[To read Part One of this essay, click here. For Part Two, here; Part Three, here; and Part Four, here.]
Horse Feathers: Pure Marx Brothers
Even before Monkey Business was in the theaters, the Marx Brothers were working on its follow-up, which Harpo announced in the July 4, 1931 issue of the New Yorker as The Marx Brothers At Vassar (Vassar at that time being the best-known all-women's university in America). The idea of placing the Brothers in an academic setting was an old one—twenty years before, Groucho had played a teacher to Gummo's and Harpo's students in the vaudeville show Fun In Hi Skule—and Groucho's pal Bert Granet had resurrected the idea at the same time he suggested the basic plot of Monkey Business.
Somewhere along the way, the project acquired the title Horse Feathers, which, in addition to following the pattern established by the previous movies of using some sort of animal in the title, is a mild expletive, a polite variant of "bullsh*t!," the sort of comment you might mutter under your breath when you hear a particularly idiotic statement—of which one no doubt hears many while pursuing an education.
Despite the bruising his ego suffered while writing Monkey Business, S.J. Perelman took the first crack at drafting a screenplay. Perelman had railed against the corrupting influence of college football while he was a student at Brown University and he drew on old grievances to provide the backbone of the plot, the story of a college president who seeks to promote sports over academics by recruiting a couple of ringers for the school's football team.
"Only a man who was forced to endure four years in a place where he didn't fit in and that refused to graduate him," wrote biographer Dorothy Herrmann, "could have made such devastating fun of it."
Longtime Marx Brothers collaborator Will B. Johnstone updated material from Fun In Hi Skule and songwriters Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, who had written the song score for Animal Crackers, provided various jokes and three new numbers—"Whatever It Is, I'm Against It," "I Always Get My Man" and "Everyone Says I Love You," the latter performed by all four Marx Brothers.
Producer Herman J. Mankiewicz and director Norman McLeod later recalled presenting the script at a meeting where the Brothers took turns spitting into a cup in the middle of the floor, wagering a dollar a piece on each bull's-eye.
Thelma Todd, who the year before had co-starred in Monkey Business, was once again cast as the female lead. Here she plays the "college widow"—which a 1935 newspaper article defined as a "maiden of a college town bereaved of graduated sweethearts," i.e., "an old maid," but which in the context of the movie suggests a sexual predator, what these days some might call a "cougar"—and in the course of the film's 68 minutes woos and is wooed by all four brothers, while also conniving with gamblers who want to affect the outcome of an upcoming football game. (See also The Marx Brothers Council Of Britain for a discussion of the term "college widow.")
In other key roles, Broadway actor David Landau plays the gambler; Nat Pendleton, who would later play police lieutenant John Guild in The Thin Man, is one of the football players; and veteran character actor Robert Greig, who had played the butler Hives in Animal Crackers, returned as an anatomy professor. Also, look for Theresa Harris of Baby Face in a bit part as Thelma Todd's maid.
The movie opens with the introduction of Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho), the new president of Huxley College. The school's in trouble—it's been neglecting football for education, or possibly the other way around—and Wagstaff is just the man to set things right.
"As I look out over your eager faces," he tells the assembled students and staff, "I can readily understand why this college is flat on its back. The last college I presided over, things were slightly different—I was flat on my back."
Rebuffing the advice of the school's trustees —"I think you know what the trustees can do with their suggestions"—Groucho launches into into one of the best songs in the Marx Brothers canon, up there with "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady."
I don't know what they have to say
It makes no difference anyway
Whatever it is, I'm against it
No matter what it is or who commenced it
I'm against it.
Included in the song are some lines that could only have been written during the pre-Code era:
For months before my son was born
I used to yell from night til morn
"Whatever it is, I'm against it!"
And I've kept yelling since I first commenced it
"I'm against it!"
The son in question is played by Zeppo, a student at the college for the last twelve years and "a disgrace to our family name of Wagstaff, if such a thing is possible." Zeppo tells his dad the only way to turn the school around before the big game against rival Darwin is to get better football players, starting with the two who hang around a local speakeasy.
"Are you suggesting that I, the president of Huxley College, go into a speakeasy without even giving me the address?"
Of course, Groucho confuses Harpo and Chico for the star players, who proceed to turn Huxley College into chaos. Along the way, Groucho butts heads with a gambler who's put his money on the opposing team, Harpo and Chico try to kidnap Darwin's star players only to get themselves kidnapped instead and everybody serenades the college widow with variations on "Everyone Says I Love You," but the real point of the movie is to serenade the audience with hilariously shameless wordplay and anti-social anarchy.
"Oh, Professor, the Dean of Science wants to know how soon you can see him. He says he's tired of cooling his heels out here."
"Tell him I'm cooling a couple of heels in here."
"The Dean is furious! He's waxing wroth!"
"Is Roth out there, too? Tell Roth to wax the Dean for awhile."
One set piece, the classroom scene with Groucho as the professor and Harpo and Chico as his students, was lifted largely from the vaudeville show Fun In Hi Skule which the Brothers had first performed twenty years before.
"Now then, baboons—what is a corpuscle?"
"That's easy. First there's a captain, then there's a lieutenant, then there's a corpuscle."
As a matter of fact, except for the football game at the end, which features slapstick more reminiscent of the Three Stooges, Horse Feathers comes closest of all the Marx Brothers' movies to approximating the anarchy of their early vaudeville shows. Indeed, I would suggest that while Duck Soup is often credited as the "purest" of their films (more on that in Part Seven), Horse Feathers actually deserves the nod as the one that distills the essence of the act into its most concentrated form, if you agree with me that, for good or ill, the musical numbers were as much a part of who the Brothers were as the steady stream of puns, one-liners and sight gags.
Besides, as Groucho himself suggests as Chico begins another piano solo, you can always "go out into the lobby until this thing blows over." At least the chore of romancing Thelma Todd is left to Zeppo rather than being farmed out to the likes of Allan Jones or Hal Thompson.
The film premiered in New York City on August 10, 1932, to generally favorable reviews. While some critics complained that the film was formulaic, others such as Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times praised its "originality and ready wit."
More recent critics have been more enthusiastic about Horse Feathers. The American Film Institute ranked the film sixty-fifth on the list of the 100 best comedies of the 20th century. Daniel Eagan, in his history America's Film Legacy, praises both Horse Feathers and its immediate predecessor Monkey Business for shedding the trappings of the Broadway musical while pushing their subversive anti-authority tendencies to the limit. Randy Williams, writing for ESPN in 2008, chose the film's finale as "the greatest scene in football movie history."
"From Prof. Wagstaff," Williams wrote, "racing in from the sideline to make a flying tackle while smoking a cigar, to Barovelli's unusual signal calling ("Hi diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle, this time I think we go through the middle ... hike!"), the Darwin versus Huxley rival game sequence could cover most of the 11 top movie scenes by itself."
And last but not least, our good friend Erik Beck of the Boston Becks picks it as the second best Marx Brothers film of all time, behind only Duck Soup.
Personally, I have only one complaint about Horse Feathers, one I have aired before—that Groucho's verbal assaults which are hilarious when aimed at the impervious battleship Margaret Dumont become bullying and misogynistic when aimed at Thelma Todd. "Besides," I wrote, "the Marx Brothers are funniest when they stop making sense altogether and there's nothing nonsensical about Thelma Todd. I mean, who wouldn't want to make love to Thelma Todd? But Margaret Dumont? That's plain crazy."
But those moments when Groucho takes aim squarely at Todd are relatively few and overall, that seems like a minor quibble.
The film did solid business at the box office, but as with Monkey Business, failed to crack the year's top money makers.
When Horse Feathers was re-released in 1936, the studio was forced to make cuts in the film to satisfy the demands of the newly-enforced Production Code. Mikael Uhlin at Marxology has detailed those edits, which include Harpo as a dogcatcher luring mutts with a portable fire hydrant, suggestive comments aimed at Thelma Todd and a bonfire scene after the football game featuring the Brothers playing cards as Huxley College burns to the ground. The footage has yet to turn up despite extensive searches and is deemed lost.
Trivia: I read on the ever-reliable Wikipedia that the Brothers originally planned Horse Feathers as a sequel to Monkey Business, with more gangsters, but shifted gears after the kidnapping and subsequent murder of Charles Lindbergh's infant son made the idea unpalatable, but I haven't found any independent verification of that claim. Given that the kidnapping took place on March 1, 1932, and that Horse Feathers went into production at the end of the month, there was very little time for rewrites—although filming was subsequently delayed ten weeks when Chico was injured in an automobile accident.
A Little More Trivia: Thelma Todd almost drowned while filming the scene where she falls out of the rowboat.
[To continue to Part Six, click here.]