' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Horse Feathers

Friday, September 02, 2011

Friday's Old Fashioned: Horse Feathers

"Then, right in the middle of these so-called comedies, (Harpo Marx would) always break out into a sappy harp solo. What was up with that? I know it's not supposed to be realistic, but come on. Do you think there's something wrong with me that I don't get it?" - The Onion (2000)

College football approaches and when college football approaches I start craving it like I start craving winter about mid-July, and so I decided to watch The Marx Brothers supposedly classic 1932 comedy "Horse Feathers" in which Groucho, as one Quincy Wagstaff, takes over as President at Huxley College and quickly enrolls a couple non-students played by Harpo and Chico to improve the school's football team and to kidnap rival Darwin College's two best players. And even though I'd seen "A Night At The Opera" many years ago and been left - don't tell anyone! - underwhelmed, well, that sounded perfect for my late August needs.


I like listening to Groucho talk. I do. Listening to him talk is a little like watching "Airplane!" wherein even if one of his lines falls flat, fear not, because there's another line coming half-a-second later that will probably make you forget all about it. It's dizzying. Consider the following exchange between Groucho (Wagstaff) and a couple doltish, nameless professors:

Wagstaff: "And I say to you gentlemen, this college is a failure. The trouble is, we're neglecting football for education.
Professors One/Two: "Exactly. The professor is right."
Wagstaff: "Oh, I'm right am I? Well, I'm not right. I'm wrong. I just said that to test you. Now I know where I'm at. I'm dealing with a couple of snakes. What I meant to say was there's too much football and not enough education."
Professors One/Two: "That's what I think."
Wagstaff: "Oh, you do, do you? Well, you're wrong again! If there was a snake here, I'd apologize. Where would this college be without football? Have we got a stadium?"
Professors One/Two: "Yes."
Wagstaff: "Have we got a college?"
Professors One/Two: "Yes."
Wagstaff: "Well, we can't support both. Tomorrow we start tearing down the college."

The timing of this is impeccably played - I watched it twice - and not only is it hysterical, it's crushingly relevant to the sport I hold oh so dear despite the fact the film was released pre-WWII. Whatever any ESPN blowhard bitches about tomorrow on College Football Gameday, rest assured, was going on back when the Ivy Leaguers ruled the game. Things don't change as much as we like to pretend.

Except the film often negates spirited moments such as this for more superfluous nonsense that seems to have parachuted in from more maudlin movies. Film critic Tim Dirks writes that the film "is an anarchic parody of higher education and a subversive attack on authority and society." Well, yeah, sometimes it is, sure, but the whole time? How the hell is Harpo's harp solo, which seems to last one-fourth of the film and appears for no good reason at all, an attack on anything? It's a freaking drag, is what it is. The movie isn't even an hour and ten minutes and every single song and dance is a complete waste of time. It opens with Groucho being introduced as the college's new President and he gives his speech - cigar firmly in place - and it's good and fun and then that has to stop so he can sing. And, let me tell you, I enjoyed Susan Sarandon lip syncing to "Piece Of My Heart" in "Romance & Cigarettes" more than watching Groucho sing "I'm Against It." Quote me. I don't care. I really don't. Eat my cap and gown, man.


Look, I've seen Keaton. Ok? I've enjoyed him. Here's the difference: Keaton's physical comedy, his pratfalls, his gags, came from somewhere, from a personal desire, from a hope, from something. Half the antics in "Horse Feathers" could be in any movie. The movie is just a stage to showcase them. Consider the moment during the "climactic" football game when Groucho meanders up to where the announcer is calling the game and he takes over the microphone and makes a joke about "Mrs. Moskowitz." This has nothing to do with anything that has happened or will happen in the movie. NOTHING. It is a joke Groucho clearly wanted to tell and just shoehorned into the proceedings.

I mentioned "Airplane!" earlier so let's talk about "Horse Feathers" in context with that one. Which did you think was funnier? When Captain Ouvere gets a call from Mr. Hamm while he's talking to the Mayo Clinic and says "Give me Hamm on five, hold the Mayo" or later when the ground controller says of the airplane "They could be miles off course" and the other one says "That's impossible, they're on instruments" at which point we cut to people in the cockpit playing instruments? The first was a standalone joke, the second came from the premise. I prefer the second. Always have, always will.

Also, "Ham on white, hold the Mayo" was funnier than 94% of "Horse Feathers." Maybe I'm just saying that because I was born in 1977, not 1927, I don't know, but I'm not calling this a classic just because I'm supposed to.

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