Two nights ago Charles and I screened the fourth of the five Marx Brothers films at Paramount, Horse Feathers, made in 1932 (while Laurel and Hardy, W. C. Fields and the other great comics of the 1930’s churned out two, three or more films per year the Marxes never made more than one a year) and dealing — though Charles and I hadn’t realized this when we first watched it together — with real-life scandals surrounding college football and how schools interested in the prestige and money (both from ticket sales at games and alumni and other public contributions) accruing from a top-tier football program often hired out-and-out professionals, gave them phony admissions as college students, and put them on their football teams to win. As Charles and I watched films like College Coach (1933), The Big Game (1936), and Saturday’s Heroes (1937) when they came up on Turner Classic Movies’ schedule, it became apparent that these films were dealing seriously with the same scandals the Marx Brothers made fun of, particularly the way pro players traveled the country and appeared at one college after another as “students.” The Marx Brothers and their writers — Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby (best known as a songwriting team — Ruby wrote music, Kalmar wrote lyrics — but surprisingly effective as screenwriters both here and in the Marx Brothers’ next — and most audacious — film, Duck Soup), S. J. Perelman, Will B. Johnstone and an uncredited Arthur Sheekman (a gag writer, specializing in snappy comebacks, who was a friend of Groucho’s and frequently brought into Marx Brothers’ projects to beef up Groucho’s parts) — turned the real-life football scandals of the 1930’s into a wild, frantic and screamingly funny movie in whose opening scene the assembled faculty and students of Huxley College (named after the 19th century British naturalist Julian Huxley, sometime collaborator and sometime rival of Charles Darwin) are to meet their newly appointed president, Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho Marx). When he’s told that the faculty members and administrators have some suggestions to make about how the college should be governed, Wagstaff snaps, “The faculty members know what they can do with their suggestions,” and launches into a song, “I’m Against It,” which heard today seems to sum up the attitude of Congressional Republicans towards President Obama: “I don’t care what they have to say/It makes no difference anyway/Whatever it is, I’m against it.” Then he segues into another song, “I Always Get My Man,” and does some of the comic dancing that livened up many a Marx Brothers movie. When he stops singing, Wagstaff explains, “I came to this college to get my son out of it.” His son is Frank Wagstaff (Zeppo Marx), and Frank explains to his dad that Huxley has had a different president every year since 1888, “and that’s the last time we won a football game.”
Frank tells his dad that two pro football players, Mullen (James Pierce) and MacHardie (Nat Pendleton — so we were watching another Nat Pendleton movie just one day after we’d seen him in Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates Come Home), hang out at a local speakeasy and would be willing to play for Huxley … at a price. Unfortunately, by the time Wagstaff gets there, Jennings (David Landau), a gambler who has big money placed on arch-rival Darwin College to win the big game between it and Huxley, has already talked to Mullen and MacHardie and signed them up to play for Darwin. So the two people Wagstaff ends up recruiting are ice man Baravelli (Chico Marx) and dogcatcher Pinky (Harpo Marx), about the unlikeliest football recruits you can imagine. Of course the Marxes stop this plot, such as it is, along the way several times so they can insert anarchic comedy sequences, including Wagstaff’s attempts to gain admission to the speakeasy without knowing the password — a scene that in today’s world of computer passwords is, if anything, even funnier now than it no doubt was in 1932 — while Pinky, who like most of Harpo’s characters in the early days managed to make not being able to speak seem like an advantage instead of a handicap, gets in by illustrating the password, “swordfish,” by taking a dead fish and sticking a sword in its mouth. Harpo then whirls through the speakeasy, tearing off a button from his famous overcoat (the one that was built with secret panels inside so he could conceal various items in it — in his introduction a homeless man comes up to him and says, “Can you help me get a cup of coffee?,” and Harpo reaches into his coat and pulls out a steaming hot cup of coffee — discomfiting the homeless man, who like his confrères then and now was most likely hoping for a handout with which he could buy booze; and later on, in a class Wagstaff is teaching, he is solemnly warned, “Young man, as you grow older you’ll find that you can’t burn the candle at both ends,” whereupon Harpo pulls out of his coat a candle burning at both ends), inserting it into a slot machine and winning a jackpot, after which he puts a coin (or a slug, or another button, or whatever) into a pay telephone and wins a jackpot from that, too. (As much as I admire Groucho’s wisecracks and the illustrious writers who came up with them for him, this time around I found myself laughing harder at Harpo than at Groucho!)
In another scene, in which Groucho is attempting to enroll Chico and Harpo into the college, he takes them to an anatomy class in which a bored (and boring) professor (Robert Grieg) is giving a lecture, Groucho challenges him, asking, “Is this on the level or are you making all this stuff up?” When the official professor is driven from the class, Groucho takes over the lecture with lines like, “The blood rushes from the head to the feet, gets a look at those feet and rushes back to the head again,” and “Beyond the Alps lie more Alps, and the Lord Alps those who Alp themselves” (a line they self-plagiarized from the Marx Brothers’ first Broadway show, the revue I’ll Say She Is), and when Harpo and Chico pelt him with pea-shooters, Groucho whips out one of his own and fires back. There’s also the subplot of the so-called “college widow,” Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd, in the second and last of her films with the Marx Brothers — she was under contract to Hal Roach but he loaned her out a lot, including to Warners for the first version of The Maltese Falcon in 1931, in which she played Iva Archer, widow of Sam Spade’s slain partner — the part played by Gladys George in the 1941 version with Bogart — and also tried to turn her into a comedy star in her own right until her mysterious death in 1935). An imdb.com “trivia” poster defines a “college widow” as “a young woman who remains near a college year after year to associate with male students” and was thereby considered “easy.” Connie is attracted to Zeppo — indeed, one reason Wagstaff wants to get his son out of Huxley is he’s dating her (“Twelve years at one college?” Wagstaff tells him. “When I was your age I went to three colleges and fooled around with three college widows. A college widow stood for something in those days. In fact, she stood for plenty!”) — though the other three Marxes also take their crack at her, while she’s actually the girlfriend of Jennings (ya remember Jennings?), the corrupt gambler who’s trying to “fix” the big game so he can win his bets on Darwin.
There’s a bizarre sequence in which all four Marx Brothers visit Connie’s apartment — and when Jennings shows up Baravelli poses as her music teacher when he and Pinky aren’t busy delivering large blocks of ice they throw out of the window after Connie says she doesn’t want them — and for some reason in the version we were watching this scene was photographically inferior to the rest of the movie, with long scratches down the image and bits of dialogue lost through splices, the sort of thing you expect from a public-domain DVD or download rather than a major film still owned by a major studio (though not the one that produced it initially; Paramount sold off virtually all their 1930’s and 1940’s films to MCA-TV in the 1950’s, and when MCA took over Universal in 1962 they were reissued with Universal logos). TCM is promising to show a new digital restoration of Horse Feathers on their next film festival, and hopefully it will include a longer version of the scene in Connie Bailey’s apartment that I’ve read about but never actually seen. Apparently this was censored when the film, originally made during the so-called “pre-Code” period of loose Production Code enforcement, was reissued after things had tightened up — though it survived in the theatrical prints shown in Britain and British film critic Allen Eyles described it in his book on the Marx Brothers. (Eyles seems to be the only person among the many authors who’ve written books about the Marx Brothers who’s actually seen this scene; U.S. writer Joe Adamson described it in his book about the Marxes but admitted in his footnotes that he hadn’t seen the sequence himself and was relying on Eyles’ description.) Be that as it may, the version we got (a boxed set from Universal Home Video of all five of the Marx Brothers’ Paramount movies) not only contained the censored version of this scene, but a splice- and scratch-ridden version of the censored scene at that. There’s also a bizarre scene in which Groucho is meeting with two grey-bearded professors (Groucho himself seems to be the only male on the Huxley faculty or staff who shaves) and debating what to do since the college doesn’t seem to be able to afford both football and education: “Tomorrow we start tearing down the college.” When the professors agree, Groucho says he was just testing them — “The problem is there’s too much football and not enough education” — and when they agree with him again, he changes his mind again and insists he’s going to tear down the college. “But, Professor, where will the students sleep?” “Where they always sleep: in the classroom!” Groucho fires back.
Horse Feathers builds to a bizarre climax in which Wagstaff assigns Baravelli and Pinky to kidnap Mullen and MacHardie — who kidnap them instead — leaving them to break out by sawing through the floor of the room where they’re being held and ending up landing on top of a bridge table being used by four elderly women who are predictably shocked at the disruption to their card game — and, stripped down to their underwear (Chico is wearing long johns and Harpo a T-shirt and shorts), they commandeer a horse-drawn garbage truck (the garbage collector picks up the garbage, puts it in a can mounted on top of a wheeled carriage, and the horse pulls the garbage around, presumably until the can is full and can be dumped) and ride it to the football stadium like a chariot in what I suspect was a deliberate parody of the silent Ben-Hur. Of course, they save the game for Huxley in a delicious sequence that makes total hash of the ordinary rules of football — after Huxley scores a touchdown and the Marxes line up to kick the extra point (they each kick each other in turn until the last one kicks the ball), Darwin kicks off to Huxley instead of vice versa; and Harpo scores the winning touchdown riding to the goal line in his garbage-can chariot (and scores again and again and again as Chico keeps feeding him one football after another and he makes the “touchdown” gesture with each one), while in an even weirder tag scene Connie Bailey ends up at the altar and Groucho, Chico and Harpo all marry her at once, then pile on at once for the wedding night. (Zeppo is hidden behind her as this happens, and one suspects the writers knew who the really important Marx Brothers were.) Horse Feathers is a brilliant movie, though Kalmar and Ruby (along with Arthur Sheekman and another recruit, Nat Perrin, who ultimately went on to produce the TV series The Addams Family in the 1960’s) pushed the plot points even farther in the Marxes’ next film, Duck Soup — as if they were in the writers’ room saying to each other, “Hey, what can we do that’s more outrageous than making Groucho the president of a college? We’ll make him the president of a whole country! And instead of the bad guy and the bad girl conspiring to steal the secret football signals, we’ll have them conspire to steal the secret plans of war! And instead of a football game, we’ll end it with a war!”
Joe Adamson said of Horse Feathers that its stars seemed more at home in Animal Crackers (the Marxes’ second film, based on their last Broadway show, and their most commercially successful film until A Night at the Opera), director Norman Z. McLeod more at home with the immediately preceding Marx film Monkey Business (which he also helmed), and the writers more at home with Duck Soup, and he lamented the way many of the scenes in Horse Feathers ended in perfunctory fade-outs instead of the punchy comic finishes the writers had actually written (but then much of Adamson’s book consists of quotes from rejected scenes that never made it before the cameras, but if they had would have made these marvelously funny movies even funnier!). Horse Feathers was made at a time when professional players were recruited by colleges for supposedly “amateur” student athletics, and while the strategies by which colleges compensate student athletes have become subtler (the 1977 film One on One, which cast Robby Benson as a high-school basketball phenomenon recruited to a major college on an athletic scholarship and given a sinecure job consisting of watching the automatic sprinklers on the college grounds turn themselves on and off, is a more current example), the clash between sports and education dramatized in this movie (and exposed by Left-wing college student turned author Reed Harris in a 1932 book called King Football: The Vulgarization of the American College; he’d been expelled from Columbia for writing a magazine article he eventually expanded into the book, and though he was reinstated and graduated, and ultimately worked as a journalist and government official, in 1953 he was forced out of his job with the Voice of America when Senator Joseph McCarthy cited King Football as evidence that its author was a Communist with an agenda to destroy American values) is still very much a part of the American scene. People are still pointing to college-sports powerhouses like Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama, Stanford, Notre Dame and USC and asking if they are colleges with sports programs or sports programs with colleges barely attached.