Movie Review: HORSE FEATHERS, 1932

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HORSE FEATHERS, 1932
Movie Reviews

Directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Starring: The Marx Brothers
Review by Steve Painter

SYNOPSIS:

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.

REVIEW:

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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Movie Review: MONKEY BUSINESS, 1931

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MONKEY BUSINESS, 1931
Movie Reviews

Directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Starring: The Marx Brothers
Review by Steve Painter

SYNOPSIS:
On a transatlantic crossing, the Marx brothers get up to their usual antics and manage to annoy just about everyone on board the ship.

REVIEW:

Monkey Business (1931) is sort of a precursor of things to come from the Marx Brothers. It involves the four Brothers as stowaways on a ship. This was exploited to a lesser degree in A Night at the Opera (1935). On its own, Monkey Business is average Marx Brothers. It has some decent laughs, but the ending is terrible and the stowaway scene in A Night at the Opera is a little better.

What this movie has that previous Marx Brothers movies didn’t is Thelma Todd. Todd was a comedienne who worked with Laurel and Hardy for a bit. Her life was cut short in a garage one night in 1935. Groucho makes a crack about locking Todd up in the garage and not letting her out during one of their scenes together. This line was cut out of the movie’s later releases, but is present in the current DVD offering.

The movie also is absent of Margaret Dumont. The Marx Brothers staple did not appear in the movie and has her character replaced by a wealthy man who has a daughter that Zeppo falls in love with.

We open up in bowls of a ship bound for America. The Marx Brothers are in barrels singing “Sweet Adeline.” They jump out of their barrels for the audience to see and Groucho makes some quips. They return to their barrels when they hear movement on the stairs coming down to where they are. The captain has sent the crew to find the stowaways.

The crew does just that, but they cannot catch the Marx Brothers. They race up the stairs onto the deck and from there unleash their mayhem on the passengers, crew and captain. Groucho and Chico hit up the captain first and end up eating his lunch and storing him in his closet.

In an interesting scene, Harpo runs away from one of the crew members and ends up in the children’s nursery. The kids are watching a puppet play. Harpo joins in as one of the puppet heads. This confuses the crew member and astounds the children. Harpo is the Marx Brother most associated with children and this scene is a perfect illustration of that.

Looney Tunes is famous for taking routines used by silent comedians and the Marx Brothers. One routine that was used in the cartoon involves a character shaving someone with a mustache. Of course the character who is giving the shave ends up shaving the mustache off completely. That happens here as one of the crew members wants a shave and in order to hide from him, Chico and Harpo pose as barbers. They give him a close shave and he leaves with no mustache.

The real plot of the movie comes in almost a third of the way through. This is when Groucho, who is on the run, ends up walking into the room occupied by gangster Alky Briggs and his wife Lucille, played by Todd. Briggs likes Groucho’s speaking ability and tells him he is part of the gang. Zeppo also walks into the room and becomes part of the gang as well. The idea is the two will provide protection for Briggs while he tries to get Big Joe Helton to give him a piece of New York. Helton has said he is retired from the gang turf war and just wants to live life alone in luxury with his daughter, who has the hots for Zeppo.

As it ends up, Chico and Harpo walk in on Helton while they are trying to find some quiet so they can play chess. Helton enlists them as his bodyguards. None of this really matters until the boat docks in New York.

The best part of the movie occurs when the Brothers attempt to get off the boat. They do not have a passport, causing them to have to steal one. They steal crooner Maurice Chevalier’s passport. In order to try and get off the boat each one tries to sing a song of his. Harpo gets the closest, as he has a miniature phonograph play Chevalier’s record. But the phonograph skips and he is kept on the boat with the rest of his brothers.

They finally leave the ship when a man falls ill. Groucho jumps in as he impersonates a doctor, much like what will happen in A Day at the Races (1937). Instead of having the patient removed from the ship, the crew ends up taking the Marx Brothers off on the cot.

This should be where the movie ends, but it doesn’t. Now in New York, Briggs comes up with a plan to take Helton’s daughter. Helton holds a party, where Groucho provides some good comedy and Harpo and Chico get their musical solos, but nothing else really happens. Helton’s daughter is kidnapped and taken to a barn. Chico and Groucho arrive there with a picnic and wait for Zeppo to knock out Briggs, thus giving a happy ending.

Monkey Business is not a bad movie, but it is not a great one either. As far as Marx Brothers movies go, it is not in the elite, but then again it isn’t one of their worst, like their movies from the 1940s. It is somewhere in the middle. As always, the major comedy scenes in the movie are worth watching. But a lot of the rest isn’t.

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