Friday, August 10, 2007


Burning the candle at both ends for 75 years

"No doubt you would like to know why I’m here. I came into this college to get my son out of it. I remember the day he left to come here, a mere boy and a beardless youth. I kissed them both goodbye."
Professor Wagstaff to his faculty and students

By Jeffrey Hill
From 1931 to 1933, the Marx Brothers made, for my money at least, the three greatest comedies of all time: Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933), a stretch that was the artistic apex of a group’s career that would have still been legendary even without these comedy classics. However, it was these three films for Paramount that really captured their essence.

Their New York production, The Cocoanuts (1929), was very funny, but showed its stage origins. Animal Crackers (1930) was funnier still, but comes across as canned in terms of production, if well-honed in terms of performance. After Duck Soup, MGM acquired the brothers, put a gloss on them, gave their pictures more plot and non-Marx musical numbers and basically domesticated them to such a degree that Harpo started recognizing the difference between good and bad.

Those Paramount films showed the brothers going after everybody — their motives almost entirely self-serving, hitting on all cylinders of maniacal comedy. Paramount may not have allowed the brothers complete control, but it was the most they ever enjoyed and they turned it into timeless hilarity. Horse Feathers turns 75 years old today, but watch it and you will agree that it is definitely not long in the tooth. That deserves a celebration.

The story in a nutshell: Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff becomes the president of Huxley College. Professor Wagstaff's son Frank (Zeppo) tells his dad that what Huxley needs is a good football team and that he happens to know that two of the best football players hang out at a speakeasy downtown. Professor Wagstaff goes to the speakeasy to pick up the players. Little does he know that the rival Darwin University coach, Jennings (David Landau), has already brought in the two ringers from the speakeasy so he can assure victory over Huxley at the big Thanksgiving game (Huxley and Darwin! Yuck-yuck!). Professor Wagstaff ends up recruiting Baravelli and Pinky instead. (I'll let the reader decipher who is who, there).

Meanwhile, Professor Wagstaff tries to disrupt his son's affair with Connie Bailey, the college widow (Thelma Todd), who also happens to be tied in with Jennings, who often comes across as a gangster more than a coach. Things get set on puree for a few dozen minutes, which leads to the finale, a big ball game. There’s no pretense of commitment on the part of Professor Wagstaff as he assumes control as president of Huxley. Don’t ask how he landed that job. There isn’t a matronly Margaret Dumont character in the story to explain it. Upon assuming the presidency, Wagstaff nullifies his first rule by smoking his cigar as he prepares to give his speech. What can you expect from a man that was shaving during his introduction from the former president?
Former President: By the way professor, there is no smoking.
Professor Wagstaff: That’s what you said.
Former President: It would please the faculty if you would throw your cigar away.
Professor Wagstaff: The faculty members might just as well keep their seats. There will be no diving for this cigar.

Wagstaff sees through it all and his whimsy will rule the day. During his inauguration speech he lays out his default position to any suggestions his trustees might have for him when he sings: “Whatever it is, I’m against it,” and dances about tugging on the pointy beards of his staff — mocking the very symbols of intellectualism. His credentials? He has been college president before, as he mentions in his speech:
"As I look out over your eager faces, I can readily understand why this college is flat on its back. The last college I presided over, things were slightly different. I was flat on my back. Things kept going from bad to worse, but we put our shoulders to the wheel, and it wasn’t long before I was flat on my back again."

After his speech, Wagstaff runs into his son.

Frank Wagstaff: Dad, let me congratulate you. I’m proud to be your son.
Professor Wagstaff: My boy, you took the words right out of my mouth. I’m ashamed to be your father. You’re a disgrace to our family name of Wagstaff, if such a thing is possible. What’s all this talk I hear about you fooling around with a college widow? No wonder you can’t get out of college. Twelve years in one college. I went to three colleges in 12 years and fooled around with three college widows. When I was your age, I went to bed right after supper. Sometimes I went to bed before supper. Sometimes I went without my supper and didn’t get to bed at all. A college widow stood for something in those days. In fact, she stood for plenty.

The term "college widow" refers to a woman who's stayed near campus after her school years in a continuing search for a mate. It was the name of a play by George Ade from 1905, which had some similarities with Horse Feathers in terms of story, including a set of ringers used in a Thanksgiving football game between rival schools. College Widow was made twice into a movie, first in 1915 and later in 1927. The 1927 version was directed by Archie Mayo, who would eventually direct the last Marx Brothers picture, A Night In Casablanca. Thelma Todd is stunning as the college widow. She slinks around in sexy clothes, lounges late in bed and is generally a very seductive creature. When Professor Wagstaff confronts her in her apartment and tries to end her affair with his son, he quickly finds himself in her lap. There's a knock on the door and Wagstaff hides in the closet. Baravelli enters, and becomes even more aggressive toward Miss Bailey:
Connie Bailey: Baravelli, you overcome me.
Baravelli: OK, but remember it was your idea.

The brothers are nothing if not raunchy romantics, yet Groucho cannot resist forsaking even romance for a punchline. Todd's character pulls double duty — catching the ridicule and flack that would normally go to Margaret Dumont and playing the double agent siren. Thelma Todd is great at it. She was great in Monkey Business as well. She died at the age of 30 in 1936, after making about 120 films in a brief 10-year span. Her roles with the Marx Brothers were some of her most famous, but it's hard not to think she would have become big had she managed to live. Although the official cause of death was suicide by carbon monoxide poison, there was a general suspicion that she was murdered by the mob. Regardless, it was a premature death for a promising actress.

Other characters in the film also had notable careers. Nat Pendleton as MacHardie, one of the two ringers on Darwin's team, would later show up as Sgt. Michael Collins in Abbott & Costello's two bookend war films, Buck Privates and Buck Privates Come Home as well as in At the Circus as the muscle man Goliath. James Pierce, who played the other Darwin ringer Mullen, was an All-American center for Indiana who went on to coach at Arizona and Glendale (Calif.) High School, where he coached John Wayne.

The brothers were not opposed to recycling their own material from their stage days, as well. The bedroom sequence has several holdovers from "Napoleon's First Waterloo," a skit in the play I'll Say She Is that the brothers considered their funniest effort.

There are so many notable skits packed into the film's short 68 minute span that it becomes impossible just to list them without just reprinting the script. Watch Horse Feathers and try not to remember that the password is "swordfish." You won't be able to forget it. The game is its own riotous piece. There's more smoking on the gridiron than during the game in MASH and more card playing as well. In fact, the original ending for Horse Feathers, cut by Paramount and subsequently lost, had the brothers playing cards as Harpo burned the college down. A little more climatic than the marriage scene between Thelma Todd and the four Marx Brothers (a double was needed for Zeppo as he was not available when the sequence was shot).

The remaining version redeems Bailey's character, in a way, but seems to cut off. Nevertheless, Horse Feathers is a comedic masterpiece of the highest and lowest order. Today it is 75 years young and still as adolescent as ever.

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Horse Feathers runs a close second to Duck Soup, but both are by far my favorite Marx Brothers works and I agree that once they went to MGM, they got defanged way too much.
And yet, MGM had more box office success with them than Paramount did.

I would agree with you Ed, except that I would squeeze Monkey Business in between Duck Soup and Horse Feathers.

I hate to dismiss the MGM movies, though, because most of them are still great. And, at present, they have a much better DVD box set presenting them.
Much as I adore Duck Soup and the rest of their Paramount output (I think Animal Crackers deserves a mention as well, much underrated as it is), I think Night at the Opera is very nearly as hilarious. And even though their Paramount output was overall zanier and more consistently funny than their MGM output, I still greatly enjoy big chunks of Day at the Races, Room Service, At the Circus and Night in Casablanca. Even Love Happy I really like.
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