Somehow the Marx Brothers had passed me by. My only exposure to them had been a short run of their films late at night about twenty years ago, but I bought a boxed set of their movies anyway and eventually got around to watching them. The first one I chose was Horse Feathers.
When I watched it, I don't think I'd laughed so much at a film before in my life.
What's particularly interesting is how clearly they belong to a different tradition. Before making their films, they'd often come up with a show and then take it on the road and perform it live in theatres for six months or so. Only then would they commit it to celluloid. What's more, you can tell. This is about as far from any kind of cinematic tradition as you can get. There's no plot whatsoever, except that apparently other Marx Brothers films have even less. It's just a bunch of comedy routines connected by theme rather than story. There are musical numbers. At one point Groucho even steps up to the camera and advises us that he's got to stay here, but there's no reason why us folks shouldn't go out into the lobby until this all blows over.
The way to watch this film is to imagine it on stage. The climactic football game might have been tricky, but with lots of energy and some controlled chaos you could probably manage something approximating to it. That's why the musical numbers work better here than they do in Laurel & Hardy or Abbott & Costello films. Those are films. They have a story. Admittedly in the case of Laurel & Hardy that's liable to be a fig-leaf for a string of set-pieces, but we're still ostensibly following a plot. This instead is nothing but a show. It's vaudeville, more like a revue than anything else. Thus it doesn't matter at all that we see all four Marx Brothers deliver separate versions of the same song, or that Harpo plays his harp again. And yes, that is where his name comes from.
Similarly the guest cast barely exist except to be foils for our heroes. Thelma Todd as Connie Bailey plays it completely straight, or at least as nearly as she can despite the script, which is an interesting and slightly startling choice given the chaos all around her. She's pretty too. As for the humour, it's the nearest thing I've ever seen to the Goon Show. It feels like Spike Milligan went back in time and got a job in Hollywood. We have absurdist gags that were a direct inspiration for the Warner Bros Looney Tune cartoons, plus a general comedy outlook based on the supposition that everyone is venal, childish and magnificently, colossally stupid. They're incompetent, lazy and yours for half a nickel. It's Airplane without the disaster movie. There are visual gags you simply wouldn't believe, while some of what Groucho says is outrageous even today.
The version of the film we have now is missing a couple of minutes thanks to re-editing in 1935 to satisfy the Hollywood Production Code, which I can believe although if I had my way I'd have the villains responsible put up for crimes against humanity. Two minutes' worth of material more extreme than what's already in the film. Wow.
It's time to talk about our heroes! Apparently in real life they really resembled their stage personas, except for Zeppo who offstage was the funniest of them all. Oh, and they all look the same. Look past the props, wigs and costumes. You can tell they're brothers. That's why the Duck Soup mirror scene works.
1. GROUCHO. Oddly enough, he gets a barnstorming opening speech which isn't funny at all. I never fully understood the concept of the straight man until I saw Groucho. On his own, he's just a motormouth who delivers all his lines exactly the same. However give him someone to interact with and he's incredible. Hell, when performing live on stage I'm sure even the audience could fulfil that role for him. I'm sure that opening speech slayed them in the theatres. Children would love him, but at least half of his material would go screaming over their heads. You have to work hard to keep up with Groucho. He also carries a lot of the show since he's the only one capable of interacting with other human beings without destroying the scene with slapstick and bizarre physical gags, although even with him the odds of that aren't high.
Oh, and obviously he looks wonderful. The eyebrows, the cigar, the walk and that strange and creepy non-moustache. Awesome.
2. CHICO. Far funnier than you'd think. "Stupid ethnic stereotype with thick accent and bad English" doesn't sound promising, but it's all about his personality and quick-fire delivery. Wordplay seems to fascinate comedians, but Chico Marx is the only one I can think of who ever made it work. It's at the heart of his chosen characterisation, for a start.
3. HARPO. Oh my God, Harpo. The others I can understand. Groucho and Chico are at least familiar in concept, but every moment of Harpo's screen time is completely unique. No one has ever created a screen persona within a million miles of his. He's not just refusing to talk. This is some kind of happy, barely sentient creature apparently put upon this earth five minutes ago, to whom every experience is an exciting novelty and who doesn't actually seem capable of speech. Genius. (He turns into Stan Laurel when he cries, though.)
4. ZEPPO. The straight man. Why the brothers felt they needed a straight man I don't know, since they're at their funniest when they're all bouncing off each other. Maybe it just evolved that way?
5. GUMMO. Who? In fact he never appeared in their films, having quit while they were still just a vaudeville stage act.
Reading up on the Marx Brothers, it seems that their plotless comedy free-for-alls were made for Paramount, while their later move to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer brought more of a focus on story. That was thanks to Irving Thalberg. Horse Feathers is probably most famous for its climactic football game, which is almost achingly funny although it might help not to be a fan of American football. I can imagine sports nerds finding it a little too ridiculous, although I don't know what they'd be expecting from the Marx Brothers. Absurdist. That's the key word to remember. We also see some underwear that's strange in hindsight, it being odd to think these days that people really wore that in 1932.
This film has entire scenes where I could hardly stop laughing. I can't think of many other comedians to rival the Marx Brothers on either a visual or a verbal level, let alone managing to do both simultaneously. Children would probably miss a lot of it, but damn it's good. Laurel & Hardy were a little disappointing when I rewatched them recently, excellent in their own department though they are, but the Marx Brothers just shot way, way up my list.