At Paramount Pictures The Marx Brothers released a row of comedies with seemingly arbitrary names evoking fauna like Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and of course Duck Soup. The phrase “Horse Feathers” is essentially a variation on “Nonsense” though it sounds rather archaic by today’s standards. That hardly detracts from any of its charms as a film.
There must be a location — a place for the brothers to be unleashed upon the world where they can belittle and bash heads all at the same time. What better place than a university campus that pantheon of learning dating all the way back to the Greeks? It commences with a perfect opening ceremony that’s quintessential Groucho.
He accepts his new post by badmouthing his eminent predecessor, pulling on the facial hair of all his eminent faculty, besmirching the reputation of his eminent institution and singing a typically cheeky ditty, “I’m Against It.”
His son played by none other than his younger brother Zeppo has been spending his idle hours outside of the classroom and off the football field in the company of a College Widow (Thelma Todd). Much like “Horse Feathers,” this might come as another antiquated term or at the very least euphemistic. It usually denotes a woman who lived near college campuses to romance male students. She was commonly known to be easy pickings. But that’s enough context. Watch the film and you’ll probably have all the context you need because Groucho wants to get in on the action too — not to mention the other brothers.
However, there’s more important business at hand. Namely the fact that Huxley hasn’t had a good football team since 1888. Even in 1932 that was still a very long time ago. As Groucho notes they’re neglecting football for education. At the behest of his son, he personally heads down to the Speakeasy to dig up some talent. It isn’t the least bit ethical so obviously, the school’s new head promptly heads straight there.
Before he can enter, however, he needs to provide the password and you guessed it the gatekeeper is the bootlegger Baravelli (Chico). Getting inside is more convoluted than you ever imagined. Of course, the actual joint is then Harpo’s personal playground and overflowing slot machine. His hat runneth over so to speak. The steady stream of gags keeps on flowing.
I was genuinely cracking up whilst Harpo stokes the fire with books in Wagstaff’s office Groucho remarks that Baravelli has the brain of a four-year-old boy, and “I bet he was glad to get rid of it.” Classic Marx Brothers.
Follow that up with an invasion of a lecture hall with Chico and Harpo taking up seats in the front row after their typical fisticuffs while Groucho stands by making snide remarks over the professor’s shoulder. Another perfect scenario capped off by Groucho taking over and getting caught in a spitball war with his two most unruly students.
Next, it becomes grand central station in the promiscuous college widow’s pad with slabs of ice getting repeatedly chucked out the window and Groucho repeatedly breaking up the action and the fourth wall by talking to the audience. He even invites them to go out to the lobby during Chico’s piano playing. To be honest, I was never that big of a fan. Each of the brothers pays the dame a visit as does her other beau backing Darwin while Groucho constantly makes a chore of carrying out his umbrella and rubbers before exiting the busy room.
We have the resulting romantic date on the lake with the dame conspiring to steal Huxley’s signals. Groucho’s serenade of “I Love You” is the kicker. In fact, it’s very true that everyone says I love you — including each of the brothers — each in a very different way. Meanwhile, Todd assaults Groucho with baby talk and he all but tosses her out of their dingy (in case you didn’t realize, they had Life Savers candy back in 1932).
But the finale comes on the football field and there’s no doubt that Chico and Harpo liven things up. The most storied gags are courtesy of Harpo including a football yo-yo and laying down a minefield of banana peels, and of course chariots. They have no respect for the game. What better way to sum it up than marriage Marx Brothers style. They have no respect for that institution either.
Whether or not its second tier to the likes of Duck Soup (1933) or Night at the Opera (1935) is beside the point aside from being purely dismissive. Watching the boys at work here is arguably as wild and deliriously funny as anything they ever put to film. Here is a comedy that wonderfully condenses all that these brothers stood for as far as comic hooliganism was concerned in a gag reel that never has time to run out of steam. A wonderful summation of what college might be like if the Brothers had ever had the good fortune of making it there. Regardless, it’s a joy to the very last hike and the very last frame of chaos.