- Actors: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Thelma Todd
- Directors: Norman McLeod, Norman Z. McLeod
- Producers: Herman Mankiewicz
- Format: Dolby, Dubbed, Full Screen, NTSC, Subtitled
- Language: English
- Subtitles: French, Spanish
- Dubbed: Spanish
- Subtitles for the Hearing Impaired: English
- Region: Region 1 (US and Canada This DVD will probably NOT be viewable in other countries. Read more about DVD formats.)
- Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
- Number of discs: 1
- MPAA Rating:
- Studio: Universal Studios Home Entertainment
- Release Date: Feb. 21 2012
- Run Time: 67 minutes
- Average Customer Review: 23 customer reviews
- ASIN: B004P9UWKA
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #57,522 in Movies & TV Shows (See Top 100 in Movies & TV Shows)
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The four Marx Brothers – Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo – are at the top of their game in the uproarious parody of college life, Horse Feathers. As president of Huxley College, the fun-loving Professor Wagstaff (Groucho) attempts to help his son (Zeppo) finally graduate after 12 years by arranging to “buy” professional football players for an upcoming big game against rival Darwin University. The plan takes an unexpected twist, however, when a bootlegger (Chico) and a dogcatcher (Harpo) are mistaken for the athletes and accidentally hired instead. Featuring their trademark insanity, including a climatic football sequence that has to be seen to be believed, this quintessential Marx Brothers’ comedy earned a place on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs list.
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In Horse Feathers, Groucho plays Professor Waxhaw, the new president of Huxley College; his son (played by Zeppo) is following in the family footsteps of concentrating on a college widow when he should be concentrating on more important things - such as football. Professor Waxhaw decides that the Huxley team simply must beat Darwin, its primary rival. He takes his son's advice and hires a couple of football players who hang out at the speakeasy - well, actually he really recruits Chico and Harpo. Waxhaw also takes an active approach to teaching, and his takeover of the anatomy class makes for the funniest scene in the film (it degenerates into a spitball fight). All the guys hit on the widow woman Waxhaw's son is stuck on, not knowing she (Thelma Todd) is in cahoots with the Darwin team and is trying to steal Huxley's football signals. After a most unsuccessful attempt by Chico and Harpo to kidnap Darwin's two best players, we get to the big game. Picture this: Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo all out there on the field - you can imagine the high strangeness and hilarity to be found here.
It's hard for me to evaluate this film. On the one hand, I can see that it is classic Marx Brothers, with one-liners, jokes, gags, songs, dances, the works. On the other hand, I sit here and wonder why I didn't find this film funnier than I did. I almost feel like I'm doing something wrong by not enjoying Horse Feathers more than I do.
Postmodernism is based on metonymic order, syntagmatic combinations involving a perception of contiguity which can generate metonym (naming an attribute or adjunct of the thing instead of the thing itself, e.g. "crown" for royalty) or synecdoche (naming the part for the whole, e.g., "keels" for ships). However, when it comes to tropes and other figures of speech, the Marx Brothers simply resort to puns, eschewing even the Modernist notion of metaphoric order. If Groucho, as President of Huxley College needs to stamp a document with a seal, Harpo brings him a real live seal that the boys can chase around the room. Still, the Marxes can be literal, but only when the situation does not demand it: Harpo cannot speak (itself a telling indictment of conventionality and propriety), but can still communicate the secret password "swordfish" to gain entrance to a speakeasy and can respond with to requests to cut the cards or to help someone get a cup of coffee with more speed than a Groucho zinger.
For the Marx Brothers the messenger is more important than the message. Note with care that the boys are at Huxley College, whose chief rival is Darwin. Clearly, while Darwin first articulated the theory of evolution and the idea of survival of the fittest, the Marxes side with Huxley, who popularized those theories and made them palatable to the masses. Of course, there is also an implicit tribute to Huxley, who got off one of the great academic one-liners of all time in his infamous debate with Bishop Wilberforce over evolution. Within this Darwinian context the film's climax, taking place in a football game between the two aforementioned schools, becomes a pointed refutation of the idea human beings have evolved too far beyond our brutish ancestors. Of course, this is open to debate since the negotiated meaning we can draw from the text does not necessarily subvert the dominant meaning; unfortunately, this opens up the possibility of the film's oppositional meaning and once we get into the notion of subverting the text in anything involving the Marx Brothers academic towers start developing foundational cracks. Nor do we want to consider the implications of Groucho's character being named Wagstaff from a Freudian let alone a Darwinian (or even Marxist) perspective.
This is not to say the Marx Brothers are not ahead of their time, ironically in their support of consumerism. We have one of the earliest examples of product placement when Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd), the college widow involved with Zeppo, falls into the lake while canoeing with Groucho and makes the mistake of asking him for a "life saver." Amazingingly prescient regarding the harms of tobacco smoking, they undercut the mentioning of a popular cigarette by turning its slogan into a pun: "I'd walk a mile for a caramel." Who knows how many young people have seen this film over the years and decided to consume mass quantities of chocolate instead of smoking harmful cigarettes? This is a number, I truly believe, that cannot be accurately calculated. Indeed, we should not even try.
"Horse Feathers" is a second tier Marx Brothers comedy, below the sacred trinity of "Animal Crackers," "Duck Soup" and "A Night at the Opera," which still makes it a great comedy. It marks the second time that a film script was written for the brothers from scratch, rather than being adapted from a successful Broadway stage show. "Horse Feathers" was written by S.J. Perelman, Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Will B. Johnstone, and Arthur Sheekman (uncredited) and directed by Norman McLeod, who had worked with the brothers the year before with "Monkey Business," and who managed to direct a football film "Touchdown" in the interim period. Although the film does have its mundane moments, mostly involving everyone's attempt to court the college widow, the speakeasy scene is an absolute gem and the football game makes for a grand finale.
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