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Film / Horse Feathers

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Professor Wagstaff: I'm Professor Wagstaff of Huxley College.
Baravelli: That means nothing to me.
Professor Wagstaff: Well, it doesn't mean anything to me either. I'll try it over again. I'm Professor Huxley of Wagstaff College.
Baravelli: Well, you didn't stay at the other college very long.

Horse Feathers (1932) is the fourth Marx Brothers film, and arguably their first undiluted classic.

Groucho Marx plays the incoming president of Huxley College, Quincy Adams Wagstaff, while his son Frank (Zeppo Marx) divides his time between attending classes and wooing Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd), the local College Widow. To turn around the school's declining fortunes, President Wagstaff tries to recruit two star football players from a local Speakeasy, but ends up signing the stockboy Baravelli (Chico Marx) and dog-catcher Pinkie (Harpo Marx) instead. Now they have to win an upcoming football game against the rival school, Darwin, who have hired pro ballers as ringers posing as students and recruited Bailey to retrieve the secret Huxley playbook.

The whole thing is, of course, an excuse for the usual Marx family lunacy. It lacked the satirical edge of Duck Soup and the social relevance of A Night at the Opera, but is forever beloved by college professors for its musical statement of administrative purpose: "Whatever it is, I'm against it!" It is also notable for dealing with serious issues of its day, such as the prohibition of alcohol (which ended one year after this film was released) and the rampant corruption in college football, particularly through the use of "ringers" (professional or semi-pro players who would be temporarily enrolled at colleges for the sole purpose of playing football)

Directed by Norman Z. McLeod, who'd also helmed Monkey Business the year before. It's a parody of The College Widow (1904).

Has the following tropes:

  • Always Gets His Man: Invoked in song by Professor Wagstaff.
  • Apple for Teacher: When Baravelli and Pinky enter the class, the former gives the professor an apple, while the latter gives him a watermelon.
    Wagstaff: Well, all you need now is a bowl of cherries.
  • Artistic License – Sports: The football game. See below.
  • Asleep in Class: Mentioned when Wagstaff recommends tearing down Huxley College to support its football program:
    Professors: [in unison] But, Professor, where will the students sleep?
    Wagstaff: Where they always sleep: in the classrooms!
  • Asymmetric Dilemma:
    • Wagstaff decides to take the "college" out of "college football":
      Wagstaff: Have we got a stadium?
      Professors: Yes.
      Wagstaff: Have we a got a college?
      Professors: Yes.
      Wagstaff: Well, we can't support both. Tomorrow we start tearing down the college.
      Professors: But professor, where will the students sleep?
      Wagstaff: Where they always sleep, in the classroom.
    • Baravelli has a rather curious sense of priorities when it comes to having a car and driver... or a job:
      Wagstaff: Have you ever had any experience as a kidnapper?
      Baravelli: You bet. You know what I do when I kidnap somebody? First I call 'em up on the telephone, then I send 'em my chauffeur.
      Wagstaff: Oh, have you got a chauffeur? What kind of a car have you got?
      Baravelli: Oh, I no got a car, I just got a chauffeur.
      Wagstaff: Well maybe I'm crazy, but when you have a chauffeur, aren't you supposed to have a car?
      Baravelli: Well I had one, but you see it cost too much money to keep a car and a chauffeur so I sold the car.
      Wagstaff: Well that shows you how little I know. I would've kept the car and sold the chauffeur.
      Baravelli: That's no good. I gotta have a chauffeur to take me to work in the morning.
      Wagstaff: Well if you've got no car, how can he take you to work?
      Baravelli: He don't have to take me to work, I no got a job.
  • Banana Peel: Pinkie drops a whole bunch of them to trip up the opposing football players.
  • Bedsheet Ladder: Done with a rope. Baravelli and Pinky are locked into an upstairs room by the rival football team, but Pinky luckily has a large piece of rope in his coat. Baravelli tells him "Tie on-a the bed, throw out the window!" Pinky takes off his tie, drops it on the bed, and throws the rope out the window.
  • Big Game: The climactic sequence is a football game between Huxley and Darwin for which the characters have spent the rest of the film preparing. The game devolves into total chaos but ends with Huxley winning.
  • Big Honking Traffic Jam: Pinky takes a lunch break with his horse in the middle of a city street. A crescendo of car horns begins around him, a policeman comes up to write him a ticket, and Hilarity Ensues.
  • Blatant Lies: When Pinky and Baravelli go to kidnap Darwin football players Mullen and McHardie, the following exchange takes place:
    Baravelli: We're looking for Mullen and McHardie.
    McHardie: That's us, what can we do for you?
    Baravelli: You got a brother?
    McHardie: No.
    Baravelli: You got a sister?
    McHardie: Yeah.
    Baravelli: Well your sister, she's a very sick man. You better come with us.
    McHardie: Yeah? What happened to her?
    Barvelli:: She had an accident in her automobile.
    Mullen: She has no automobile.
    Baravelli: Well maybe she fall off her horse, I no look very close. Come on, we'll take you in our car.
    McHardie:: You will eh? Well I have no sister.
    Baravelli: That's alright, we no got a car. Come on.
  • Book Burning: Pinkie starts tossing books into the blazing fireplace in Wagstaff's office, eventually shoveling them in with a pitchfork.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall:
    • Wagstaff, during Baravelli's piano playing:
      Wagstaff: I've got to stay here. But there's no reason why you folks shouldn't go out into the lobby 'til this thing blows over.
    • Also, after Wagstaff says he's the plumber there to check Connie's pipes:
      Wagstaff: I haven't used that joke in 20 years.
  • Captain Obvious:
    Wagstaff: "In case I never see you again, which would add 10 years to my life, what would you fellas want to play football?"
    Baravelli: "Well at first we'd want a football."
  • Closet Shuffle: Done when Frank, Wagstaff, Baravelli, and Pinkie all visit Connie at the same time.
  • College Widow: Thelma "Hot Toddy" Todd (Connie Bailey). It turns out that she's at least partially a spy for a rival college, using the men she dates to get information that will help the other college's football team win.
  • Department of Redundancy Department:
    "Members of the faculty and faculty members, students of Huxley and Huxley students. That about covers everyone."
  • Do Wrong, Right: When Wagstaff sees that Baravelli and Pinky have abandoned the football match to play cards:
    Wagstaff: Do you realize what happens if we lose? It means shame! Disgrace! Humiliation! And besides, you're crazy if you don't play the ace!
  • Exact Words:
    • In the speakeasy, Pinky walks by two men playing cards, and one of them says, "Cut the cards." So Pinky does - with an ax.
    • When Wagstaff tells Baravelli and Pinky to "get in there and fight" at the climactic football game, they jump up from the bench and begin fighting each other.
  • Excuse Plot: Like every other Marx Brothers film, the plot is just an apparatus to string gags on.
  • Expensive Glass of Crap: Served by a local speakeasy. Baravelli gets an order for a quart of rye and a quart of scotch, and fills two different bottles from the same jug.
  • Fake Shemp: During production, Chico shattered his knee in a car crash. As a result, a body double was used in some of the football scenes, most notably during the shot where the Four Marx Brothers chase a horse-drawn garbage wagon, climb in and head off in the opposite direction; Chico's double is taller than the other brothers by several inches.
  • Fruit of the Loon: Pinkie snacks on a banana with a reclosable peel.

  • Gretzky Has the Ball: There is no way anybody could possibly think that the referee would let somebody ride down the field in a chariot and use every spare football in it as a separate touchdown, no matter how much bribery was involved. Also, Huxley College received a kick-off from rival Darwin after scoring a touchdown, as opposed to kicking off to Darwin.note 
  • Having a Gay Old Time:
    • "Are you making love to me?" asks Connie in bed, to Frank. In this time period, making love referred to the act of flirting instead of sex, which is just as well considering Wagstaff's remark about making love to crocodiles.
    • Though this was also right around the time that the phrase was taking on its modern meaning, making you wonder just how accidental it is. After all, the Marxes were a notoriously dirty stage act.
  • Hurricane of Euphemisms: Beautifully subverted when Groucho tries to tell Harpo that he can't burn the candle at both ends - Harpo produces a candle burning at both ends. Groucho tries another, Harpo produces, etc...
  • Hurricane of Puns: "I'd walk a mile for a calomel." Half of the puns are now pretty dated, but the other half will still leave you groaning.
  • "I Am" Song: Wagstaff's "I'm Against It" and "I Always Get My Man".
  • I'll Never Tell You What I'm Telling You!: Done when Wagstaff tries to guess the password to get into the speakeasy.
  • Is There a Doctor in the House?: Played with during the Big Game — after watching his team get clobbered, Wagstaff calls out, "Is there a doctor in the house?" When a man says he's a doctor, Wagstaff asks, "How do you like the game, Doc?"
  • Ladies and Germs: Professor Wagstaff begins a speech with: "Members of the faculty and faculty members, students of Huxley and Huxley students. I guess that covers everything."
  • Lame Pun Reaction: The classroom scene has Wagstaff annoyed when Baravelli's poor English results in an Accidental Pun.
    Wagstaff: Now then, baboons, what is a corpuscle?
    Baravelli: That's easy. First is a captain, then is a lieutenant, then is a corpuscle.
    Wagstaff: That's fine. Why don't you bore a hole in yourself and let the sap run out?
  • Literal Metaphor: After Wagstaff chastises Pinkie by saying "you can't burn a candle at both ends," Pinkie produces a candle burning at both ends from under his longcoat.
  • MacGuffin:
    • The playbook, which Darwin College wants to steal, because they really want to win a football game for some reason. It's even more baffling since the film clearly establishes that Huxley is a terrible team that any competent rival could easily beat without cheating. These are the kinds of details that don't matter in a Marx Brothers movie.
    • The antagonist mentions that's he's bet rather heavily on the game, but it's never really brought up again.
  • Marry Them All: Inverted; Connie ends up marrying Wagstaff, Baravelli, and Pinkie all in the same ceremony.
  • Mathematician's Answer: When Wagstaff is teaching a class, Pinky puts a picture of a beautiful woman over the blackboard while Wagstaff's back is turned:
    Wagstaff: Baravelli, who's responsible for this? Is this your picture?
    Baravelli: I don't think so. It doesn't look like me.
  • Mundane Utility: Professor Wagstaff uses the telephone to crack nuts.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Connie plays up her football ignorance to try to get Professor Wagstaff to share his secret signals. She overdoes her childlike ditziness, so either he sees right through the ruse or he thinks she needs to snap out of it.
  • Old-Fashioned Rowboat Date: Wagstaff has a rowboat date with Connie, who is trying to seduce him to steal the Darwin playbook. The dialogue is anything but chaste, and the date ends with her falling into the water and Wagstaff cracking wise rather than saving her. Also, she was the one doing the rowing while Wagstaff sat under the parasol and sang to her.
  • The Password Is Always "Swordfish": The trope-namer, if not the trope-maker. Pinky enters the speakeasy with his own brand of Sign Language (in this case, running a fish through with a sword and presenting it to the doorman).
  • Product Placement: Not intended as such but just for the gag, when Connie falls into the water and begs for a lifesaver, Wagstaff takes out a clearly-labeled Lifesavers roll and obliges her. Nine decades later and the brand's still around and known to everybody.
  • Profound by Pop Song: During his first address as President of Huxley College, Wagstaff briefly lapses into the vaudeville song "Any Rags?"
  • Running Gag: All four brothers give their own rendition of the song "Everyone Says I Love You."
  • Secret Word: An entire scene is built around people unable to enter a room unless they say the secret password, which Wagstaff and Baravelli unknowingly keep saying.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Baravelli explains how he goes about kidnapping someone; call them on the phone, and then send his chauffeur. Wagstaff asks what kind of car he has, and Baravelli says he has no car, just a chauffeur. Wagstaff wonders why someone would have a chauffeur without a car, and Baravelli replies that he couldn't afford both so he sold the car. Wagstaff says he would have sold the chauffeur and kept the car, but Baravelli says he needs the chauffeur to take him to work. Wagstaff asks how he does so without a car, and Baravelli says it doesn't matter because he doesn't have a job.
    Wagstaff: Baravelli, this is the finish. How much would you want to stand at the wrong end of a shooting gallery?
  • Shout-Out: To Charles Darwin and his advocate Thomas Henry Huxley.
  • Skewed Priorities:
    Wagstaff: Have we got a stadium?
    Professors: Yes.
    Wagstaff: Have we got a college?
    Professors: Yes.
    Wagstaff: Well we can't support both. Tomorrow we start tearing down the college.
  • So Proud of You: Subverted in typical Marx Brothers fashion, as Frank Wagstaff (Zeppo) congratulates his father (Groucho) on becoming college president:
    Frank: Dad, let me congratulate you. I'm proud to be your son.
    Professor Wagstaff: My boy, you took the words right out of my mouth. I'm ashamed to be your father. You're a disgrace to our family name of Wagstaff, if such a thing is possible.
  • Super Ringer: Huxley hires two of them for the game.
  • Take That!: Professor Wagstaff's exclamation, "Jumpin' anaconda!" is actually a reference to a company, Anaconda Copper, whom Groucho had invested in heavily. When the stock market crash of 1929 occurred, Marx lost several hundred thousand dollars, hence the curse word in the movie.note 
  • Totem Pole Trench: Baravelli and Pinky run their professor out of the classroom, and moments later the two return, Pinky in a fake beard on Baravelli's shoulders, dressed in the professor's mortarboard hat and gown.
  • Waxing Lyrical: Wagstaff, during his first address as President of Huxley College, briefly lapses into the old vaudeville song "Any Rags?"
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • Frank disappears prior to the end of the film. His subplot was meant to have been wrapped up during the scenes cut from the film (see "Missing Episode" on the Trivia page for details).
    • At one point the brothers interrupt a teacher while he is giving a class and Pinkie and Baravelli bail him out of the room. They later return with his gown (and beard), but the teacher never returns and is never mentioned again.
  • Wimp Fight: Done by Baravelli and Pinkie when they attempt to kidnap the two big football players from Huxley. Baravelli gets Pinkie into fighting mode until he's puffed up, huffing and cross-eyed with rage — and then grins as he gives them each a little slap on the face. He then gets hurled across the room onto a couch.
  • Written-In Infirmity: Baravelli is sitting down for most of the fight scene with Huxley's football players because Chico Marx had earlier been in an accident that shattered his kneecap.