Horse Feathers finally finds its funny sometime in the second half. The film plays like the main plot has been removed and just a subplot remains, so it’s impressive it ever does. And when it does, it’s depressing–director McLeod and (wow, four) writers Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, S.J. Perelman, and Will B. Johnstone know how to do good set pieces. They just haven’t been.
Comedically, Horse Feathers turns around when Harpo and Chico go to kidnap rival college’s ringer football players Nat Pendleton and James Pierce. It’s a long, solid sequence–not without some of the standard Horse problems–but it’s way too little, way too late. Until that point, Horse Feathers might have skirted by on some mediocrity. Revealing it could be better timed, the actors could be paired off better; like I said, depressing.
Horse Feathers opens with Groucho Marx taking over a college. It’s a loser college–they took Groucho’s son, after all. Zeppo plays the son. It’s the worst part in the movie. Uncredited Pendleton makes far more of an impression. Even with Zeppo singing and having a long interest (Thelma Todd). Except, of course, “dad” Groucho steals her away from him. Or tries to.
Todd’s working for the rival college; David Landau plays the evil rival dean. Or something. I’m not sure it’s ever determined exactly what he does for the other college, as no one ever finds out he’s working for the rival college. Not even when he’s hanging around Groucho’s football team’s dressing room.
The plot is all about the football team. Zeppo tells Groucho the team has to be better and he should hire some ringers (Pendleton and Pierce). Except Landau hires them first. So Groucho instead hires Chico and Harpo. Chico’s a ice salesman slash bootlegger, Harpo is the dog catcher. Their introductions are good but not great. Harpo’s has a fun, longer physical intro with some actual plotting. They set up jokes and come back to finish them. The rest of Feathers doesn’t take that much time. Not even when it’s funny.
McLeod’s strange direction mars quite a bit of that first Harpo scene (and the rest of the film). He’s got no patience for the script. He can barely wait for the actors to deliver their lines before moving on. And his composition is distant. The first scene–Groucho addressing the students and faculty–turns into an impromptu musical number. Complete with dancing on the stage. McLeod directs it fine, though the effectiveness of Groucho doing a boring musical number first off is a Feathers red flag. After that first scene, McLeod all of a sudden forgets how to set up shots. Or just doesn’t want to bother taking the time. Horse Feathers somehow feels too rushed to even be stagy.
Todd has a great time, being courted by everyone–except Zeppo, after their first couple scenes together, Zeppo loses the girl. Harpo plays the harp for her, Chico plays the piano for her, Groucho letches her. During the first half, the best part about some scenes is seeing Todd trying to keep a straight face. Or at least not busting up entirely.
Horse Feathers has a really small cast. Besides the four brothers, only Todd and Landau get credited. After Pendleton and Pierce, there’s pretty much no one distinct in the cast. Groucho starts as the lead, but ends up without any significant comic sequences. He gets a canoe ride with Todd; it’s slight and funny and narratively pointless. And too short. Because McLeod’s in a hurry.
Harpo comes out best, overall. He at least gets good sequences throughout. The finale is the madcap football game, full of Marx Brothers antics. McLeod’s setups are fine for the big action, bad for the small. Harpo’s got a banana peel gag, which should kill; it doesn’t. Thanks to McLeod.
Horse Feathers needs a lot of work on the script, but it definitely needs someone interested in directing it. McLeod even botches Harpo’s harp scene. Harpo harp scenes are hard to botch.
Directed by Norman Z. McLeod; written by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, S.J. Perelman, and Will B. Johnstone; director of photography, Ray June; music by John Leipold; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Groucho Marx (Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff), Chico Marx (Baravelli), Harpo Marx (Pinky), Thelma Todd (Connie Bailey), Zeppo Marx (Frank Wagstaff), Nat Pendleton (MacHardie), James Pierce (Mullen), and David Landau (Jennings).