In 2000, the American Film Institute saw fit to add Horse Feathers as Nº 65 on their prestigious list of the 100 Funniest American Comedy Films of all-time. Why? Because the laughs it has given us over time has not only enriched our lives but also inspired many actors and filmmakers who had followed in the Marx Brothers footsteps.
Released in 1932, Horse Feathers is as anarchical as it gets for a Marx Brothers film. Of course, a big part of its success was owed to the Marx Brothers writing team of Kalmar and Ruby, Will B. Johnstone and humourist S.J. Perelman. Moreover, the legendary Norman McLeod, who had only a year earlier directed the brothers in Monkey Business (1931) was back in the saddle again as director.
The plot of the Marx brothers fourth film Horse Feathers centres on the fortunes of a college football game and Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff’s (played by Groucho) attempt to recruit professional footballers to help the Huxley University team. All is definitely not well when Groucho mistakenly recruits Barevelli (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo), who go onto wreak terrible havoc across the university. In fact, one of my favourite scenes involves Chico and Harpo, as they attempt to kidnap the opposing team’s star players in the films big game and end up – in true Marx idiotic style – kidnapping themselves.
Worthy of a mention is also the supporting side story that involves the gorgeous Thelma Todd in her role as the college widow, Miss Bailey. Interestingly, it is the first Marx Brothers film that sees all four brothers, Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo in their attempts to serenade Todd. But ultimately Todd as Miss Bailey is out to steal the signals of the Huxley football team.
Without giving too much more away about this wonderful comedy for those still yet to see it, I must at least mention the ‘password’ scene played out by Chico and Groucho, as an example of what I feel exemplifies the spirit of the Marx Brothers comedic genius. It is often through these sort of simple exchanges and talkative scenes that they excel in as comedians. Not only is the witty delivery of the lines clever in the ‘password’ scene, but also how Chico as a comedian is always so dependable at playing the perfect foil for his brothers.
Here below is an excerpt of the Groucho and Chico ‘password’ scene:
Baravelli: [through speakeasy’s door] Who are you?
Professor Wagstaff: I’m fine, thanks, who are you?
Baravelli: I’m fine too, but you can’t come in unless you give the password.
Professor 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.
Professor Wagstaff: Is it Mary?
Baravelli: Ha-ha. That’s-a no fish.
Professor 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.
Professor Wagstaff: I got it. Haddock.
Baravelli: That’s-a funny. I gotta haddock, too.
Professor Wagstaff: What do you take for a haddock?
Baravelli: Well-a, sometimes I take-a aspirin, sometimes I take-a calomel.
Professor Wagstaff: Say, I’d walk a mile for a calomel.
Baravelli: You mean chocolate calomel. I like that too, but you no guess it. Hey, what’s-a matter, you no understand English? You can’t come in here unless you say, “Swordfish.” Now I’ll give you one more guess.
Professor Wagstaff: …swordfish, swordfish… I think I got it. Is it “swordfish”?
Baravelli: Hah. That’s-a it. You guess it.
Professor Wagstaff: Pretty good, eh?