Horse Feathers (1932)

Directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Written by Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby & S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone

Only two films into my football marathon, and already it has been a marathon of discovery. Things got started with a Harold Lloyd classic silent film, The Freshman, my first experience with the silent film star. The second installment features the famed Marx Brothers, also my first experience with the legends themselves. Of course, this also means that I don’t know quite what to expect from their brand of comedy. I’m not warmed up to them, which means I can either be bowled over by their comedic style, or even potentially bored to death or completely thrown. Regardless, it is an exciting proposition and exactly why this marathon exists: to discover new things, like just how zany a football game could possibly be.

Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho) has recently been appointed the new president of Huxley University, whose football team has been atrocious for many years, instead focusing its funds and attentions on academics. With Wagstaff now in charge, he hopes to revamp the football team to beat rival Darwin University. Employing the help of the hapless duo of Baravelli (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo), Wagstaff aims to recruit two burly football players from the speakeasy to help his team. However, Darwin beats them to the punch, and now Huxley is forced to try to win with just Wagstaff and his airheaded companions Baravelli and Pinky. Somehow, they compete. Somehow they coerce laughs out of the audience with their bumbling, fumbling ways.

As I said, I had no idea what to expect, but I quickly found out what the Marx Brothers brand of comedy was about. It’s very broad. The film opens with a introductory speech from Groucho which perfectly frames everything about the film I wasn’t going to like. It’s forced, scripted, and Groucho delivers it in a way as to suggest he was so proud of just how funny he though he was. All of these things work strongly against my ability to enjoy the film. There are laughs, sure, and good gags, funny songs, etc. But everything feels diminished due to on screen expectations. It’s hard to buy into something when the performers so clearly think they’re more clever and funnier than the actual content suggests.

There is humor here, and I had a few laughs at the Marx Brothers expenses. But the laughs are few and far between, so thankfully the run time is a very short 70 minutes, otherwise it would have been far more difficult to suffer through the many lulls in the film where my attention wandered. Once the football game finally gets started, things pick up somewhat with some crazy in-game action. I’m not sure what game they’re playing, or by what rules, but at this point all convention and structure has been thrown out anyway, which gives Harpo, Groucho and Chico the canvas necessary to make fools of themselves. The game is when the best gags are actually landed.

In all I can’t say I was overly impressed by the Marx Brothers. In a time when there wasn’t television yet, they could have been great television stars. I guess that means their only outlet was these short little films for audiences to eat up, and I can fully appreciate that. Maybe my reaction is a failing of my own expectations, but I didn’t laugh much. So far there have been two football movies, and both have been comedies. I look forward to seeing a greater variety of stories and styles, ones that aren’t necessarily comedies, and ones that aren’t just incidentally football movies. There are greener pastures ahead, though I also know there is plenty of dumb football humor in store as well. I’m glad I’ve meet the Marx Brothers, and maybe now that I know what to expect I’ll be better prepared to enjoy their other works.

** 1/2 – Average

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