Prohibition-era college hijinks

Happy second birthday to my rook piercing!

Released 10 August 1932, Horse Feathers was the Marx Brothers’ penultimate Paramount film, and one of their most popular prior to their switch to MGM. It made the cover of Time. Parts of the film originated with their 1910 stage production Fun in Hi Skule. I particularly like this film because Zeppo gets way more screentime than in most of the other Paramount films!

Prof. Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho) has just become president of Huxley College, whose football team is a total trainwreck. After the opening song “I’m Against It,” Wagstaff’s son Frank (Zeppo) suggests he pump up the college’s reputation by buying some professional football players in a speakeasy.

Iceman Baravelli (Chico) is left to guard the speakeasy, whose password is “swordfish.” Being the good-natured dope he is, he gives away the password and lets Wagstaff maneuver his way inside. Soon afterwards, Baravelli’s partner Pinky (Harpo), an iceman and dog-catcher, joins them.

Meanwhile, Frank is wooing college widow Connie Bailey (the ill-fated Thelma Todd). A college widow is a woman who hangs around a college campus long past graduation to date and sleep with male students.

Wagstaff recruits Baravelli and Pinky as football players, though they have absolutely no experience with the sport. As part of this ruse, they have to enroll as students. The scene where they disrupt an anatomy class comes from the stage production.

There are several noticeable jump-cuts during the scene where the four brothers take turns going in and out of Connie’s room. This is both due to damage and the censorship demanded by the Hays Code. Sadly, there are no known surviving prints of the original, full-length version.

Also among the men going in and out of Connie’s room is Jennings, who later tries to get Baravelli to sell him Huxley’s football signals so he can throw the game. Baravelli gives him signals for the rival Darwin College, which Jennings immediately realizes. Having failed in his mission, Jennings enlists Connie to get the signals off of Wagstaff.

After this too fails, Baravelli and Pinky try to kidnap two football players from Darwin. The football players have already been tipped off about what’s supposed to happen, and easily overpower them. This puts the entire football game in jeopardy.

I won’t spoil what happens after this, but suffice it to say, there’s lots of typical chaos as the four brothers try to save the day.

The song “Everyone Says I Love You” is prominently featured, and performed by all four brothers. Zeppo gives a straight performance; Groucho gives a sarcastic performance when he and Connie are in a canoe; Harpo whistles it to his horse and plays it on the harp to Connie; and Chico does a comedic version while playing piano.

The song was written by the famous team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, who wrote many other musical compositions for the brothers. These include “Hello, I Must Be Going” and “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” from Animal Crackers; the musical score for both the film and stage productions of Animal Crackers; “Hail, Hail Fredonia” from Duck Soup; and “I’m Against It” and “I Always Get My Man” from Horse Feathers.

Besides the segments censored out of the scene in Connie’s apartment, other cut scenes include the brothers playing poker as the college burns down, more scenes showing Pinky doing his dog-catching duties, Harpo bowling bottles with a grapefruit in the speakeasy, and an extended ending to the scene in Connie’s apartment.

A description of the poker-playing scene, and a still, survive in a 1932 press book. (Sorry I couldn’t find a larger image!)

During filming, Chico shattered a knee and broke numerous ribs in a car accident, thus delaying production by over two months. Due to his injuries, Chico had to be sitting down for almost all of his scenes, and needed a body double in higher-intensity scenes.

It’s pretty obvious in the famous horse-drawn garbage wagon scene, since the double is much taller than the real Chico (about 5’4, though still taller than I am!). Chico was about the same height as Harpo, while Groucho was about 5’7 and Zeppo was 5’9.

At this point in my fandom, I think Chico has become my favourite. I still love Harpo’s sweet, childlike character with its adult edge, and have no doubt he was the nicest, most approachable one in real life, but Chico’s warm-hearted, simple-brained character has completely charmed me. And who could resist that great smile?

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