Sunday, August 23, 2009

Masterpiece Film Series: Horse Feathers

"Horse Feathers"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Young movie fans may not realize this, but, there was a time when comedies were actually suppose to be funny. They had funny lines, humorous situations and laughable characters. Today's comedies mostly want to gross us out. They want to see how far they can push the envelop. They want to make us laugh not out of joy but out of discomfort. We laugh because we don't know how to respond in awkward situations.

But that is not the case with "Horse Feathers" (1932). We laugh because the Marx Brothers are genuinely funny. Snappy lines and broad physical comedy dominate the film.

I have said before, comedy is my favorite genre. I've tried to review the works of all the great comics. In the month of April I devoted myself exclusively to the genre. I wrote about Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon and Abbott & Costello. But strangely enough this is the first time I've written about the Marx Brothers.

I wasn't always a Marx Brothers fan. As a child I watched their films, as I did all the other great comedians of the era, but they were a bit advance for me. Many of Groucho's one-liners went completely over my head. I didn't understand all of Groucho's references to wanting to marry Margaret Dumont for her money. At the time my favorite of the brothers was not Groucho, not even Harpo, whom most children like. I liked Chico. I would sit with joy and amazement as he played the piano. I thought he was the greatest pianist of all time. For those who have never seen a Marx Brothers comedy he did all sort of "tricks" while playing. Playing with two fingers as they "walked" over the keys. Or pretending his hand was a gun and "shoot" the note.

I started to like the Marx Brothers when I got much, much older. Around my early teens. And since then I have been a devoted Marxist ever since. I've seen all of their movies and among them "Horse Feathers" is my favorite.

While I'm not fan of today's comedy with comedians like Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers and writer/director Judd Apatow, the Marx Brothers actually have something in common with them. Just as Sandler and Myers are crude and vulgar in their comedy, the Marx Brothers were considered cutting edge at their time. Today it all seems like innocent fun but back then the brothers were engaging in comedy anarchy. Breaking down the social order of things. They were a slap in the face of the American lifestyle. And none of their films, I feel, is quite as off-the-wall as "Horse Feathers".

"Horse Feathers" has no real established characters, no character arc, no real plot, no resolution, no satisfying ending, there is no cinema aesthetic. There is no message. Nothing is artful about the film. And because of that it is perfect. I wouldn't change a single frame of the film. The only disappointing aspect is, the film is too short. A mere 65 minutes.

The film immediately makes it clear it will not follow "rules" or a movie formula. Right at the start of the film Groucho sings "Whatever It Is, I'm Against It" which starts off with the lyrics, "I don't know what they have to say/ It makes no difference anyway/ Whatever it is, I'm against it/ No matter what it is or who commenced it, I'm against it"

There is some non-sense of a "story" about Groucho, who plays Prof. Wagstaff, who becomes the new dean of Huxley College. He has done so because his son (Zeppo Marx) is dating the "college widow" (whatever that is) Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd). But that idea is quickly abandon. Now the film is about a college football game between Huxley and rival college Darwin. And that's it.

The college campus has always provided good material for comics. Buster Keaton made the film "College" (1927), a minor effort not among his best. Harold Lloyd enrolled in "The Freshman" (1925) considered his funniest film. Those films though took more advantage of the college setting, playing around with the hierarchy of power, trying to fit in. "Horse Feathers" could be interpreted as a satire on college life, deeming it useless. This at a time when a majority of young people were attending college, setting records in attendance.

But there is no plot holding everything together. The film is just a collection of gags and comedy routines. Everything moves so fast that if you blink, you'll honestly miss a gag. I don't think any of the brothers have a line of serious dialogue, maybe Zeppo. Every line out of Groucho's mouth is a wise-crack, Chico is constantly engaging in his word-play, changing the meaning of everything. Most comedies, how ever good they may be, cannot keep up this level of insanity. But there are no slow parts in the movie. Each scene is set-up, delivery and cut to a new scene with the same agenda.

One of my favorite scenes takes place in a speak-easy. Groucho has gone there to buy some football players (Nat Pendleton and James Pierce) but instead enrolls Chico and Harpo. Groucho and Chico have a routine involving a password:

Chico: Who are you?
Groucho: I'm fine thanks. Who are you?
Chico: I'm fine too, but you can't come in unless you give the password.
Groucho: Well, what is the password?
Chico: Ah, no. You gotta tell me. Hey, I tell you what I do. I give you three guesses. It's the name of a fish.
Groucho: Is it Mary?
Chico: That's a no fish.
Groucho: She isn't? Well she drinks like one.

Another moment in the speak-easy has a couple of guys playing cards. One of them says cut the cards. As the man says this Harpo walks by and over hears him. He pulls an ax out of his pocket and chops the cards. You might think that is corny but I think it is hilarious. Then there is a very funny exchange between Groucho and the bartender concerning him cashing a check for $15.22 cents, which I won't spoil.

The Marx Brother films were also known for sequences where Chico, as I already said, would get to play the piano and Harpo, the harp. Chico's piano solo here is one of my all time favorites. He plays the classic 1920s tune "Collegiate". While Harpo and every other brother, does their version of the song "Everyone Says I Love You". Each performance is memorable.

The film was "directed" by Norman Z. McLeod. I wonder if it was actually possible to "direct" the Marx Brothers? McLeod directed their previous film "Monkey Business" (1931), another one of their great comedies. He also directed W.C. Fields in "It's A Gift" (1934) my favorite Fields' comedy and the charming "Topper" (1937). The script was written by S.J. Perelman, who wrote "Monkey Business", the Wheeler & Woolsey comedy "Hold 'Em Jail" (1932) and the Oscar winner, "Around the World in 80 Days" (1956) and co-written by the songwriting team of Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmer. They also wrote the Marx Brothers' comedy "Animal Crackers" (1930) and "Duck Soup" (1933) as well as two Wheeler and Woolsey comedies; "The Cuckoos" (1930) and "Hips, Hips, Hooray" (1934). Their life story was told in the musical "Three Little Words" (1950) with Fred Astaire and Red Skelton.

"Horse Feathers" is my kind of comedy. A no holds bar laugh fest. Will younger generations like it? I honestly think so. Their movies move very fast and Groucho's wit will impress them. For years now my friends and I have always quoted his one-liners to each other. Who else is there better to steal from? "Horse Feathers" would also make for a good introduction into their comedy. Afterwards I'd suggest watching their other beginning comedies; "Duck Soup", "Monkey Business", "Animals Crackers" and "A Night at the Opera" (1935).

For its wild daring pace and cynical look at college life "Horse Feathers" is one of the masterpieces of cinema.