After a scenario that seemed feasible in Monkey Business – the brothers as stowaways – Horse Feathers opts for a massive stretch. Somehow, Groucho (Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff) has been appointed president of Huxley University, proceeding to offer the trustees and assembled throng a few suggestions on how he’ll run things (by way of anarchistic creed “Whatever it is, I’m against it”). There’s a reasonably coherent mission statement in this one, however, at least until it inevitably devolves into gleeful incoherence.
Wagstaff: Tomorrow we start tearing down the college.
Professor: But professor, where will the students sleep?
Wagstaff: Where they always sleep, in the classroom.
That mission being, Groucho is persuaded of the need to beef up Huxley’s athletic accomplishments by beefing up the college football team… by visiting the local speakeasy in order to secure some professional players. Inevitably, he actually secures Pinky (Harpo) and Baravelli (Chico) (“They must be football players. I got them out of a speakeasy”). Meanwhile, Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd, luxuriant), the “college widow” (carrying all the connotations that suggests) is being impressed upon to undermine Groucho’s plan, as local gambler Jennings (David Landau) is betting on Darwin College to win. Oh, yes, and Zeppo is Groucho’s son Frank, and he’s fooling around with the college widow. At least, when his brothers aren’t.
Wagstaff: I’m the plumber. I’m just hanging around in case something goes wrong with her pipes. (to audience) That’s the first time I’ve used that joke in twenty years.
Horse Feathers was original planned to be gangster-centric, but this was nixed in the wake of the Lindberg baby case; as a result, the brothers duly recycled some material from their 1910 vaudeville show, so when Groucho tells his plumber joke (above) he probably isn’t kidding about when he last used the gag.
Referee: What are you doing with that cigar in your mouth.
Wagstaff: Why, do you know another way to smoke it?
The picture’s also noted for having its share of subsequently deleted scenes, either for post-Hayes Code reasons of prurience or (more bizarrely) for a compilation of Harpo’s japes (these would have included – as reported by Michael Brooke in the Blu-ray release’s essay – dog catcher Pinky attracting canines with fake lampposts, trying it on with Connie, and persuading Groucho to jump into his dog-catching net from her upstairs window, inevitably removed at the last moment). There was also an original ending in which the college burns down while the trio play cards, and another scene with Harpo bowling grapefruits at bottles on the speakeasy bar (even with these gone, the running time is apparently only two minutes shorter than it was originally).
Bum: Say, buddy, could you help me out? I’d love to get a cup of coffee.
If a portion of Harpo material remains excised, there’s still more than enough that tickles. We first see him producing a cup of coffee from his coat for an itinerate (whether he actually wanted the money for something else is unclear), and proceeds to engage in a variety of dog-catching antics, including a run in with a police officer (“See that badge?” he is asked, before opening his coat to reveal a whole display of matching ones). He proceeds to trap said officer in his cage (pulling down a sign announcing “Police Dog for Sale”).
Wagstaff: Why don’t you bore a hole in yourself and let the sap run out.
The speakeasy scene is awash with sight gags (giving the password by sticking a sword down a fish’s mouth, cutting cards with an axe, winning on the slot machine, then doing likewise with a telephone). Later, Harpo’s possessed with manic glee as he engages in a book-burning exercise, graduating from tossing tomes on the blaze to shovelling on trough loads of them.
Wagstaff: And that reminds me of a story that’s so dirty, I’m afraid to think of it myself.
He’s relatively restrained in the sex-pest stakes this time, though; it’s Chico who, alarmingly, is providing Connie with unwanted advances (albeit, we know Harpo’s were excised, there’s something seedier and more unsettling about such behaviour with Chico, who’s generally quite chaste). The sequence is a flurry of slapstick and manic gags of the coming in and going out of rooms variety, including deliveries of ice (Baravellli is an ice man for the speakeasy) that go straight out the window (the ones not given to a reluctant Todd). Chico also has the usual misunderstood wordplay scene with Groucho, this time in their initial speakeasy scene (“What do you take for a haddock?”).
Receptionist: The dean is furious. He’s waxing wroth.
Wagstaff: Is Roth out there too? Tell Roth to wax the dean awhile.
Chico and Harpo’s best sequence, though, finds them kidnapped by the Darwin players they have been sent to kidnap (Harpo bursts into tears). Deciding to escape, they saw through the floor around them in circular fashion, first dropping in on the players below, and then, on second attempt, landing in a genteel ladies’ bridge game. Harpo promptly steals a scarf and runs out to a garbage cart, riding away on it as if in a retelling of Ben-Hur.
Wagstaff: Can you cash a cheque for fifteen dollars and twenty-two cents?
Bartender: Sure. Five, ten, fifteen and twenty-two.
Wagstaff: As soon as I get a cheque for fifteen dollars and twenty-two cents, I’ll send it to you.
Groucho is on peerlessly incorrigible form, recycling his “See this five-dollar bill?” gag from Monkey Business but with bells on (above). He provides students with an impromptu biology lecture, becoming distracted from white phagocytes to indulge in a peashooter fight with Harpo and Chico (“Have you got two empty dunce chairs? I’ve brought you two empty dunces”; Harpo also proves that the candle can burn at both ends). Then there’s his lascivious punishment of a student instead of Harpo:
Wagstaff: Just for that, you stay after school.
Female Student: But professor, I didn’t do anything.
Wagstaff: I know, but there’s no fun keeping him after school.
There’s particular fun to be had with Todd, of course. Much more preferable to Chico (“Oh yes, I was on your lap. And doing pretty well as I recall”) although the scramble of brothers for her attentions, literally all over her, is slightly unnerving.
Wagstaff: Did my son tell you you had beautiful eyes?
Connie: Why, yes.
Wagstaff: He tells me that too! He tells everyone he meets.
Of course, Connie is only using Zeppo, but the cheerful bawdiness of a scene in which Frank walks in on dad canoodling with his girlfriend is surprising even now; Todd’s best scene is probably the boating one, however, in which she attempts to extract information from Groucho by playing the little girl:
Connie: Is big stwong man going to tell ickle baby all about the football signals?
Wagstaff: Was that you or the duck?
Leading to Groucho’s “If icky girl keep on talking that way, big stwong man’s gonna kick all her teef wight down her fwoat”. There’s also the classic:
Connie: Oh, professor, you’re full of whimsy.
Wagstaff: Can you notice it from there? I’m always that way after I eat radishes.
Everyone Says I Love You is “sung” by all four brothers (Zeppo, denied even an effective romantic lead this time, sees his best line comes early, the irreverent “Hello, old timer!” when he first spies dad on stage). Chico and Harpo utilise their preferred supporting instruments and Groucho serenades Todd in the boat; it provides a strong thematic glue to the musical digressions. Plus, it helps that the song is a catchy one.
Jennings: I love good music.
Wagstaff: So do I, let’s get out of here.
The football match climax is the expected free-for-all, in which Chico somehow arrives at the game before charioteer Harpo (did the latter stop off on the way?). Who at one point puts a Darwin player’s finger between a hotdog roll and bites down on it. Another Harpo highlight sees him asked “Where’s your number?”; he’s assisted in removing his jersey to find it, only for the jersey to stretch the length of the field.
Wagstaff: I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason you folks shouldn’t go out in the lobby until this is over.
I find it difficult to choose an order of favourites in the run from Animal Crackers to Horse Feathers; they’re an embarrassment of riches for the brothers at their most unrestrained. Director Norman Z McLeod (returning from Monkey Business) and the writers (Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, SJ Perelman and Will B Johnstone) provide the necessary continuity of a streamlined machine. At this point, it looked as if they could keep on churning pictures of this quality forever, if not for the conflagration of elements that would see their relationship with Paramount flounder, ironically producing what is now regarded as their undisputed crowning glory: Duck Soup.