Horsefeathers, the Marx Brothers’ fourth Paramount film (1932) is likely the Marx movie that Groucho loved making more than any other. A Gilbert & Sullivan aficionado, Groucho gets to sing patter songs as Dean Wagstaff of Huxley College, where the only prerequisite seems to be football.
For once Zeppo has a better role than usual, and there is lovely Thelma Todd in the cast. But Harpo and Chico are a bit scanted, and grande dame stooge Margaret Dumont is absent, yet there is plenty of fun to be had. Harpo whistles and plays a bit on his harp, and Chico’s brief turn at a piano is graced by beautiful Ms. Todd.
Songwriters Bert Kalmar (music) and Harry Ruby (witty lyrics and some comedy scenes) shine, once again, yet the smart set’s famous humorist S.J. Perelman proves he is not as skilled for screenwriting as he was for his short pieces for The New Yorker. Yet one might safely guess it was Perelman who named the two rival colleges, Huxley and Darwin.
Some of what I’ve written seems negative but Paramount Studio’s Horsefeathers is a bright and funny movie—certainly better than the Marxes’ later movies in the 1940s, those after Night at the Opera and Day at the Races produced by MGM’s creative head Irving Thalberg. After the death of Marcus Loew, chief of MGM’s parent company, and then Thalberg’s early death, Louis B. Mayer, a man of executive ability but limited taste, took full charge at MGM, which became known as the studio where film comedians, including Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, early Red Skelton and late-era Laurel & Hardy, faded away in subpar comedies. Skelton simply quit and went to television to enjoy 28 years of creativity and control over his career.
The setting of the movie is Huxley College, its football stadium and a Prohibition era speakeasy. That means touchdowns win more respect than grades, especially with the competitive Dean Wagstaff (Groucho) in charge. Gag man Will B. Johnstone was on the job to help create some delightful cinematic scenes—especially for Harpo whose physical gags were beyond Perelman’s wish or ability to create. Brother Chico shattered a kneecap in an auto accident during filming and can be seen limping in some scenes.
Horsefeathers numbers among the American Film Institute’s 2000 list of the top 100 Funniest America Movies, and IMDB accords Horsefeathers a 7.6 (a high rating from IMDB for any comedy then or now. Rotten Tomatoes critics award Horsefeathers 97% and RT’s audiences rate it an 87%.
Watch Horsefeathers online free:
Showbiz historian & published author Frank Cullen has conducted film series at the Guild in ABQ from 2007 to 2017,and hopes, after the COVID variants are under control, to resume in-person screenings at the East Mountain Library in Tijeras.