Filmsite Movie Review
Horse Feathers (1932)
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Background

Horse Feathers (1932), the fourth comedy masterpiece from the Marx Brothers, is an anarchic parody of higher education and a subversive attack on authority and society. Following their successes in The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930) filmed at Paramount's Astoria Studio, the comedic team moved to Hollywood and Paramount Studios. Their first two films on the West Coast were Monkey Business (1931) - their first picture written directly for the screen, followed by this film Horse Feathers (1932). Both pictures shared the same co-writers (S. J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone) and director (Norman McLeod).

The mad-cap film - a zany take-off on college education (and football), is known for its fast-paced, non-sequitor, inconsistent nature as was typical of all Marx Brothers films. The plot affords many opportunities for the comedic team to show off their anarchic style of humor, with many pun-filled, absurd, non-sensical bits of dialogue, insults, idiosyncracies, and one-liners.

Woody Allen's musical Everyone Says I Love You (1996) took its title from the recurring song sung by the characters.

The Story

The film opens in New England's Huxley College auditorium during the installation ceremonies for the new president of the college. The retiring President (Reginald Barlow) introduces the new president to the audience of bearded and capped faculty with flowing robes, and students. Fun-loving Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho Marx) is seen shaving on the side of the stage. Although smoking is specifically prohibited, Wagstaff is seen smoking his cigar and refuses to put it out. Wagstaff, who will be assuming the presidency of Huxley College, begins his address, a memorable film moment:

Members of the faculty, faculty members, students of Huxley and Huxley students - I guess that covers everything. Well, I thought my razor was dull until I heard this speech. And that reminds me of a story that's so dirty I'm ashamed to think of it myself. As I look over your eager faces, 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. Things kept going from bad to worse but we all put our shoulders to the wheel and it wasn't long before I was flat on my back again.

The address, a satire on pretentious intellectual gatherings, degenerates into an auction scene:

Any questions? Any answers? Any rags? Any bones? Any bottles today? Any rags? Let's have some action around here. Who'll say 76? Who'll say 17 76? That's the spirit! 1776!

Wagstaff divulges the real reason he came to Huxley, to save his student son Frank (Zeppo Marx) from helpless infatuations and dalliances with females: "I came into this college to get my son out of it." Frank is seen sitting in the audience with a girl on his lap. Wagstaff calls out with a scolding: "Young lady. Would you mind getting up so I can see the son rise? So, doing your homework in school, eh?"

The Retiring President and Wagstaff carry on, and he threatens adultery:

Retiring President: I am sure the students would appreciate a brief outline of your plans for the future.
Wagstaff: What?
Retiring President: I said the students would appreciate a brief outline of your plans for the future.
Wagstaff: You just said that! That's the trouble around here: talk, talk, talk! Oh, sometimes I think I must go mad. Where will it all end? What is it getting you? Why don't you go home to your wife? I'll tell you what, I'll go home to your wife and, outside of the improvement, she'll never know the difference. Pull over to the side of the road there and let me see your marriage license.
Retiring President: President Wagstaff, now that you've stepped into my shoes...
Wagstaff: Oh, is that what I stepped in? I wondered what it was. If these are your shoes, the least you could do was have them cleaned.

In a musical number, "I'm Against It," Wagstaff describes how he will nihilistically respond to trustee suggestions, ridiculing them:

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

The second verse, which is a different song, is called: "I Always Get My Man." The bearded faculty professors join the contemptable Wagstaff, slavishly bowing and pointing to him, and circling around him in a soft-shoe routine. When the dance is finished, he tells them: "All right scram, boys. I'll meet you in the barber shop."

Wagstaff has a strong talk with his son Frank, concerned about courting Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd), the college campus widow. [A 'college widow' is a non-college girl who hangs around with students year after year to associate with the male students.] While ashamed of his son, Wagstaff recalls his college days and the promiscuous "widows" that often taught the boys more than their professors:

Wagstaff: You're a disgrace to our family name of Wagstaff, if such a thing is possible. What's all this talk I hear about you fooling around with the college widow? No wonder you can't get out of college. Twelve years in one college! I went to three colleges in twelve years and fooled around with three college widows! When I was your age, I went to bed right after supper. Sometimes I went to bed before supper. Sometimes I went without my supper and didn't go to bed at all! A college widow stood for something in those days. In fact, she stood for plenty.
Frank: There's nothing wrong between me and the college widow.
Wagstaff: There isn't, huh? Then you're crazy to fool around with her.
Frank: Aw, but you don't...
Wagstaff: I don't want to talk to you again about this, you snob. I'd horsewhip you, if I had a horse. You may go now. Leave your name and address with the girl outside, and if anything turns up we'll get in touch with you...Where you going?
Frank: Well, you just told me to go.
Wagstaff: So that's what they taught you in college. Just when I tell you to go, you leave me! You know you can't leave a schoolroom without raising your hand no matter where you're going.

Frank tells him that Huxley College has fired a different president each year since 1888, the last year the college had a winning football team. Wagstaff's son suggests that only a good, winning football team with solid players can bolster up the infirm, sagging college. Wagstaff wants to know where good football players can be located and recruited. Frank tells his father that athletes can be recruited for the college team at the local speakeasy to play in the upcoming game against arch-rival school Darwin College. Wagstaff wonders: "Isn't that against the law, selling football players in a speakeasy?" But Frank believes it would be unethical for him, the new Huxley College president, to go to the speakeasy:

Frank: It isn't right for a college to buy football players.
Wagstaff: It isn't, eh? Well, I'll nip that in the bud. How about coming along and having a nip yourself?
Frank: Anything further, Father?
Wagstaff: Anything further, Father? That can't be right. Isn't it 'Anything Father, further?' The idea! I married your mother because I wanted children. Imagine my disappointment when you arrived.

In the local speakeasy, Jennings (David Landau), head of Darwin College, has already recruited and hired two professional football players, Mullen (James Pierce) and McCarthy (Nat Pendleton) for the big game. Huxley is bound to lose. One of the speakeasy regulars, bootlegging Baravelli (Chico Marx) works in the back room, filling expensive-looking whiskey bottles labeled Scotch and Rye with inferior booze. He also works as the speakeasy's doorman.

When Wagstaff in full academic attire, who isn't "against it," arrives at the speakeasy to recruit two football players, Baravelli eyes him through the speakeasy's door slot and doesn't allow him in without saying the password. It is the classic password routine of mangled metaphors, puns, and dislocated associations:

Baravelli: Who are you?
Wagstaff: I'm fine thanks, who are you?
Baravelli: I'm fine too, but you can't come in unless you give the password.
Wagstaff: Well, what is the password?
Baravelli: Aw, no! You gotta tell me. Hey, I tell what I do. I give you three guesses. It's the name of a fish.
Wagstaff: Is it Mary?
Baravelli: Ha-ha. That's-a no fish.
Wagstaff: She isn't, well, she drinks like one. Let me see. Is it sturgeon?
Baravelli: Hey you crazy! Sturgeon, he's a doctor cuts you open when-a you sick. Now I give you one more chance.
Wagstaff: I got it! Haddock!
Baravelli: That's-a funny. I gotta haddock, too.
Wagstaff: What do you take for a haddock?
Baravelli: Well-a, sometimes I take-a aspirin, sometimes I take-a Calamel.
Wagstaff: Say, I'd walk a mile for a Calamel.
Baravelli: You mean chocolate calamel. I like that too, but you no guess it. Hey, what-sa matter, you no understand English? You can't come in here unless you say 'swordfish.' Now I'll give you one more guess.
Wagstaff: (to himself: Swordfish. Swordfish) I think I got it. Is it 'swordfish'?
Baravelli: Hah! That's-a it! You guess it!
Wagstaff: Pretty good, eh?

When Baravelli opens the door and congratulates him, Wagstaff sneaks in the door, shuts it, and asks for the password.

Baravelli (confidently): No. You're no foolin' me. Swordfish.
Wagstaff: No, I got tired of that. I changed it.
Baravelli (knocking): What's the password now?
Wagstaff: Gee, I forgot it. I'd better come outside with you.

After their exchange Wagstaff goes outside, and they are both locked out, neither of them knowing the password.

On the street outside, Baravelli's partner named Pinky (Harpo Marx) the Town Dogcatcher, has a horsedrawn cart with cages to capture stray dogs. He is also the iceman for the speakeasy. A bum asks him for money to get a cup of coffee. He produces a hot and steaming cup of coffee from inside his coat pocket. At the speakeasy door, he displays a fish with a sword stuck in its mouth ("Swordfish"), allowing admission for all of them. As they crawl into the speak-easy on their hands and knees, Wagstaff quips:

That's no way to go into a speak-easy. That's the way you come out.

Pinky uses a coat button for a coin. He inserts it in a slot-machine that has been filled with coins by a gambler that he pushes aside. He instantly hits the jackpot, with coins gushing out. He catches the flood of coins with his hat, his mouth, and the inside of his shirt. At the bar, the bartender asks what he wishes to drink. He dances an ethnic Highland jig to communicate his drink - Scotch. He swindles the bar out of a bottle of liquor - his shot glass leads to a much larger bottle and he empties the bottle into it. When he passes a poker table and hears someone say: "Cut the cards," he literally takes out a hatchet and cuts the deck of cards in half. Pinky also hits the jackpot on a trolley conductor's change belt and when he puts a coin into a ringing telephone.

In the speakeasy, Wagstaff informs Baravelli that he is looking to hire two football players that hang around the speakeasy for the upcoming Huxley football game. Baravelli replies: "We always hang around here." Wagstaff says: "Well, that's all I want to know," and he signs Baravelli and Pinky as his football players. Baravelli tosses a coin to see who will pay for the drinks they've been having, but he doesn't show the result. Wagstaff loses the toss. Wagstaff asks the bartender: "Can you cash a check for fifteen dollars and twenty-two cents?" The bartender gives him $15.22 from the cash register. Wagstaff runs off with the money, declaring as he exits with the password: "As soon as I get a check for $15.22, I'll send it to ya. Swordfish."

Frank enters Connie's bedroom with her breakfast tray. He tells her he hasn't seen her for a few days, because he has been arguing with his father about her:

Dad wants me to give you up. You know you're interfering with my studies...But I think you're wonderful. You're beautiful.

He sings "Everyone Says I Love You" (the first version of the song that all the brothers sing at one time in the film).

In the next memorable scene of pantomime, Pinky is whistling the previous tune while feeding a bunch of flowers to himself and to his horse on the dog-catcher cart. After his horse refuses to eat from a bag of oats, he sprinkles it with salt and eats the horse's meal. He unzips a banana peel to eat it. Unfortunately, he is non-chalantly holding up a long line of angry, honking motorists with his horsedrawn cart. He zips up the unfinished banana. As a cop writes him a ticket, he reciprocates by writing the cop a ticket, even furiously scribbling the note. When the dumbfounded cop rips up his ticket, he tears up the cop's ticket, imitating his facial expressions. Pinky grabs the cop's nightstick when threatened, and they proceed fist over fist up its length. They show each other their badges (Pinky has dozens inside his infamous coat). When he pursues a stray dog and traps it in his truck's cage, he also captures the adversarial policeman running after him. He proudly displays a sign on the cage: "POLICE DOG FOR SALE."


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