Marx Brothers fans love to debate which is the best of their films, and they usually fall into two camps: A Night at the Opera supporters and Duck Soup fans. When Groucho did a talk at Carnegie Hall in 1972, someone in the audience asked him which was his personal favorite. “A Night at the Opera,” he replied. Then after a pause, “Duck Soup.” Personally, I like Horse Feathers. Although I have zero interest in college football, one of the main points satirized in the film, I think some of the best routines in the Marxist canon are in the fourth film they made for Paramount. And although the absence of Margaret Dumont is felt throughout, Thelma Todd proves she can hold her own against the Brothers in the comedy department.
Horse Feathers literally starts on a strong number. The musical numbers in The Cocoanuts are entirely superfluous and unrelated to the plot. Animal Crackers had the first great Marx songs, “Hurray for Captain Spaulding” and “Hello, I must be Going,” but also had some unnecessary musical interludes such as “Why am I so Romantic?” Monkey Business thankfully dispensed lyrical numbers, save for a long-winded opera soprano who spares with Harpo and his harp. Horse Feathers marks a return to form, opening with one of Groucho’s greatest songs. As the newly-appointed Professor Wagstaff of Huxley College (or is it professor Huxley of Wagstaff College?), Groucho succinctly outlines his attitude toward academia with “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It.” We also have the song “Everyone Says I Love You” is presented now fewer than five times: sung by Zeppo, whistled by Harpo, sung and played on the piano by Chico, played by Harpo on his harp, and finally sung and played on the guitar by Groucho, serenading Thelma Todd in a canoe, a performance which is followed by him nonchalantly tossing his instrument into the lake.
Chico, who basically plays the same character in all of the Marx Brothers films, has his best role and funniest lines in Horse Feathers. As Baravelli the Ice Man, he makes deliveries of illegal booze for a speakeasy, responding to an order for a quart of Scotch and a quart of rye by pouring into two recycled bottles from the same bottle of rot-gut booze. Putting Chico into a college classroom naturally leads to great comedy, and makes for one of the best scene in the film. Even poor, put-upon Zeppo, who had little to do but say “Yes, Mr. Hammer,” and “Yes, Captain Spaulding” in The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, has a better role here, although we can imagine that he must have resented having to play the son of older brother Groucho.
One of the greatest scenes in the entire Marxist oeuvre involves Harpo. As the city dog catcher, Harpo sits on a curb, enjoying a lunch break with his beloved horse. He unzips a banana peel, takes a bite, then zips it back up, following it up by burying his face in the horse’s bag of oats. The camera pulls back to reveal the horse’s job is to pull the broken down jalopy and dog cage on wheels that are the tools of Harpo’s trade. He has stopped the whole mess on a busy street, and honking cars line up behind him. An outraged policeman rushes in. Harpo does not rub his knuckles against his lapel and look into the sky while whistling, as Chaplin’s Little Tramp did when he met up with a patrolman. He does not turn heel and run, as Keaton often did. He simply grins. “You think this is a picnic?” roars the cop. Harpo grins enthusiastically and offers him a banana. “I’ll show you this is no picnic,” continues the cop, pulling out his ticket pad. Harpo pulls out his own pad of paper, licking the tip of a pencil and scrawling on it. When the cop hands him a ticket, he hands his paper to the cop. When the outraged officer rips up the paper and throws it to the ground, Harpo does the same with his ticket. With a nightstick pointed at him threateningly, Harpo shakes it as if shaking hands with an old friend. When the stick is held upright, Harpo turns it into a child’s game, grabbing stick just above the cops hand, so the cop grabs it even higher, repeating at a furious pace to see who is the last one to be able to get ahold of the stick. When the infuriated cop points to the badge on his chest, Harpo opens his raincoat to reveal a whole collection of badges, presumably stolen. When a stray dog runs by, Harpo leaves the cop and gets back to what really matters: a dog catcher fulfilling his duty by catching dogs. This scene expresses, through pantomime, the essence of the Marx Brothers: authority is not only ignored, it is made to look ridiculous.
Later in the film, Grouch and Chico play out a dialogue that anticipates the famous contract scene of A Night at the Opera. Here the essence of the Marxist philosophy is expressed entirely verbally. An ordinary interaction is repeated over and over, and each time another layer of meaning is stripped away until nothing is left but absurdity. To wit:
Professor Wagstaff: Have you ever had any experience as a kidnapper?
Baravelli: You bet. You know what I do when I kidnap somebody? First I call ‘em up on the telephone, then I send ‘em my chauffer.
Professor Wagstaff: Oh, have you got a chauffer? What kind of a car have you got?
Baravelli: Oh, I no got a car, I just got a chauffer.
Professor Wagstaff: Well maybe I’m crazy, but when you have a chauffer, aren’t you supposed to have a car?
Baravelli: Well I had one, but-a you see it cost too much money to keep a car and a chauffer so I sold the car.
Professor Wagstaff: Well that shows you how little I know. I would’ve kept the car and sold the chauffer.
Baravelli: That’s a-no good. I gotta have a chauffer to take me to work in the morning.
Professor Wagstaff: Well if you’ve got no car, how can he take you to work?
Baravelli: He don’t have to take me to work, I no got a job.