Horse Feathers. As president of Huxley College, the fun-loving Professor Wagstaff (Groucho) attempts to help his son (Zeppo) finally graduate after 12 years by arranging to “buy” professional football players for an upcoming big game against rival Darwin University. The plan takes an unexpected twist, however, when a bootlegger (Chico) and a dogcatcher (Harpo) are mistaken for the athletes and accidentally hired instead. Featuring their trademark insanity, including a climactic football sequence that has to be seen to believed, this quintessential Marx Brothers’ comedy earned a place on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs list.


Horses Feathers 6.75

eyelights: Groucho.
eyesores: the blandness of the punny humour. the censorship.

“I don’t know what they have to say / It makes no difference anyway / Whatever it is, I’m against it.”

‘Horse Feathers’ is a 1932 motion picture starring The Marx Brothers, featuring material from the legendary comedy troupe’s past vaudeville show ‘Fun In Hi Skule’. It follows the shenanigans of the newly-hired president (Groucho) of Huxley College as he tries to boost the school’s football team’s fortunes by hiring a couple of illegal players.

Naturally, instead he winds up with a couple of bums (Chico and Harpo) who get into all sorts of trouble.

The plot is further complicated by the fact that president Wagstaff’s son (Zeppo) is enamoured with a local gangster’s moll, who has been instructed to pump the young man for information on Huxley’s team so that the gangster may bet against them. Meanwhile, he’s infiltrated the opposing team with a couple of his own tough guys.

A hit at the time, the picture is especially renowned for its finale, which consists of a lengthy football match filled with all manner of gags and physical comedy. The memorable scene features Chico and Harpo thwarting the opposing team in the most ridiculous ways. They are eventually joined by Groucho as well, when they run out of players.

Personally, being not much of a football fan, the sequence didn’t fascinate me as much as it might others. The fact that I’m not a great fan of Chico or Harpo’s shticks didn’t help its cause. And yet, it was still rather entertaining in its own way: it didn’t overstay its welcome and the brothers’ routines weren’t too moronic to be grating.

The scene may in fact be one of the most memorable moments of the picture because the rest was relatively mundane fare, to the point of enjoying myself but hardly laughing. To me, many of the routines were nothing new or spectacular; it could even be downright predictable, down to Chico’s piano solo and Harpo’s own musical performance.

The best number of them all is Groucho’s opening number, “I’m Against It”, which he performs while giving his inaugural speech at the college. The song is already a catchy ditty, but he impressed me wholly with his agility and coordination; he was quite the performer. The number is rounded out with another song and a nice choreography.

Another notable song is “Everyone Says I Love You”, which is performed in various separate ways by the Marxes. What’s interesting about this song is that it became the centrepiece of Woody Allen’s lone musical, the eponymous 1996 motion picture the French adored. I didn’t know the reference, so this was a big surprise to me when I heard it.

On top of being somewhat drab, ‘Horse Feathers’ is hampered by censorship. There are moments in one particular scene where the editing is wonky, leading one to believe that it’s a poor print. But it’s actually because bits were excised before release under pressure from censors. A whole scene is also missing from the picture, and has not been seen since.

It may not have improved the picture, but it’s always a shame when artistic integrity is railroaded by government pressure – especially when one considers that the standards of the time were probably so outrageous that what was cut then wouldn’t even bat an eye now. As it stands, the picture is not only incomplete, but it plays awkwardly.

In any event, ‘Horse Feathers’ isn’t much of a classic, if indeed it is considers as such by fans and/or critics. Its flow is actually quite good, and the performances are as well, but the material isn’t particularly inspired, leaving one unsatisfied. Any signs of cleverness that The Marx Brothers sometimes show is largely absent here.

Still, it ain’t all bad, for what that’s worth.

Date of viewing: May 31, 2015

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