Anemic and a tad exasperating, Horse Feathers finds the Marx Brothers flailing wildly between serpentine verbal shtick and prop-based visual gag, throwing so much material at the audience that the prospect of retention or laughter seems improbable. Flickers of the family’s wit are present, seen in fleeting bits of Groucho’s sarcastic banter and Harpo’s cartoonish jest, but inexpressive camerawork and structural inconsistency cripple the anarchic spirit of the performers, leaving them to overcompensate for technical mediocrity.
The adherence to a traditional narrative is particularly frustrating, especially when considering the emptiness of the dialogue and the lack of restraint on behalf of the performers. Discourse is nothing more than a springboard for Groucho’s smart-assed quips and conversational misinterpretations, many of which fall flat as the viewer rushes to catch up to the rapid-fire chatter. These semantic games only bear fruit when the joke is detached from the progression of the plot and allowed to operate as surrealistic art piece, not as representation of the whole. The best of these sketches is the “swordfish” gag, which takes a cryptic game of password and corrupts it with a gaggle of near rhymes and silly word associations, humorously flipping “sturgeon” into “surgeon” and “haddock” into “headache.” The segment reaches its zenith when Harpo interrupts Groucho and Chico’s discussion to hold up a rubber fish with a sword stuck in its throat, pronouncing the password through pantomimed gesture and wide-eyed grin.
Comedic stylings of this nature have their roots in vaudeville and are better suited for an episodic structure, a point made blatantly obvious by Horse Feathers’ superfluous plot and static camera angles. Revolving around a college football rivalry, a pair of bootleggers and an opportunistic gold digger, all elements of the narrative stand in contrast to the objective of the comedy troupe, which is to lampoon authority and romance by any means necessary. Groucho’s opening song seems to be the only number that captures this gleeful negativity, relishing the opportunity to honk the noses of Huxley College’s elite board members and bellow “Whatever it is, I’m against it” at their suggestions for administrative restructuring and a renewed interest in education.
This disillusioned attitude and distaste for polite society is better suited for a more substantial target and stronger script, one capable of eliciting anything besides scant laughs and passive viewership. As it stands, the desperation of the weaker bits only magnifies the slapdash nature of the production, making for an intermittently funny featurette coasting on half-baked ideas. The poetic physical comedy of Duck Soup and rigid framework of A Night at the Opera remedied these flaws behind the scenes, proving that a lawless quartet like the Marx Brothers functions best when afforded absolute freedom or reigned in by dictatorial restraint. Horse Feathers is stuck in purgatory between these two methods, flagged by a lack of devotion to both story and satire.
Horse Feathers (Paramount Pictures, 1932)
Directed by Norman McLeod
Written by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone
Photographed by Ray June