Who doesn't love the Marx Brothers? These four (and later, three) masters of mirth gave us 13 classic comedies, each one hilarious- to varying degrees.
Although their fourth film Horse Feathers (1932) is unbelievably hilarious on the funny meter, other Marx Brothers outings are usually cited by critics and film aficionados as either their best or superior. Interestingly and oddly, each of the three main Marx Brothers had their own particular favorite of their films, and none chose Horse Feathers.
The film has certainly held up well and stood the test of time. In 2000, the American Film Institute chose Horse Feathers as number 65 on their prestigious list of the 100 Funniest American Comedy Films of all-time ("100 years... 100 laughs"). Whatever.
Norman Z. McLeod, a rare directing survivor of two Marx Brothers movies (he had also directed the boys' previous effort, 1931's Monkey Business), was at the helm.
Basic scenario: Groucho plays Quincey Adams Wagstaff, the president of Huxley College (Thomas Henry Huxley had been an ardent and well-known advocate of Darwin's theory of evolution). Harpo is Pinky, the local dog catcher, and Chico is Baravelli, a resident deliverer of bootleg liquor. Zeppo plays Frank Wagstaff, Groucho's son.
Blonde bombshell Thelma Todd, playing Connie Bailey, the "college widow," is the ostensible love interest of all four Marxes. Although "college widow" is now, these eighty-odd years later, an archaic descriptive expression, at the time it was a slightly derogatory term, meaning a woman of loose morals who lived near a college so she could be close to the male students (ahem).
A rarity for Marx Brothers films, all four sing the same song- "Everyone Says I Love You," each in turn, to Thelma, in the form of a serenade. The mute Harpo plays it to Thelma on his harp, as she listens, like Juliet, from her window above. Harpo also whistles the song to his other true love -a horse. (Woody Allen, a well-known Marx Brothers fan, later did a film called Everyone Says I Love You, his only musical, in 1995).
Groucho's rendition of the song includes another rarity in Marxian annals, he accompanies himself on the guitar. Reputedly, Groucho was as expert and delightful on the guitar as Harpo was on the harp or Chico was on the piano, but for whatever reason, it was never written into any of the boys' other films.
Groucho plays the song to Thelma as the two are in a canoe, she having been hired to vamp Groucho and get the secret signals to the big football game out of him. In this scene, as Thelma aggressively accosts Groucho, the canoe nearly tips over and she falls in the water. Thelma is splashing helplessly in the lake and calls out to Groucho to "Throw me a life saver," to which Groucho responds by throwing her a candy life saver.
The truth in this scene is that Thelma couldn't swim and was splashing around, desperately trying to actually keep from drowning. Groucho was unaware of this at the time, but luckily, members of the crew soon fished poor Thelma out of the water.
Filming on Horse Feathers was delayed because Chico was involved in a car accident, in which he suffered a shattered knee cap and several broken ribs. In Horse Feathers, Chico needed a double for certain scenes, and can be seen limping a few times in the film.
Harpo is at his wildest and most surreal in Horse Feathers. At one point, he watches two men playing cards and as one says "cut the cards," he pulls out an ax and literally does just that. In another scene, Harpo is approached by a penniless fellow who asks if he could get a cup of coffee. Harpo responds by pulling a steaming cup of coffee out of his raincoat pocket.
Baravelli (Chico), who works at the local speakeasy, is told to guard the door and that the secret password to get in is "swordfish." The speechless Pinky (Harpo) walks up to the door and magically produces a fish, in which he inserts a sword down it's throat (he is, of course, then allowed entrance).
The one and only caveat of the otherwise perfect Horse Feathers is the "missing" scenes. Sadly, in 1935, a few scenes were edited out because of the then on-force production morals code. Also, film damage played a part. Sadly, a scene in the speakeasy, where Harpo bowls over bottles with grapefruits is now gone, as is a "must have been incredible" scene of the four Marx Brothers calmly playing poker as the college burns down in the background (a still of this scene survives).
But worst of all is the chopped up scene in Connie's room, where Groucho, Chico, and Harpo run in and out, variously cracking jokes and doing physical shtick. Fortunately, Chico's delightful piano solo does still survive from this prolonged scene, intact. Watch this scene between Chico and Thelma Todd very closely. Chico seems to be flirting with Thelma as he tinkles the ivories and she gets rather coquettish, pinching Chico in an undisclosed part of his body at one point.
The highlight of Horse Feathers is unquestionably the climactic football scene between Huxley College and their arch rival, Darwin College. Chico's limping can be seen in this scene and a double had to be employed for him during the chase leading up to the chariot ride (all four in a garbage can being pulled by a horse) of the quartet of brothers. Chico's double is all-too-obvious as, unlike in real life, he is much taller than the other brothers. Chico's trademark Italian cap is also pushed down over his face to cover as much of it as possible as he runs down the field with Groucho and Zeppo.
At one point during the filming of the football scene, the crowd of extras in the stadium was getting a bit bored and listless. "I'll liven them up," said the always energetic Harpo, as he stripped off his clothes and circled the field completely naked.
A father and mother who were extras in the football scene would routinely bring their little four year-old daughter to the set. Harpo became enamored with the cute little girl and actually offered her parents $50,000 to buy her. Of course, the parents refused Harpo's offer, but it wasn't the last we were to her of the adorable four-year-old girl. A few short years later, she was to become a movie star herself. Her name was Shirley Temple.
The Horse Feathers football game is one of the funniest sequences ever put on celluloid. It is so wonderful and side-splitting, it was actually voted #1 by ESPN in their list of Top 11 Scenes in Football Movie History.
Released on August 19, 1932, Horse Feathers was a box office bonanza, becoming Paramount Studio's highest-grossing film of 1932. The reviews were pretty much unanimous in their approval.
Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times, who attended the Horse Feathers premiere, said the film "aroused riotous laughter from those who packed the theater."
Variety: "Laffs galore, swell entertainment."
Film Daily: "Full of laughs that will rock any house."
John Mosher of The New Yorker opined that the Marx Brothers were "very special. There is no one like Groucho or Harpo on stage or screen, and probably never will be." Mister Mosher, as we can now see all these 85 years later, was a prophet.