For The Marx Brothers the world and everyone in it is a target for ridicule. It makes no difference what ones position is in life, politician, policeman, intellectual, thug, society matron or bimbo, all are treated with equal irrelevance. No one is immune, all are exploited as asinine know nothings. Though the Marx’s share the same universal space as the rest of us, they are a law unto themselves and the first rule is…everything is irrelevant. As for all other rules, just refer back to rule number one. As Groucho sings in the opening minutes of “Horse Feathers,” their fourth film, “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It.”
The Marx Brothers world juxtaposes ideas that challenge the normal thought process. We have Groucho telling Harpo, “Young man, as you get older, you will find out you can’t burn the candle at both ends.” Harpo proceeds to quickly rebuke this piece of worldly advice by pulling out a candle from underneath his coat that is doing just that! The Marx’s also fracture the rules cinematically with Groucho breaking through the fourth wall. During Chico’s piano solo, he addresses the audience directly saying, “I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t go out to the lobby until this blows over.” Living in the world of The Marx Brothers can best be described as a dreamy surrealistic trip, no need for drugs, recreational or otherwise, to help you along.
If there is one flaw with “Horse Feathers” it is the lack of having Margaret Dumont in the cast. The brilliant Dumont, who appeared in seven of the Brothers films is said to have never really understood most of their humor yet she was an integral part of their success. Her snobbish, boorish, and sometimes naive affectation made her the perfect foil for their rebellious behavior. Her presence is sorely missed here and in “Monkey Business” two of their greatest successes. Other than that, this film, the second of three The Marx Brothers made for Paramount Pictures is pure artistic pandemonium. By this point in their career they were in the middle of a series of iconic films that still stand today as gems of absurdist comedy. The anarchistic arm of comedy rules right from the opening scene when Groucho, as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, the new President of Huxley University, sings out to his students his philosophy on life, “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It.” And that is pretty much is the theme for the rest of this short, approximately 75 minute, gem of a film.
The plot, it you want to call it that, involves Wagstaff, who is more interested in football and women than education, mistakenly recruiting an iceman, Baravelli (Chico) and dogcatcher Pinky(Harpo) from a local speakeasy who he thinks are ace football players. The plan is to make them students and help Huxley win the big game against their rival, the University of Darwin.(1)
Now, if you think this film is too old and out of date, you’re not listening carefully enough here. In the following exchange between Wagstaff and his student son, Frank (Zeppo Marx), they discuss the need for a college to have strong football team, even if it means buying one.
Frank: Dad, this college has had a new president every year since 1888.
Frank: And that’s the year we won our last football game. Now, I like education as well as the next fellow…
Wagstaff: Well, move over and let me speak to the next fellow.
Frank: But a college needs something besides education. And what this college needs is a good football team, and you can’t have a good football team without good football players.
Wagstaff: My boy…I think you’ve got something there, and I’ll wait outside until you clean it up. I know it’s dangerous, but I’m going to ask you one more question. Where do you get the good football players?
Frank: Well, there is a speakeasy downtown…
Wagstaff: Are you suggesting that I, the president of Huxley College, go to a speakeasy without giving me the address?
Frank: It’s at forty two Elm Street, but you can’t go there. It’s unethical. It isn’t right for a college to buy football players.
Wagstaff: It isn’t eh? Well, I’ll nip that in the bud. How about coming along and having a nip yourself. Or better still, you wait here.
Frank: Anything further, Father?
Wagstaff: “Anything further, Father? That can’t be right. Isn’t it anything farther, further? The idea! I married your mother because I wanted children. Imagine my disappointment when you arrived! In a speakeasy? Isn’t that against the law…selling football players in a speakeasy?
More than plot The Marx Brothers are more about dialogue, skits, and the pandemonium created by disorderly insurgents in an orderly world. While the film follows a thin storyline it is the individual skits or scenes placed together as a whole that make this film the hilarious anarchistic masterpiece it is. Each of the four brothers have a romantic interest, only as would happen in a Marx Brothers movie, it is with the same woman. They all sing their own unique versions of “Everyone Says I Love You” while attempting to individually woo Thelma Todd (2) portraying Connie Bailey, a college widow (3) who dates Frank but is conspiring with a local gambler named Jennings (David Landau)who is betting big money on arch rival Darwin to win. Jennings devises a plan to have Connie seduce Wagstaff so she can find out the Huxley team’s plays for the big game. The “seduction scene” takes place on a lake with Wagstaff and Connie in a row boat. While attempting to retrieve the piece of paper with the plays from Wagstaff, Connie falls overboard into the lake screaming to the Professor to throw her a life saver; he does just that, a candy life saver.
The film’s final wedding scene which ends in what could only be described as a riotous orgy opens with Groucho, Harpo and Chico standing off to the side as bride, Thelma, and an unseen groom, presumably Zeppo, are receiving their wedding vows from the preacher. As soon as he pronounces the couple man and wife and tells the groom he can now kiss the bride, Groucho, Harpo and Chico literally jump all over Thelma groping at her as they all fall on top of each other with the film coming to a chaotic close.
The script was written by Harry Ruby, Bert Kalmar, S.J. Pearlman, Will B. Johnstone and Arthur Seekman. Pearlman previously contributed to “Monkey Business.” Arthur Seekman also worked on “Monkey Business” and would soon contribute to “Duck Soup.” The most memorable songs in the film (Whatever it Is I’m Against It,” Everyone Say I Love You” and “I Always Get My Man”) were written by Ruby and Kalmar. The team was also responsible for other classic Marx Brothers songs like “Hello, I Must Be Going” and “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” among many other songs throughout their long partnership, including “Who’s Sorry Now.” The partnership lasted until Bert Kalmar’s death in 1947. The 1950 MGM musical, “Three Little Words” with Fred Astaire as Bert Kalmar and Red Skelton as Harry Ruby brought their story to the screen.
The Brothers next film would be the brilliant “Duck Soup,” directed by Leo McCarey, which sadly died at the box office. Contract negotiations and creative differences led to the end the Marx’s stay at Paramount. Irving Thalberg and MGM would pick them up; mixing in some romantic sub plots to appease the female audiences of the day. MGM also insisted on less freewheeling anarchy limiting the targets of their humorous abuse to the more unlikeable characters in the script. The first two films, “A Night at the Opera” and “A Day at the Races” remain classic Marx Brothers as long as you fast forward past the scenes with the bland ingénue’s, Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. Unfortunately, their films would slowly begin to lose their edge due to the restrictions placed on them with only short spurts of their former selves revealing itself on occasion.
(1) Biologist Thomas Huxley was a strong supporter of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and was known as Darwin’s Bulldog. In this film the writers slyly pit Huxley University against their rival Darwin University.
(2) Thelma Todd’s short tragic life and death remain one of Hollywood’s great mysteries. Known for associating with the mob underworld (she was at one time married to Pasqual DeCicco, a known associate of Charles “Lucky” Luciano who she also had an affair with). Todd was found dead in her parked car in her garage. At various times over the years her death has been ruled a murder, suicide or accidental carbon monoxide poisoning with the latter remaining the official cause of death. Andy Edmonds author of “Hot Toddy” makes a case for murder when Luciano wanted to incorporate gambling into a restaurant owned by Todd and her lover, film director Roland West. Todd told him over her dead over which Luciano supposedly replied, “That could be arranged.” However, Simon Louvish in his Marx Brothers biography, “Monkey Business,” published in 2000, claims well known sources informed him that Todd, who had plenty to drink that night, was in the garage performing a sexual act on Roland West. Afterward, he left her there in the car in an alcoholic stupor where she passed out. Thelma Todd not only performed with The Marx Brothers, her other films included works with Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, plus she teamed with Zazu Pitts and Patsy Kelly in two separates series of short comedies.
(3) The phrase “college widow” is one of those terms that have been lost in time. It is mentioned several times in the film always referring to Thelma Todd’s character, Connie Bailey. The on-line Merriam Webster Dictionary defines the phrase college widow as “a young woman who dates college students of successive college classes.” That’s the nice way of saying it!