Class Clowns

College life and the behavior of students and facility alike has been a source of inspiration for countless satires and parodies on the subject from the silent era (Harold Lloyd in The Freshman [1925], Buster Keaton in College [1927]) and early sound period (Laurel & Hardy in A Chump at Oxford [1939]) on up to more contemporary examples such as National Lampoon’s Animal House [1978], Van Wilder [2002] and Accepted [2006]. Certainly one of the funniest and most memorable of all is Horse Feathers (1932), a madcap burlesque of university life starring The Marx Brothers in which the institution of higher education is held up for ridicule and satirized mercilessly.  

THE MARX BROTHERS, 1932. Groucho (left) and Chico Marx in ‘Horse Feathers,’ 1932.

Synopsis: Groucho Marx is Professor Wagstaff, the president of Huxley College, Chico plays an ice salesman/bootlegger, Harpo stars as the local dogcatcher and girl chaser, and Zeppo, cast as Wagstaff’s son, provides the love interest. The central premise – Wagstaff plots to increase the college’s enrollment and boost its reputation by staging a winning football game – is really just an excuse to include pot shots at everything from pompous professors to dull-witted students to sports fanatics.

The Marx Brothers run through plays during football practice in HORSE FEATHERS (1932).

Along the way, there is a parody of the boating accident from Theodore Dreiser’s novel, An American Tragedy, wild sight gags like Harpo posing as a human coffee dispenser, and such signature songs as “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It” and “Everyone Says I Love You” (Woody Allen would pay homage to this six decades later when he chose it for the title of his 1996 musical comedy). The film continually flaunts its ramshackle structure and at one point during Chico’s piano solo, Groucho breaks the wall between actor and viewer to remark candidly, “I’ve got to stay here but there’s no reason you folks shouldn’t go out into the lobby till this thing blows over.”

The Marx Brothers’ fourth film, Horse Feathers is usually ranked second to their surrealistic masterpiece, Duck Soup (1933), by fans and critics and has the same manic energy and anarchic, freewheeling tone as the latter film. Yet, despite Groucho’s brilliant sense of comic timing and inspired clowning from Chico and Harpo, a great deal of the film’s success is due to the contributions of screenwriters Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby (who also co-wrote the musical numbers) and S. J. Perelman who provided the Marx Brothers with a non-stop stream of hilarious one-liners, literary in-jokes, and double entendres that wouldn’t have made the cut a year or so later when the censors cracked down.

Among the three, only Perelman had attended college and it is his absurdist view of academia that gives Horse Feathers its sharp, satiric edge. After all, he had suffered through four undergraduate years at Brown University where he spent most of his time attacking the university’s policies in scathing editorials for the Brown Jug. In one of his attacks, he wrote “Millions for athletics, and not a cent for aesthetics” which turns out to be one of the major themes running throughout Horse Feathers.

David Landau, who often plays villains in movies, co-stars with Groucho Marx in the 1932 college satire, MONKEY BUSINESS.

Although Perelman is often erroneously credited with working on four of the Marx Brothers’ films, he only claims credit for two collaborations – Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers – and by the time he began work on the latter, his relationship with Groucho had become combative; both men couldn’t agree on what was funny with each one preferring his own material. Groucho later stated in a 1972 interview that Perelman “could write a funny line, but never a script. When he was writing for us, he was working with four other men. He thought he was the greatest writer in the world and didn’t want to be identified with comedians….thought we were too low.”

Pinky (Harpo Marx, left) is a dog catcher who has an encounter with university students in the college satire MONKEY BUSINESS (1932), directed by Norman Z. McLeod.

In his own defense, Perelman once said of the Marx Brothers: “I did two films with them, which in its way is perhaps my greatest distinction in life, because anybody who ever worked on any picture for the Marx Brothers said he would rather be chained to a galley oar and lashed at ten-minute intervals than ever work for these sons-of-bitches again.” The truth is that Horse Feathers was only a success because of their collaboration along with creative input from the other Marxes, co-writers Kalmar and Ruby, director Norman Z. McLeod, producer Herman J. Mankiewicz, and co-star Thelma Todd, a versatile comedienne in her own right. 

Thelma Todd was a delightful comic actress who could hold her own opposite the best in the business such as Chico Marx in this scene from MONKEY BUSINESS (1932).

The actual filming of Horse Feathers had its ups and downs with Chico causing a two month delay due to a major traffic accident that shattered his knee and broke several ribs. The original ending – which had a victory bonfire blazing out of control across the campus – was scrapped for budgetary reasons and substituted with the now famous wedding ceremony between Thelma Todd and her THREE grooms – Groucho, Chico, and Harpo.

Off screen, Groucho amorously pursued Todd but the actress managed to successfully elude him. At one point during the production, Shirley Temple visited the set (she made her film debut the same year in The Red-Haired Alibi) and it was rumored that Harpo approached her parents and offered to adopt her as his own child for $50,000!

Pinky (Harpo Marx) creates chaos at the university football game in HORSE FEATHERS (1932).

When Horse Feathers went into general release, it proved to be a box-office smash and prompted Time magazine to place them on its front cover. The film also inspired the surrealistic artist, Salvador Dali, to write a script called “The Marx Brothers on Horseback Salad” and when he later met Harpo at a Hollywood party, he presented him with a barbed wire harp tuned with spoons.

Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho Marx, right) makes a mockery of college as a university president in HORSE FEATHERS (1932).

Almost everywhere, Horse Feathers received rave reviews from the critics, particularly in France, where the Marxes were embraced by the intelligentsia and the art crowd. In the U.S., Variety proclaimed, “The madcap Marxes, in one of their maddest screen frolics. The premise of Groucho Marx as the college prexy and his three aides and abettors putting Huxley College on the grid-iron map promises much and delivers more,” but also noted, “On the matter of formula, the harp and piano numbers were repeated against the Marxes’ personal wishes but by exhibitor demands to the studio. The piano is oke, but the harp reprise of ‘Everyone Says I Love You’ (by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby) substantiates the boys’ opinion that it tends to slow up the comedy.” This would become an even bigger complaint when the Marx Brothers moved over to MGM where more songs and romantic subplots detracted from the non-stop lunacy.

Pinky (Harpo Marx) would just love to take a course in anatomy in the college parody HORSE FEATHERS (1932).

Horse Feathers would be the Marx Brothers’ last major success for Paramount Studios, who would drop their contract after the disastrous box-office performance of Duck Soup, their fifth feature, now considered their peak achievement.

The Marx Brothers in one of their best feature films at Paramount studios, HORSE FEATHERS (1932).

The Paramount Marx Brothers’ comedies have been available on VHS and DVD from Universal Home Entertainment for years, often in box sets such as the Silver Screen Collection which included The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup. Horse Feathers was eventually released as a stand alone DVD by Universal HE in July 2017 but even better was a remastered edition of the Silver Screen Collection on Blu-ray in October 2016.

Other links of interest:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s