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Great comedy comes from great tragedy. When America was swept into the Great Depression and people were living daily dramas that rivaled any movie production, the Marx Brothers burst onto the scene to ridicule convention and take the audience's minds off their troubles. With football season beginning this week, why not check out their classic send up of college football, Horse Feathers.
When Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho Marx) assumes the presidency of Huxley College, he wants to instill pride in the university's students and faculty. His son, Frank (Zeppo Marx), suggests that football is the answer. His father agrees that the university is "neglecting football for education", so the ethically-challenged Professor goes to a speak-easy to hire two local football stars, but Wagstaff's rival, Mr. Jennings (David Landau) of Darwin College, has beaten him to it. Thinking they are the two football stars, Professor Wagstaff accidentally hires Baravelli (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo). Is there any way Huxley College can win the big game and save Wagstaff's job?
As you can imagine, the plot is secondary in most Marx Brothers' movies. Their movies are usually focused on the wild vaudevillian antics of the trio, and there are plenty in this film. Groucho speaks to the audience and cracks stinging one-liners with rapid-fire delivery. Chico plays the piano and causes havoc due to his misunderstanding of the English language. Harpo, as always, is my favorite in this film.
I have always been amazed at Harpo's ability to command the audience's attention with no spoken lines. He tickles your funny bone with crazy antics such as "cutting the cards" with a meat cleaver or giving the password by using props that seem to appear out of thin air. Even more amazing is the change in his demeanor when he begins to the play the harp. Watch how serious he gets when he focuses his energy on making beautiful music.
The Marx Brothers knew their audience. The Brothers ridiculed honored institutions and vented the frustration of millions of poverty stricken Americans. In Horse Feathers, they lampoon college sports and the university system at a time when most cannot dream of luxuries such as higher education. Harpo taunts the police when they interfere with his snack break, and even throws in a satire of Ben Hur. Chico's struggles with the English language personify the difficulties many had when they came to America, and these fans related to him. The Marx Brothers continued to play on these themes throughout their movie careers.
If Notre Dame falls behind Purdue by halftime, rent Horse Feathers and remember that it is just a silly game.
Horse Feathers: A
Directed by Norman McLeod
Written by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone
Groucho Marx Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff
Chico Marx Baravelli
Harpo Marx ... Pinky the Dog Catcher
Zeppo Marx ... Frank Wagstaff
Thelma Todd .. Connie Bailey
David Landau . Jennings
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