Saturday, January 17, 2015

Stubs – Horse Feathers (1932)

Horse Feathers (1932) Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Thelma Todd, Florine McKinney, David Landau, Directed by Norman McLeod. Screenplay by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby and S.J. Perelman. Produced by Adolph Zukor and Herman J. Mankiewicz (uncredited) Run Time: 70 minutes original release. (68 minutes as viewed). U.S. Black and White. Comedy

The Marx Brothers first brought their wild brand of humor to Paramount Pictures in 1929’s The Cocoanuts, which was a film adaptation of their successful Broadway show which was written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. They followed this with another film adaptation of another Kaufman-Ryskind show, Animal Crackers (1930). Both films were made in New York’s Astoria Studios.

After that, the chaos was moved to Hollywood, with Monkey Business (1931). Unlike its predecessors, this was written for the screen. That film was so successful that a sequel was planned, but due to the proposed subject matter and the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s son, that idea was dropped.

A new film, loosely based on a previous Marx Brothers’ vaudeville revue, Fun in Hi Skule, was written by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby and S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone. Perelman and Johnstone had previously written Monkey Business together. Kalmar and Ruby would contribute two songs to the film, “I’m Against It” and “Ev’ryone Says I Love You”.

[Incidentally, the phrase Horse Feather, an euphemism for something else horses do, first appeared in print in the work of cartoonist T.A. Dorgan (aka TAD) and was notated by American etymologist Leonard Zwilling in part 46 of his dictionary of Dorgan’s work – A TAD Lexicon, printed in 1927. Some also credit another cartoonist, William Morgan "Billy" de Beck, for coining the phrase for his Barney Google comic strip at about the same time.]

The Marx Brothers were once again paired with Thelma Todd, who had co-starred with them in Monkey Business, and production began in late March 1932. Production was delayed for several weeks when Chico was involved in a traffic accident in late April and did not resume again until late June. The film was released on August 18th.

The story mostly takes place at fictitious Huxley College. With the retirement of the current president (Reginald Barlow), Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho Marx) takes over. His specified goal in coming to Huxley was to help his son Frank (Zeppo Marx) graduate, as he has been attending Huxley for twelve years.

Wagstaff's inaugural speech is at best incoherent, and at one point, he bursts into song, after he hears the college board has suggestions for him. The song “I’m Against It” becomes part of a larger production number, including “I Always Get My Man”.

Professor Wagstaff (Groucho Marx) takes over poor Huxley College.
Higher education will never be the same again.

Following his speech, Wagstaff speaks to Frank, admonishing him for dating only one college widow in 12 years, whereas he had been to three colleges and dated three college widows in the same amount of time. (College Widow is a colloquialism from the 1920s and 30s referring to a woman who is available for younger college male students. Sometimes she is an actual widow, perhaps of a college professor or just a woman in a college town who loved the attention of the young men.)

Later in the film we see Frank Wagstaff (Zeppo Marx) woo Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd), the College widow.

The conversation quickly turns to more important things, football. When Frank informs his father that the school has had a new President every year since 1888, which incidentally is the last time the college had won a football game, he insists what the college really needs is a win against Darwin University in the big rivalry game, scheduled for Thanksgiving.

When Wagstaff asks where they can get football players, he is informed that the two best players in the nation, Mullens (James Pierce) and McCarthy (Nat Pendleton), are down at a speakeasy in downtown. Wagstaff goes off to buy their loyalty, but he is already too late. Jennings (David Landau) is already down there buying Mullens and McCarthy to play for Darwin. They have left by the time Wagstaff arrives.

Baravelli (Chico Marx) is manning the door when Wagstaff tries to gain entrance to the speakeasy.

He gains admittance to the speakeasy after some quick exchanges with Baravelli (Chico Marx), a bootlegger who has been pressed into action to watch the door. The password is swordfish and Baravelli gives Wagstaff the hint that it’s a type of fish:

Wagstaff: I got it! Haddock.
Baravelli: 'At's a-funny, I got a haddock too.
Wagstaff: What do you take for a haddock?
Baravelli: Sometimes I take an aspirin, sometimes I take a calomel.
Wagstaff: I'd walk a mile for a calomel.
Baravelli: You mean chocolate calomel? I like-a that too, but you no guess it.

[Calomel, for those of you wondering, is a compound also known as Mercury(I) chloride, which was used as a cure-all for many ailments until the early 20th century, though the side-effects were often worse than the disease.]

After using his three guesses, Wagstaff tries again and is informed by Baravelli that he can’t get in until he says “swordfish”, which Wagstaff repeats. But once in, he locks out Baravelli, but this time swordfish is no longer the password. When Wagstaff admits he can’t remember it, he joins Baravelli outside.

Pinky (Harpo Marx) knows the password is swordfish.

Meanwhile, Pinky (Harpo Marx), Baravelli’s partner and dog catcher, gets into the club using pantomime and a sword and fish as props. Wagstaff and Baravelli crawl in when Pinky is admitted. Once inside, Pinky creates havoc throughout. First he steals a bottle of scotch, using his own shot glass that’s a funnel for an empty bottle; kibitzes at a card game, literally cutting the cards with a butcher’s cleaver; annoys a slot machine player to the point he takes over the machine and instantly wins and continues his winning ways with the payphone and the bus man’s change maker.

Everything pays off for Pinky, even the payphone.

Wagstaff assumes Baravelli and Pinky are the football players he’s looking for and hires them for the Darwin game and enrolls them as students at Huxley.

Later, Baravelli and Pinky make an ice delivery to Wagstaff’s office. Inside each block of ice is a bottle of bootlegged liquor. Baravelli demands payment, saying that Wagstaff owes him $2000, but Wagstaff thinks the amount is too high:

Baravelli: I make you proposition. You owe us $200, we take $2000 and we call it square.
Wagstaff: That's not a bad idea. I tell you ... I'll consult my lawyer. And if he advises me to do it, I'll get a new lawyer.

Wagstaff then gets Baravelli and Pinky to sign not only a blank contract, but a blank piece of paper. The only thing missing is the seal, which turns out to be a real seal, which the three follow out of the office.

Professor Hornsroge (Robert Greig) doesn't stand a chance when Wagstaff visits his classroom.

After starting school, Wagstaff delivers Baravelli and Pinky to Professor Hornsroge’s (Robert Greig) biology class. The routine is supposedly lifted from Fun in Hi Skule .When they chase off Hornsroge, Wagstaff takes over the class:

Wagstaff: Let us follow a corpuscle on its journey... Now then, baboons, what is a corpuscle?
Baravelli: That's easy! First is a captain... then a lieutenant... then is a corpuscle!
Wagstaff: That's fine. Why don't you bore a hole in yourself and let the sap run out?

Jennings (David Landau) conspires with Connie on how to steal Huxley's signals.

Meanwhile, Jennings goes to see Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd), Frank's college widow, with whom he conspires to get Huxley’s football signals from Frank. Pinky is already there, hiding under the coats and as Jennings puts on his coat to leave, places a flower down his back. No sooner does he walk out the door, then Frank arrives. He goes to make her a drink and as soon as he leaves the room, Wagstaff shows up with his umbrella and galoshes. He’s ostensibly there to convince her to leave Frank alone, but he puts the moves on her for himself.
Pinky and Baravelli try to deliver ice to Connie, which she insists she doesn’t want. Each time, the block gets thrown out the window and is smaller the next time it is brought to her. When Wagstaff is away from the couch, Baravelli takes his place. When Jennings comes back, Baravelli pretends to be her voice coach.

Baravelli ruins Wagstaff's seduction of Connie.

While Baravelli plays Collegiate (written by Moe Jaffe), Wagstaff breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the audience:

Wagstaff: I've got to stay here, but there's no reason why you folks shouldn't go out into the lobby until this thing blows over.

After the next team practice, Frank informs his father that he hired the wrong football players. Wagstaff then instructs Baravelli and Pinky to kidnap the real athletes so they won’t be available for the game. Soon after, Jennings shows up and buys the signals from Baravelli for $500, only to discover they are Darwin’s signals. During their conversation, Baravelli lets slip the kidnapping plot, so Mullens and Murphy are already waiting for them to arrive.

Wagstaff seduces Connie while she rows out on the lake.

Out on the lake, Connie seduces Wagstaff to get the signals from him. But when he catches her stealing them from her pocket, he throws her out of the row boat. He throws her a candy when she asks for him to throw her the lifesaver.

The kidnapping of Mullens (James Pierce) and McCarthy (Nat Pendleton) doesn't go as planned.

The plan to kidnap Mullens and McCarthy quickly goes south and it is Pinky and Baravelli who are detained. Using the saws they had brought with them in their bag of tools, they saw through the floor of the room they’re being kept in, only to fall one floor below into Mullens’ and McCarthy’s. When they get locked in that room, they once again saw through the floor into the apartment below where a group of women are gathered to play cards.

All four Marx brothers play in the big game.

The big football game is already underway by the time Baravelli and Pinky arrive and Wagstaff and Frank are both on the field of play. The game is full of slapstick and wordplay signals, as Baravelli ends up calling the plays while not being the quarterback. To give you an idea of the antics, the final game-winning touchdown is scored by Pinky in a horse-drawn garbage wagon, which he rides like a chariot. [I wonder if some of this sequence was shot while Chico was recuperating, since the face of the Chico we see in the chariot is sometimes hidden from view, suggesting a stand-in.]

The best way to break through the line is a horse drawn trash cart.

Victory on the field leads to a three-way marriage between Baravelli, Pinky, Wagstaff and Connie, which ends the film.

Baravelli, Wagstaff and Pinky all marry the college widow, Connie. (No Zeppo)

Supposedly, a different ending was shot by director Norman McLeod and other scenes were either edited out for censorship reasons or lost, including one in which the four Marx brothers in character play cards while Huxley College burns to the ground behind them. Also missing are an extended ending to the apartment scene and additional scenes with Pinky as the dogcatcher. Further, part of a scene described in a contemporary review in Time magazine (August 15, 1932), with Pinky bowling grapefruits at bottles in the speakeasy, is also missing.

Still, the film we’re left with is one of the funniest films ever to come from Hollywood and the Marx Brothers. The humor comes from a delightful blend of slapstick humor, sight gags and clever wordplay. While all of these have been repurposed by others, there is a comedic timing that no one save the Marx Brothers could achieve.

Three of the Marx Brothers are really featured in the film, as they have the most developed characters going in. Zeppo, who would soon leave the troupe, is the odd man out. He’s really nothing more than a straight man for Groucho and has a nice, but not exceptional, singing voice. His character literally disappears by the end of the film, when the other three line up to marry the college widow he’d been pursuing.

Groucho is, as usual, the ringleader for the chaos. Here his fast talking and way with words carry the load, though he is not above the slapstick, though it is kept to a minimum with him. His grease paint moustache is perhaps the second most recognizable facial hair in films (Chaplin’s being the first). He has an incredible comedic sense of timing.

As always, Groucho is the ringleader.

Chico, whose character has English as a second language, uses words as well, though a lot of his humor comes from mispronunciations and homonyms. One of the great joys with a Marx Brothers film is getting to watch him play piano. His finger work is unusual and the fun he seems to be having playing is captured on celluloid.

Chico pretending to be Connie's voice instructor plays piano. His playing is fun to watch.

While Chico and Groucho use words, Harpo is perhaps the last great silent comedian, using body language and props for most of his humor. Who else could produce a hot cup of coffee or a candle burning on both ends from the pockets of his shabby costumes? And like Chico, Harpo is a master of his instrument and we’re treated to his playing as well.

It is always a treat to watch Harpo play the harp.

Thelma Todd, who was making her second appearance with the Marx Brothers, is really more of a straight woman in the vein of Margaret Dumont, though she was much younger and prettier. Only 26 at the time, Todd had a background in comedies having worked with Hal Roach on a series of shorts with Zasu Pitts in 1931 and prior to that, appearances in the films of Harry Langdon, Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy. Here she is not given much more to do than to react to the Brothers’ antics.

Sadly, as bright as her future looked at the time, Todd was found dead on December 16, 1935 at the age of 29. A successful restaurateur in addition to her acting, Todd’s death was ruled a suicide, even though it was clouded in mystery.

While there is a screenplay and a vaudeville revue before that, it’s hard to know how close to either the final film really is, as the Marx Brothers were known for ad-libbing on the set to keep things fresh. There is a familial comfort zone that is unique to siblings so I would have to imagine they felt comfortable trying different ideas out on the fly; throwing as much as they could think of at the screen and keeping the best bits. But no matter the source, the dialogue spoken is fast-paced; it takes multiple viewings to catch all the subtleties.

Like any Marx Brothers film there is time set aside for musical interludes. We are treated to five different renditions of the same song. “Ev’ryone Says I Love You”, including Zeppo singing to Connie when he brings her breakfast in bed, Harpo whistling to his faithful horse which draws his dog catcher wagon, Chico playing piano and singing to her during her supposed vocal lessons, Groucho singing it to her while she paddles him in a canoe and finally Harpo playing a musical rendition on the harp. These sequences allow the Brothers to showcase their musical prowess, with Harpo and Chico being the standouts on their instruments. Harpo certainly knows his way around the instrument from which he took his stage name and Chico’s piano playing seems as effortless as it is fun to watch. Zeppo has a nice, if not outstanding voice. [Woody Allen would lift the song for one of his films, Everyone Says I Love You (1996), which ends with a Marx-brothers themed costume party.]

It's hard to know what sort of box-office the film had, as numbers from that time are scarce and unreliable, but no matter, the film has endured. For what it's worth, The American Film Institute (AFI) named it #65 on their 2000 100 Years...100 Laughs list. The Marx Brothers also placed #73 Monkey Business, #59 A Day At the Races (1937), #12 A Night at the Opera (1935) and #5 Duck Soup (1933). Also, because of Horse Feathers, Swordfish is perhaps the most famous password in history, even inspiring the movie title Swordfish (2001), a film about hacking, which starred John Travolta, Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry.

There are many laugh-out loud moments in Horse Feathers and you really need to pay attention to get all of the innuendos and wordplay, so this might be a movie you might want to watch more than once. If you’re a fan of slapstick and sight gags, you’re in luck as well. No one seemed to marry the two as well as the Marx Brothers did, especially in their early films at Paramount Pictures. Horse Feathers should be seen and enjoyed as one of the funniest films ever made.

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