Horse Feathers (1932)
Horse Feathers (1932)

Genre: Slapstick and Musical Running Time: 1 hr. 8 min.

Release Date: August 19th, 1932 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Norman Z. McLeod Actors: The Marx Brothers, Thelma Todd, David Landau




t Huxley College, the outgoing president introduces his replacement, the esteemed Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho), who turns out to be quite the imbecile. Yet in the same fashion as all of the Marx Brothers’ works, supporting characters alternate between essentially ignoring the hijinks altogether (as if existing in a deadly serious reality) or spontaneously joining in the absentminded merrymaking. Here, Quincy soon bursts into a song (with hysterical lyrics) and dance routine, with the elderly trustees suddenly participating in a choreographed number. The student body has no choice but to provide backing vocals.

Quincy’s son, Frank (Zeppo), has been attending the institution for twelve years, and is something of a disappointment to his father. But he comes up with a solid idea: “What this college needs is a good football team.” Unfortunately, rival school Darwin is intent on maintaining their own winning record, going so far as to hire professional, adult players to infiltrate the upcoming Thanksgiving Day game for a surefire win. Quincy opts to match the unscrupulous gambit, but only manages to proposition speakeasy worker Baravelli (Chico) and the mute dogcatcher Pinky (Harpo).

Like “Monkey Business” before it, “Horse Feathers” is little more than a collection of skits, many of which begin almost randomly and end without a resolution – such as when Pinky throws a policeman into his dog kennel, or when a real seal leaps over the professor’s desk. And characters tend to march in and out of scenes, ignoring the continuity of where they previously were or should be. Plus, the dialogue once again makes excellent use of plays on literal interpretations of trite adages (“You can’t pull the wool over my ice”), non sequitur gags (including the cutting of a deck of cards with an axe), and Groucho repeatedly breaking the fourth wall. The Marx Brothers have a formula for their pictures and they don’t change things up for each subsequent outing; what worked before is good enough for every new adventure.

“You’ve got the brain of a four-year old boy and I’ll bet he was glad to get rid of it.” The overarching plot may be different (perhaps nodding to Harold Lloyd’s “The Freshman”), but the slapstick mayhem, the breaks for piano fingering or harp strumming or guitar plucking, and the competition over a pretty girl (regular Thelma Todd) are entirely familiar. Nevertheless, many of this film’s iterations of those repetitive activities are better than before; more singing and musical performances litter this entry, nicely changing up the excess of football montages and classroom escapades. By the end, however, the nonsensical cheating and disruptions to the big game are so over-the-top that they dilute the significance – if there ever was a significance – of the flimsy premise. But the parting shots concerning a disorderly wedding are a smart return to absurd form.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10