(Horse) Without Feathers
As regular Shadowplayers may recall, I’ve been reviewing the films of the Marx Bros and writing about those aspects of them which do not involve the Marx Bros. Picture a Richard J. Anobile book that’s been mutilated by some scissor-wielding schoolboy.
I already wrote about HORSE FEATHERS once, before starting on this scheme. Here we go again. We haven’t watched this one as often as, say, DUCK SOUP — of course, the reason is plain: no Margaret Dumont. Or maybe the reason is related to what Fiona said at the end: “That was really shambolic!” “Even by their standards!” I added.
Perhaps it’s the unusual spliciness of the print, the lack of any real romantic subplot, the slenderness of the main plot… but the wear and tear is not unique to this movie, the minimal love interest should be a boon, and the best Marx films are not known for labouring over narrative. Anyhow, the film is composed mainly of classic scenes — the ending is a bit rocky, but Groucho has a signature song, the “Swordfish” routine is classic Chico-Groucho crosstalk, there’s a great farce bit, and the canoe sequence is a joy. No more of that.
We begin with a scary cartoon horse which rides out of a college building and then vanishes, a laughing wraith. The rest of the movie is less frightening. Fiona commented on the crudeness of the caricatures that follow, but they’re both simple and highly identifiable. I like ’em.
First up is Reginald Barlow as the retiring college president, a testosterone-free pillar of patrician dignity, about to be destroyed by the incoming Quincy Addams Wagstaff. Surprising to learn that this embodiment of effete academicism was a hero of three wars. A perennial bit player, his career does boast a few characters with names, one of them quite Marxian: Otto K. Bullwinkle in IF I HAD A MILLION. Fiona was much more wide awake than I during this screening, and spotted that, after being apparently annihilated by Groucho’s opening salvo, the unflappable ex-prez retires to his seat and quietly reads a book all through Groucho’s big number.
Barlow is the only beardless professor at Huxley College, it seems. Nice the way the staff all get mesmerised by Groucho’s song into playing the role of a minstrel chorus. Similar to the way Bugs Bunny, leaping onto Elmer Fudd’s back, convinces him instantly that he’s a donkey (and Bugs was in large part modelled on Groucho).
Zeppo appears, to no particular effect this time, though we note his strong singing voice. But I’d rather hear Groucho’s quavering warble. Casting Zeppo as Groucho’s son (“Hello, old-timer!”) is an amusing idea, and using Z. as a sort of romantic interest substitute (sex pablum) is economical. Young Z. also delivers the expositional info-dump about football that sets the “narrative” in motion. We’re off!
Oh, before we leave — the Marxes’ career sometimes looks like one long, successful attempt to prove wrong that thing Rosalind Russell supposedly said — “You can’t do comedy on big sets.” Here, there are no grand art deco constructs, except the opening scene, which is no more impressive than it needs to be. Cost-cutting at Paramount?
Director/traffic cop Norman Z. McLeod begins each sequence with a sign so we know where we are. Probably Pauline Kael would attribute this rigorous visual storytelling to the uncredited script contribution by Herman J. Mankiewicz. Next up is the Elm Street speakeasy where villain David Landau is recruiting two professional ball players for the rival college’s team. Since I started thinking about this stuff I’ve noticed how grating and uncharismatic the bad guys in Marx films tend to be. I’m now ready to launch my Unified Theory: since the Marx Bros’ characters are themselves larcenous, lustful and conniving, it’s necessary for the baddies to distinguish themselves by adding to those qualities a positive charmlessness. The overall message of every Marx Bros film can be taken to be that villainy is fine if accomplished with wit and panache.
The field of Marxian antagonists is crowded with displeasing performers. Why, Louis “the walking fontanelle” Calhern stands out in such company as uniquely compelling and gracious. Still, among this throng of snarling plug-uglies and decaying louts who lack even a moustache to twirl, David Landau as Jennings stands out as uniquely unpleasant. His signature role, completed the same year as H.F., is the brutal warden in I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG. What a face. I’d say it’s the kind of face you’d like to hit, only I think we’d all be afraid of losing our fist in its putty-like recesses.
I used to be convinced this was Martin Landau’s dad. I think I just assumed there couldn’t be two Landaus. It only just struck me to check. I say it for the record: they are no relation. So shaken am I by this revelation, I had to look up Osgood Perkins to make sure of him. It’s OK: he was indeed Anthony’s poppa.
With Landau are Nat Pendleton, another charmer, and James Pierce, the most handsome of the bunch but equally lacking in the mystery quality known as Appeal. He was married to the daughter of Edgar Rice Burroughs, it seems, but despite this
never got to insinuate his hulking frame into the role of Tarzan (see comments). His best role, going by the name alone, is Griswell Henchman in something called THE LIGHTNING EXPRESS. I like to think this is not a mere description, but the actual character’s birth name.
Pendleton (OK, I checked: not the father of Austin Pendleton) was a wrestling champ, but his uncle was an actor for Griffith. He also co-wrote one movie, DECEPTION, made this same year, and also co-starring Thelma Todd, who we’re about to meet. Inexplicably, he failed to write himself the lead role. Nat, of course, got second helpings of the Marx treatment as the strongman in AT THE CIRCUS. His swan song was opposite Abbot & Costello, cementing his stooge status, and twenty years later he was fatally attacked by his own heart two days after I was born, so I can say with confidence that I am not his reincarnation.
Also among those gathered: Vince Barnett, a very funny man with nothing to do. Harpo is about to appear, baffling a series of characters who all look like the same actor, but aren’t. This clone effect is enhanced when director McLeod incompetently cuts around a payphone customer, making it seem like he’s two different guys. The payphone man is regular bit-player Sid Saylor, the hobo harpo hands a cup of coffee to is an authentic Forgotten Man — history, and the IMDb, do not record his identity.
Theresa Harris sighting! Playing a maid, as usual, although this time she has a name, Laura. Of her ninety listed roles on the IMDb, thirty-four are explicitly identified as maids, but I imagine characters with names like “Clementine” and “Bessie Mae” MIGHT also be maids. Still, my heart is always brightened by a Theresa Harris appearance.
Then we finally get La Todd. Thelma wears a series of racy costumes in this, starting with the negligee in which she entertains Zeppo for the unavoidable crooning display. He feeds her lomticks of toast while literally singing “I Love You” — this
HKalmar/Ruby tune is the film’s endlessly reprised bit, performed by each brother in turn. Is it OK to discuss Zeppo here? I sometimes consider him an honorary non-Marx Brother, so it should be fair play to talk about him in these Marxless articles.
Fiona suggests that Thelma’s beauty spot vanishes from scene to scene, like the cartoon horse at the beginning. Let’s see if she’s right.
Thelma had memorably gone hotcha! with Groucho in MONKEY BUSINESS and it’s a pleasure to have her back. An interesting career, alternating between low comedy with the Marxes and Laurel & Hardy and Charley Chase and a short-lived comedy pairing of her own with Patsy Kelly, and substantial roles in “straight” films. Thelma was tragically short-lived herself, her carbon monoxide death a subject of wild speculation to this day. Husband Roland West, director of THE BAT WHISPERS, is one named suspect. How she found time to get married and run “Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café” is a mystery too: 119 films in ten years.
Harpo, as a dog-catcher with a horse, is surrounded by animals, regularly producing cute specimens as mute punchlines to some remark by Chico. His horse has no name and the IMDb is uninformative on the subject. McLeod and his editor are almost in too much of a hurry to let us register the parrot and monkey on Harpo’s cart. Ben Taggart, a Central casting traffic cop, plays a traffic cop bamboozled by Harpo. McLeod should have considered making a Hitchcockian cameo in the role.
Harpo also eats flowers, like Leos Carax’s recurring character, Merde. There may be a connection. Also: oatmeal from the horse’s feedbag (sprinkled with salt) and a zip-up banana.
Groucho’s desk is covered with walnuts, and I belatedly realize this may actually be the influence for the walnut-bedecked office in Bertolucci’s THE CONFORMIST. After all, both are 1930s tales of academia and corruption with a surrealistic edge. Flanking Groucho are E.H. Calvert (also a prolific director) and Edward LeSaint, swiftly disposed of, then we get Harpo burning books and then bringing in a seal, whose barking, wiggling presence immediately turns Groucho, Harpo and Chico into seals too. Suggestible fellows.
Also worthy of remark: Wagstaff’s secretary, played woodenly by Sheila Bromley, delivering possibly the worst line readings of anyone in a Marxian film (“He’s waxing wrath”). And it doesn’t matter at all. Sheila turned into a perfectly good character actor. Her last role is Alan Rudolph’s disgraceful early exploitation film, BARN OF THE NAKED DEAD, in which they spell her name wrong. A shame.
Robert Greig turns up as a bearded tutor. The butler from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, he’s also the butler in ANIMAL CRACKERS. That was a proper role, whereas Greig is more suited to playing archetypes — butlers who embody their profession. He doesn’t suit his beard, that’s for sure. And I don’t like the pseudo-medical gibberish he’s spouting — if Groucho is going to denounce it as gibberish, it should feel like it actually has some abstruse meaning. We most recently saw Greig in John Cromwell’s SON OF FURY, playing a judge, and while a judge is not a butler, it proved to be within his range.
Harpo produces a drawing of a horse. We’ve already seen him kiss his own horse, so the theme of Harpo as horselover, which climaxes in DUCK SOUP, is clearly established. Harpo later produces a piece of pin-up art showing a hefty vaudevillian lady, and there’s a suggestion that horses and women are interchangeable for Harpo, especially as he keeps sitting on women in class.
Harpo’s candle burning at both ends is, I think, my favourite Harpo prop. It fulfills all the requirements — it is funny in itself, it’s a punchline to someone else’s remark, it’s impossible that it could be stored in his raincoat (which is inexplicably tattered throughout), and for good measure it is in itself almost impossible.
Thelma is back, minus her beauty spot. Fiona was right! “I keep thinking her tits are going to fall out of that dress,” she says, and again, she is right, though it doesn’t seem to quite happen on camera.
Through the miracle of bad continuity, Groucho’s chin is suddenly on Thelma’s shoulder, something the Red Queen does to Alice in Through the Looking Glass.
At other times, the continuity is perfect, pretty much proving that Mcleod is using multiple cameras, common during early sound pictures and a sensible idea when dealing with the disruptive Marxes — “It was a miracle if you could get all of them on a set at the same time,” recalled Buster Keaton.
Chico’s grabbiness here is a LITTLE disturbing. On the whole, the Bros’ skirt-chasing hasn’t dated too badly — we don’t worry about what Harpo would do if he caught a girl. But Thelma’s decolletage is so exposing, and her performance relatively convincing by the standards of these things, so all the lunging feels a little unpleasant. Easier to pull off with Margaret Dumont.
Chico’s rendition of “Everyone Says I Love You” hits on the theme of insect life and exploits it thoroughly, before moving on to the adventures of “Christopher Columbo.” Good lyrics. Thelma’s reactions turn this into probably Chico’s most welcome, least interruptive musical number.
Mcleod’s “blocking” is functional, letting us see the Marxes, which is all that really matters, but it’s neither elegant nor convincing. He’s rather fond of the “washing line” composition, and sets things up so that Landau suddenly gets suspicious of Chico’s behaviour despite being positioned so he can’t see any of it.
Harpo’s harp solo is, as usual, a full stop, a grinding gear change the film struggles to survive.
As a hormonal teen I was fascinated (yet frustrated) by the second appearance of Thelma’s negligee (the film IS cheap — customarily, the leading lady is entitled to a fresh outfit for every scene). Anyway, the lower half seems to be translucent, with no hint of underwear. But no hint of anything else, either. However, her mole has returned to her face, like a tiny black homing pigeon.
Slightly stilted performance by a duck. I wasn’t immediately convinced. But this makes this not only the only Paramount film to justify its title with actual appearances by the title animal, but one that looks forward to a later title too. At the end of this brilliant sequence (in which Groucho refers to Paramount’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY while canoeing through probably the same body of water featured in Sternberg’s drama), the duck is somehow inside the canoe, but I bet only Fiona spotted it, so rushed is the fade-out. Theory: the Marxes probably broke character the second a scene was finished, leaving the editor no spare footage for optical transitions. Or else Thelma couldn’t swim…
In the water, Thelma seems to be wearing lacy sleeves, which she was NOT wearing before falling in. Continuity in the Marx Bros universe is not only outrageously poor, it is often INEXPLICABLY poor.
Has her mole washed off?
Another animal: Harpo’s surprise piglet. Harpo’s hat, which formerly said DOG-CATCHER on the front, has now been reversed and his new job title, KIDNAPPER, is listed.
Pendleton and Pierce’s bijou apartment seems all wrong. I couldn’t work out why. It’s an astonishingly shoddy-looking set, and maybe the in-character presence of sporting trophies is contributing to the air of it being assembled from whatever was lying loose in the property store. But I think the truly bum note is struck by the presence of SIX BOOKS on a shelf. I find it easier to believe in Harpo carrying as lit candle and a steaming cup of coffee inside his coat than in these thugs reading.
Big football finish, about which I have nothing to say. We disbar all sporting activity here at Shadowplay. But I do like Thelma’s vamp outfit. MONKEY BUSINESS forgets she exists, and HORSE FEATHERS nearly does too, but at least she’s part of the crowd, and then gets to appear in the coda, which comes out of left field, to use what I believe is an old footballing expression.
This coda, one realises only later (thanks to Shadowplayer Matthew Hahn) is supposed to fool us into thinking Thelma is marrying Zeppo, until the other brothers/father/strangers barge in. But McLeod, that genius, stages the action with the groom completely eclipsed, so the gag looks like G, H and C are marrying T right from the start. It’s possible Zeppo was occupied elsewhere that day, as we are told the brothers frequently were. But his presence for the film’s closing shot would seem to be essential…
Three men piling on top of Thelma SHOULD be a bit disturbing as a final fade-out, but through the miracle of Marxian anarchy, somehow it’s fine.