Horse Feathers: A Marx Brothers Retrospective

Zeppo Marx, Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, and Chico Marx in Horse Feathers. Courtesy of Universal.

Horse Feathers improves on previous films by delivering one of the funniest Marx Brothers movies in their cinematic canon.

This film only runs 68 minutes and yet it’s a genius comedy movie. Although to be fair, some scenes and sequences are missing from the film because of either censorship or other damage to the negative. In any event, what we still have today makes for a funny film. Horse Feathers is not based on one of their Broadway revues but the comedy draws upon previous stage material from Fun in Hi Skule.

Groucho stars as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff and has a full song-and-dance right off the bat. The song might be sung in a college setting but it could very well be the United States Congress for all I care. “I’m Against It” has been Mitch McConnell’s motto whenever a Democrat is in the White House. Regardless, we’re still talking about the film over 90 years later.

I don’t know what they have to say
It makes no difference anyway;
Whatever it is, I’m against it!

And again, this is what kicks off the film and sets the tone. We’re in for more zany antics later, including a scene were the password is “swordfish.” Anyway, Professor Wagstaff is now the president of Huxley College and his son, Frank (Zeppo Marx), advises him to use professional football players for the university team. This sort of stunt would get a team placed on NCAA probation today, if not worse. What the Marx Brothers did was take the situation and upped the stakes in a way that only they could: by accidentally recruiting Baravelli (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx). In recruiting them, Huxley picked up two icemen instead of professional players. It results in one of the best football scenes in cinematic history–only the Marx Brothers could pull that off!

When it comes to the Four Marx Brothers, they continually get better through the course of their filmography. Every film is improving on their predecessor. They find a way to up the stakes by heightening the situations. Groucho even breaks the fourth wall during Chico’s piano solo. Mind you, this is years before Monty Python, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Key and Peele, etc. There are scenes in the film that stand alone well enough on their own but everything works coherently in terms of the narrative story. The Marx Brothers are consistently funny in every film that I’ve watched but their final three Paramount films are among the best films in comedic history. I’ll have more to say when I discuss Duck Soup but Horse Feathers is easily their second best film in my book.

Over 90 years later, Horse Feathers still holds up as one the greatest comedy movies of all time.

DIRECTOR: Norman Z. McLeod
SCREENWRITERS: Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby & S. J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone
CAST: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, with Thelma Todd, Florine McKinney, and David Landau

Paramount released Horse Feathers in theaters on August 19, 1932. Grade: 5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.