Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Ten Films from the 1930's #3--The Marx Brothers in "Horse Feathers" (1932)

Frank: "Dad, two of the greatest football players in the country hang out in a speakeasy downtown." 
Professor Wagstaff: "Are you suggesting that I, the president of Huxley College, go into a speakeasy without even giving me the address?" 


This was the fourth and arguably the funniest film Groucho, Chico, Harpo (and sometimes Zeppo) did in their cinematic hey-day.  To the left you see their success as purveyors of comic anarchy inside the hallowed halls of mythical  Huxley College earned then the rare honor for a comic team---a front cover on the nation's most influential news magazine, "Time".


The plot, like most of the Brothers films, defied logic as often as not,  but the premise is irresistable.  But once Groucho is placed in the  position of president of a prestigious American college, one over looks plausibility. 

From Imdb: "Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff has just been installed as the new president of Huxley College. His cavalier attitude toward education is not reserved for his son Frank, who is seeing the college widow, Connie Bailey. Frank influences Wagstaff to recruit two football players who hang out in a speakeasy, in order to beat rival school Darwin. Unfortunately, Wagstaff mistakenly hires the misfits Baravelli and Pinky. Finding out that Darwin has beaten him to the "real" players, Wagstaff enlists Baravelli and Pinky to kidnap them, which leads to an anarchic football finale." Written by Rick Gregory <rag.apa@email.apa.org>    

What university experience would be complete without some off-campus "tutoring" from the local college widow, especially as soon as her gangster boy friend has his back turned?  Or turning  a learned but clueless professor or two into  straight men for your best one-liners?  And winning a big Saturday afternoon football game, even though you're not officially on the team roster? 

   And most importantly learning the passwords to get into one or two  local "speak-easies" (underground locales for illicit drinking during the Prohibition Era.) It's one thing for a nation to be headed into Herbert Hoover's Depression but to do so without the ability to hoist a legal drink in a gin joint or saloon?   That's really "Un-American".  The Prohibition Amendment  was repealed in January 1934.    



The gags in this film come as fast and furious as any film you're likely to have seen.  And if you don't laugh at one of Groucho's quips or Chico wordplay or Harpo's masterful pantomime, there will be another set-up and punch-liine coming along in a few seconds that will delight.

.     One thing to note about what made "Horse Feathers" so funny is that some of Broadway's best musical comedy writers in this period had come West to Hollywood to write for early talking pictures like these. (The great New Yorker-style writers of humor and satire of that era, men like George F. Kaufman, Morton Ryskind and S.J. Perlman and others of like mind and ready wit more than earned their keep under the palm trees of the new American El Dorado. )  This next clip features President Wagstaff juggling administrative tasks with some dating procedures with Connie, the college widow.  She is played by Thelma Todd, a beautiful blond actress who worked well with Groucho in an earlier film "Monkey Business". 



A sad coda: Ms. Todd  did a number of successful two-reel comedies with the Hal Roach studio where Laurel and Hardy did their best films.  She died at 29 in  December of 1935, three years after this film. Her body was found beaten in a garage with a running car engine. It is believed by many that Thelma was killed for not being willing to sell her coast-side Santa Monica restaurant/night club to the gangster Lucky Luciano.

Because of fear of Luciano and his East Coast mob--that were then establishing themselves in Los Angeles, no witnesses were willing to testify to that effect and the case was ruled an "accidental death", a very unrealistic verdict.      


  1. This is, without question, my all-time-favorite comedy.

    Its comedic style was also the inspiration for several scenes in "Groundhog Day" (and probably a lot of other films, as well).

    Good choice here; Doug!

  2. That is another thing we have in common, Will.

    "Horse Feathers" has it all: a lot of great scenes with the Marxes displaying perfect timing, fine comic foils, great wordplay, some very cathy musical numbers (Chico's playful finger work on the pianois a thing of wonder) and, best of all, a total lack of respect for academic pretenses...a total classic.

    Good point about "Groundhog Day". I think a lot of screenwriters took note of the structure of these earliest Marx Brothers films. And of course major comic actors like Bill Murray owe a lot of their respective personas to what Groucho did so well.

    All that is missing is the great Grand Dowager straight-lady herself, Margaret Dumpont.

    Thanks...or should I say "Swordfish"?

  3. Thanks for the reminder of Sunday afternoon's of my childhood watching the Marx Brothers films on black and white TV and being greatly tickled by the humour at the time.

    However it is interesting that even this world of witty one-liners and a chipper comic absurdity doesn't escape from violence played out in the horrific murder of Thelma Todd.

    On the one hand there is the myth and fantasy clever and slick and on the other the reality in living in a gangster reptiliain hegemony unsophisticated, just moodily homicidal.

    It seems to me that Lucky Luciano is an icon of capitalism, the true spirit of entrepreneurial avarice having its wicked way with the economy while Hollywood makes us laugh and cry to order.

    An interesting historical document as well as a very funny film too I think Doug.

  4. You're welcome, AA. There was nothing betterthan a movie on the local station on a rainy Satuday afternoon, or a late show screening on a weekend. Paramount Pictures alone had W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers and Mae West on the studio lot in those days. Their work stands the test of time.

    I totally agree with your assessment of Lucky Luciano. The early capitialist investors were soon followed by the racketeers. Once studios were unionized, there was even more incentives for the Mob to come out West and try and get a piece of the action from union pension finds, horse racing, illegal gambling joints, as well as blackmailing studios with threats of "bad accidents" to certain stars. The studios generally paid up, although some real tough customers like independant mogul Sam Goldwyn famously said "Include me out" to any protection payments.

    In 1958, Goldwyn's studio burned to the ground in a mysterious fire.

    L.A. was the viper's nest that created the snakes who re-created a Nevada desert cow town into the lucrative Las Vegas after World War II.

    The fate of Thelma Todd three years after this marvelous picture came out is the only thing that casts a pall over the proceddings