Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Screenplay: Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby & S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone
The best Marx Brothers movie is "Duck Soup"; I think that's generally a pretty universally accepted truth. If you have to narrow it to one film, one absolute essential movie to give us the best and most complete example of their work, then yeah, that's the one that's always gonna pop up on everybody's essential or great films of all-time list. I already included it in mine, as I did a Canon of Film post on "Duck Soup" years ago:
However, after "Duck Soup", there's a bit of a debate on what the 2nd best Marx Brothers film is. I think most people tend to rank "A Night at the Opera" in that spot, which is a great movie by the way, but I honestly don't care for it that much, or for that matter most of their post-Paramount movies. You see, it seems ridiculous now, but "Duck Soup" was actually a major flop, and it caused Paramount to give up on them and they released them from their contract. They made movies with other studios the rest of their career, starting with MGM and "A Night at the Opera", however, most of those movies had a little too much oversight by higher-ups who insisted that there actually be less Marx Brothers in their films fearing that too much of them without some kind of other sideplot, one that's perhaps more universal, like a romance between two young characters that has nothing to do with anything else, would get added between their gags. Most of these movies are still funny, but some are pretty lousy, and they're not what I want from a Marx Brothers movie. I don't go see the Marx Brothers to see a forgettable teen romance involving Kitty Carlisle.
The Marx Brothers were complete anarchy; they were relentless thunderstrikes to the funny bone of America and kick to the ball of American traditions and sensibilities as well as rationalness in general, they may have more talents, like how most of them on top of everything else were incredible musicians, but they shouldn't be so heartfelt and they really shouldn't care that much about the lives of others; they're the ones who are supposed to disrupt those lives!
"A Night at the Opera" might be the best of their post-MGM films, and I might add it one day to this Canon, but for me, their second-best film, and some days I might consider it their absolute best, is the movie they did before "Duck Soup", and that's their absurd satire of the college education system, "Horse Feathers"! They weren't the first to take their shot at the college experience on film, Buster Keaton's underrated "College" beat them to that, but Buster was a silent star, and the Marx Brothers were the first huge stars of the talkies, and that's the way it should be. Nobody seems quicker or more sharper with their dialogue of course, but they were great at everything, and we see a little bit of everything they were great at here.
Groucho plays Prof. Quincy Adams Wagstaff, the new President of Huxley College, and after a good short monologue speech, he opens the movie with probably my favorite Marx Brothers movie song, where Groucho proudly declares that no matter what it is, he's against it.
The Marx Brothers were really ahead of their time; if "SNL" hasn't come up with some kind of political parody inspired by this yet, it's only because it's too obvious.
More than that though, the Marx Brothers were some of the first to experiment with breaking the 4th wall of film. Groucho does this a few times during the movie. At one point, during an insane sequence that I'm not even going to begin to entirely explain, Chico, who plays a bar iceman named Baravelli who Groucho gave a scholarship to in order to win a football game against Huxley's rival Darwin College, (Those names, themselves a joke) is giving an improptu singing lesson to Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd) the College Widow who may or may not be having a scandalous affair with Wagstaff's son Frank (Zeppo Marx, the funniest of the Marx Brothers, who ironically usually preferred to play the straight man in the group.) and Groucho at one point, just stands up and talks to the audience, telling them, "I got to stay here, but there's no reason you folks shouldn't go out into the lobby until this thing blows over!"
There's a lot of jokes in this sequence, including Chico's famous pun about falsetto voice and a false set of teeth, but I genuinely can't believe Groucho got away with that joke. This was in 1932, I genuinely believe film was young enough that an audience being told to go away, might actually go away and leave, I'm fairly certain you couldn't get away with that today, and I'm sure executives were worried too that audiences would leave in droves, but of course, it's the Marx Brothers, they can get away with most anything, including telling the audience to not watch the movie!
Hell, this movie might be the example of that. While "Duck Soup" actually has several deeper political layers, "Horse Feathers," it's complete nonsense. Okay, not entirely nonsense, it is a satire on college corruption and whatnot, especially college sports, yes, people were complaining about the corruption of the NCAA even back before the NCCA existed.
GROUCHO: "We got a stadium, we got a college, we can't afford both. Tomorrow, we start tearing down the college."
PROFESSORS IN WAGSTAFF'S STUDY: "But Professor, where will the students sleep?"
GROUCHO: "Where they always sleep, in the classroom."
But mostly, it's just random comedic insanity, culminating in the Marx Brothers playing in a football game, that's got to be one of the most insane sports sequences ever put on film. Trying to excrete logic and plot out of this film is a thankless and pointless job, even moreso here than other Marx Brothers titles. Literally. All the Paramount titles of Marx Brothers films were basically pointlessly random nonsequitors that had little-to-nothing to do with anything else in the movie, but "Horse Feathers" is particularly subversive. "Ah, horse feathers!...",you don't hear that expression much now, but "Horse Feathers" was essentially a cleaned-up curse word in it's day, similar to how "Jiminy Crickets", before Disney took it over, was a way to not take Jesus Christ's name in vein, or how a little kid might say "Cheese & Crackers" now instead of "God dammit!". Basically with "Horse Feathers", the Marx Brothers came as close as they possibly could in their day to naming their movie, "Bullshit"!
Sure, this is just barely, pre-Hays code, but this fact should really be repeated more often. "Horse Feathers" is literally just a bunch of bullshit, and that's amazingly glorious! These Paramount movies were basically the Marx Brothers being handed a new toy to mess around and play with called film, and while they probably didn't think of themselves as great innovators of the genres, being the best of the classic old-school vaudevillians, they captured a brand and style of humor that's simultaneously influenced all the great humor and comedy that's come after it, while also documenting their own brand of hilarity, that incorporates their own backgrounds and comedic sensibilities into a style of humor that we're still trying to replicate and usually failing miserably.
Watching their movies today, it feels like we're watching the birth of modern comedy as we know it; I'm sure if Groucho Marx were alive today and we told him that, he's just tell us that that's a bunch of horse feathers!