Directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Starring: The Marx Brothers
Review by Steve Painter
Quincy Adams Wagstaff, the new president of Huxley U, hires bumblers Baravelli and Pinky to help his school win the big football game against rival Darwin U.
Horse Feathers (1932) is my favorite Marx Brothers movie. It has classic scenes, music and off course classic jokes. It is also the first Marx movie to focus around Groucho, actually it is the first movie that has a plot that revolves around the Marx Brothers.
While the Brothers were in vaudeville they had a play called Fun in Hi Skule that featured what they would later claim to be their funniest jokes. Part of the play took part in a high school classroom where Groucho was a teacher and Harpo and Chico were students. The basic idea was lifted from that play and became Horse Feathers.
Instead of being a teacher though, Groucho has just been named head of Huxley College. By some weird quirk Zeppo is Groucho’s son, even though Groucho was only a few years older than the youngest Marx. Zeppo tells his father that the college needs to win a big football game for some reason. This is the plot, which is never too complex or too necessary in Marx Brothers movies. What really matters is Zeppo is involved in a relationship with Connie Bailey, played by Thelma Todd, a college widow. A college widow is someone who would hang around colleges and prey on young boys, which would make one a combination of a cougar and a gold digger today.
Of course when Groucho learns of his son’s relationship he must put a stop to it, not because he’s a good father, but because he wants a piece of the action as well. But before he can do this, there is that football matter. Zeppo tells his dad that two great football players hang out at a speakeasy. Let me write down here that this movie has aged a little bit with college widows and speakeasies, just wait until the end when you see how football was played in 1932.
Anyway, Groucho makes his way down to the speakeasy where we have the most famous scene in the movie. Chico is an ice man and is told to watch the door to the speakeasy for a few moments. To get in, you have to say the password. As has been copied numerous times since, the password is Swordfish. So Groucho comes along, makes three guesses and can’t get in until Chico tells him the password. Then Groucho locks Chico out. Chico tries to use the password, but Groucho tells him that he’s switched it but he can’t remember what he switched it to. So now Groucho ends up outside. The two are locked out of the speak. Along comes Harpo though, who plays a dog catcher, and he gives the password by placing a sword inside a fish he just happens to have in his pocket.
Once inside the speakeasy, Groucho ends up hiring Chico and Harpo as the two football players. Huxley’s main rival on the gridiron is Darwin and the Darwin man, who happens to be the husband of Thelma Todd’s character, gets the two real football players.
This doesn’t matter though as Groucho gets Harpo and Chico to enroll in school. He also makes inroads with Connie Bailey. Actually, all four of the Marx Brothers vie for her heart. They do so by giving separate versions of “Everybody Says I Love You.” Zeppo sings the original version. Chico sings the Italian version. Groucho strums the guitar and sings the cynical version. Harpo whistles the tune to a horse and then plays it on his harp for Connie Bailey. These renditions are another big highlight of the movie.
It is finally time to play football and the Darwin team looks like they’ll destroy Huxley, so Groucho sends Chico and Harpo to kidnap the two speakeasy football players. This doesn’t work and the two of them end up being kidnapped and missing most of the first half of the game. They end up escaping by sawing through the floor, another gag Looney Tunes took from the Marx Brothers.
The two finally make it to the stadium. Harpo does so in a makeshift chariot. The four brothers appeared on the cover of Life Magazine in the chariot as a promotion for the movie. From there it is the standard comedians on a football field routine.This movie might not be mentioned by film historians or scholars as one of the best Marx Brothers movies, but Marx Brothers fans love it. Woody Allen, who was a great admirer of Groucho, thought so much of the comedian and this movie that he titled one of his movies Everyone Says I Love You. Of course the John Travolta movie Swordfish takes its name from the famous scene in this movie.
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