Universal // 1932 // 66 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // June 12th, 2011
I married your mother because I wanted children. Imagine my disappointment when you arrived.
The jokes may be corny and the stories may make no sense, but if somebody puts on a Marx Brothers movie, I'm going to watch and I'm going to laugh. Whether Groucho's random insults, Chico's terrible puns, Harpo's bells and whistles, or Zeppo's...um...standing around, I guess, they cover all their comedy bases. The one thing that they bring to the table, though, that keeps me coming back for more is their unique ability to create pure chaos on film.
This time, we have Groucho as Professor Wagstaff taking over as president of Huxley College. He knows that academics comes second to what everybody knows is the most important part of college life: the big football game. In order to beat the dastardly Darwin University, Wagstaff decides to pay a couple of pros to pose as students and play for his team. When a misunderstanding, however, causes Wagstaff to hire a bootlegger (Chico) and a dogcatcher (Harpo) instead, Wagstaff's chances for victory, and for tenure, go straight down the tubes.
Bookended by their best films, Monkey Business and Duck Soup, Horse Feathers doesn't quite reach the heights of those two, but the Marx Brothers still show themselves as the masters of absurdist comedy in this ridiculous gridiron adventure. There is no sense of coherence or continuity; the story just moves from one series of gags to the next. For these guys, though, that's a feature, not a problem. More than any other early Hollywood comedy team, they took their Vaudeville act and transferred it directly onto the screen, and the results were madness.
The punchlines come fast and furious, a musical number could break out at any moment, or Groucho could even address you, the audience, directly (especially rare in these days). The plot is surely forgettable and the supporting cast has little to do but take abuse, but even if the film fails all rules of logic or storytelling, I still leave feeling like I've seen a satisfying show. The Marx Brothers always deliver and, while Horse Feathers isn't their very best picture, it still catches the group right at their peak.
There are plenty of great jokes and eye-rolling puns to go around, but everything is geared toward the climactic football scene. After all the payoffs, seductions, and kidnapping attempts, they finally get to the game. It's a riotous scene, complete with finger biting, card games, and chariots. It's not your traditional football match up, but they do run the wishbone formation, my absolute favorite offensive scheme. How could I possibly complain?
Horse Feathers receives a disappointing release from Universal, which is especially bad given that they've put out plenty of better performing DVDs for older and less famous films. This just seems slapdash. The full frame image looks fairly poor, with heavy grain and a fair bit of damage. The black and white contrast is decent, but neither end of that is particularly good. There are also a few frames missing toward the end of the film, but this has to do with cuts made after the fact to conform to censors and the frames are likely lost forever. The sound is a little better, but still nothing great. I expect to find a little noise in old films; recording technology was still pretty rudimentary. There's more than normal on this mono, though, and while it doesn't ruin the film, it's distracting. The only extra is a trailer, and that's a shame.
Horse Feathers is right up there with my favorite early comedy, if only for the completely insane football ending. Most important, I now have about eight new jokes to add to my repertoire, for which my friends can thank me later.
The film is not guilty, but it deserves a better release.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 66 Minutes
Release Year: 1932
MPAA Rating: Not Rated