When Groucho Marx sang and danced "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" in Animal Crackers, his performance became indelible, iconic. For the rest of his career, the tune stuck with him as his theme song, literally in the case of his long-running quiz show You Bet Your Life. But for my money, Groucho's signature musical number comes at the start of the 1932 picture Horse Feathers. Playing newly installed Huxley College professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, Groucho delivers one of his classic speeches, then launches into the double whammy "I'm Against It"/"I Always Get My Man": "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!"
Zany dancing ensues, with a chorus of stuffed-shirt professors in robes circling Wagstaff (it's probable that Busby Berkeley—who reportedly did some work on the picture—worked out the traffic patterns). Once the room has cleared out, Wagstaff lays into his son Frank Wagstaff (Zeppo, only eleven years younger than Groucho) for dating "the college widow" Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd of Monkey Business). A monologue, a song, and a crack dialogue scene, all hilarious: the opening ten minutes of Horse Feathers have more laughs than most comedy features muster in their entirety.
And there's more where that came from: Frank sends his not-so-dear old dad to a speakeasy to improperly recruit a couple of bruisers to play for Huxley's football team. Wagstaff mistakenly enlists Chico and Harpo, under their new guises of Baravelli the iceman (and bootleg liquor salesman) and Pinky, a dogcatcher. Intrigue comes in the form of Jennings (David Landau), the unscrupulous head of Huxley's rival school Darwin College who will do anything to obtain the Huxley team's signals. A kidnapping scheme gone wrong also plays into the story's rising action on the way to an all-time madcap football climax, which fully exploits the comedic potential of the game with a hugely impressive run of sight gags and ironic wit.
Horse Feathers excels in integrating the music and lyrics provided by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby (Animal Crackers, Duck Soup). Mostly this means doling out variations on the whimsical "Everyone Says I Love You," which gets sung by Frank, Baravelli (accompanying himself on piano), and Professor Wagstaff (accompanying himself on guitar), whistled by Pinky to his horse, and later plucked by Pinky on a harp. Groucho marches straight to the camera to offer the audience a chance to escape Chico's piano number ("I've got to stay here, but there's no reason why you folks shouldn't go out into the lobby until this thing blows over"), but Chico's energetic take on "Collegiate" gets an added charge from having a "chick" for "Chic-o" to play to.
With the help of a screenwriting braintrust that includes Kalmar, Ruby, S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone, Horse Feathers takes the Marx Brothers way back to some of their earliest material spoofing school life. The picture—and, in particular, the anatomy classroom scene—mines sketches from the decades-earlier show Fun in Hi Skule. The essence of "Marxist" humor comes from their irreverent puncturing of institutions and individuals who overestimate their worth to society. In a depressed America, Horse Feathers' depiction of costly college lampooned the assumption that it is a necessary and intellectually righteous stepping stone on the path of every successful American; the picture also poked fun at the life-and-death seriousness with which people take their sports. Though the brothers don't do an end-zone dance after scoring multiple touchdowns, it would certainly be well justified.
Universal has gifted fans with The Marx Brothers' Blu-ray debut in the three-disc The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection Restored Blu-ray Edition . The main review page linked here details the set's bonus features and link to reviews of the other films.
Horse Feathers shows noticeable improvements in contrast and detail, but still retains some of the issues familiar to fans. As in the previous DVD edition, two sections of the film find the picture jittering up and down, which looks like a telecine problem but perhaps is somehow endemic to the source print, as it doesn't appear that Universal is employing a dated master (these sections run from 19:27-25:27 and again from 45:11-49:15). This source also includes the long-present bad jumps in the farcical sequence in Bailey's living room, and shows some more lost frames in the football game. Until a better source print is discovered, however, this remains the best the film has ever looked on home video, and for that we can be grateful: when it's looking good, it's looking very good.
Sound comes in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 that maximizes the available mono elements. Dialogue is clear, and music undistorted, with no pops, crackle, or hiss. It's safe to say the picture sounds better than it ever has on home video.
Horse Feathers comes with one film-specific extra: an excellent feature commentary with film critic F.X. Feeney. Kudos to Universal for springing for these commentaries, which do a great job of contextualizing each film in the Marx Brothers' career, addressing the film's specific development and production and reception, and providing biographical information about the cast and crew of each film.
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