Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 30, 2017)
Higher education gets the Marx Brothers treatment in 1932’s Horse Feathers. Set at Huxley College, Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho Marx) takes over as the school’s president. His son Frank (Zeppo Marx) attends Huxley, and apparently he’s been there for 12 years. Frank fools around with “college widow” Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd), an affair that bugs Quincy and causes Frank to neglect his studies.
Frank tells his dad that Huxley’s had a new president every year since 1888, and they also haven’t won a football game since then. Frank wants Quincy to improve the team to bolster the college.
Frank instructs Quincy to recruit two players from a speakeasy. Unfortunately, gangster Jennings (David Landau) beats him to the punch and obtains the players for rival Darwin College.
Soon we meet Baravelli the iceman (Chico Marx) and Pinky the dogcatcher (Harpo Marx) at the speakeasy. Wagstaff mistakes Baravelli and Pinky for the football players and recruits them.
More complications occur when we learn that Frank’s lover Connie works for Jennings and dallies with Frank just to snoop on the Huxley squad. The rest of the movie follows the issues connected to the teams and climaxes with the big game.
That synopsis makes Feathers sound a lot more plot-focused than it actually is. Like virtually all Marx movies, the story acts as little more than a springboard for comic routines.
Feathers indulges in its plot only sporadically, as it uses the football backdrop only when it feels like it. The climactic scene depends on the gridiron setting, but otherwise those elements could get the boot and no one would ever notice.
Feathers continues the trend seen in Monkey Business in that it focuses more on the Brothers than anything else. That’s a good thing, for their first two movies included far too much material that dealt with extraneous and dull characters.
Feathers lacks the tightness of Monkey, and it reverts to the use of the Brothers in character. During Monkey, they essentially played themselves, albeit in their caricatured way.
While Feathers doesn’t work as well as its immediate predecessor, it still remains pretty satisfying. The movie features some of the Brothers’ best-known bits, such as the famous “swordfish” routine.
Happily, it also avoids most of the musical numbers that marred the earliest flicks. We do get a couple tunes, but they pass quickly and don’t cause the movie to sag too badly.
Unfortunately, Feathers doesn’t lack the usual piano piece from Chico and the pretentious harp solo from Harpo. Apparently every Marx movie included those segments, and they never worked.
Actually, Chico’s performances occasionally fit into the movies, as they sometimes connected to the action acceptably well. That was never true for Harpo’s strumming, though, as those elements consistently ground the movies to a halt and offered nothing of value. That holds true for Feathers.
In general, the positives I saw with Monkey Business continue in Feathers, and I like the emphasis on a fairly small cast. Actually, Feathers reduces the roster even more than in its predecessor. Really, it offers only two significant roles beyond the Marx boys, and both fit into the action just fine.
One of the better Marx Brothers flicks, Horse Feathers stumbles at times due to the same kinds of missteps that affect virtually all of their efforts. However, it emphasizes more positives than negatives. It usually offers clever and inventive comedy and presents an enjoyable experience.