29 January 2009

Jumping Anaconda! The Perfect Cinematic Warmup for your Super Bowl

Yes, perhaps Cardinals versus Steeler will be interesting but it can't compare with the storied Huxley-Darwin contest of 1932. That great college match up was brilliantly retold in the wonderful film, Horesefeathers (1932). The film's stars included four siblings, Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo Marx.

Has there ever been a more dramatic football sequence than at the climax of this movie? Perhaps. But there's never been a funnier one. Horsefeathers is one of the Marx Brothers funniest films. Second only to Duck Soup (1933) in this writer's most humble opinion.

Groucho is Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff who we meet at the outset of the film as he is being introduced as Huxley's new president. Zeppo is a long-time Huxley student and Wagstaff's son. (Such a loving relationship. "I married your mother because I wanted children. Imagine my disappointment when you arrived," father tells son.) Chico is an ice man employed at a speakeasy and Harpo the local dog catcher.

So you have the Marx Brothers running amok in a university, a speakeasy and a football game. Can't go wrong.

Thelma Todd as the "college widow" is the love interest. Thelma was a real dish who led a life worthy of a bio pic. Before making it big in pictures she was a beauty queen and a school teacher. Later she became a successful entrepreneur. Thelma resisted when the mob tried muscling in on her restaurant business. Thus her death at age 30 to carbon monoxide poisoning, ruled a suicide, was highly suspicious.

There is a brief appearance in Horsefeathers by the lovely and too little known Theresa Harris as a maid. Lovers of films from Hollywood's Golden Age will instantly recognize Ms. Harris who appeared in dozens of films in the 30's and 40's, usually as a maid. You can see her in such celebrated films as Morocco (1930), Arrowsmith (1931), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Baby Face (1933), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Jezebel (1938), The Big Clock (1948) and Mary Stevens M.D (1933). She was a good actress, with excellent comic timing and a fine signing voice. Why the short shrift? She was an African American. One is tempted to say that she was born in the wrong era. But it wasn't her birth date that was too early, it was integration in Hollywood that was too late.

So Todd and Harris are nice bonuses to this laugh riot. From Wagstaff's introductory remarks to faculty and students in the form of a song: "I don't know what they have to say / It makes no difference anyway / Whatever it is, I'm against it. / No matter what it is or who commenced it, I'm against it! / Your proposition may be good / But let's have one thing understood: / Whatever it is, I'm against it. / And even when you've changed it or condensed it, I'm against it!"

Through Wagstaff's taking over a science class and, with the aid of his real life bros, introducing true anarchy.

To pitching woo with Ms. Todd (and see if you can figure out the deal is with the umbrella).

To the climactic football game ("Is there a doctor in the house? "I'm a doctor." Hi ya, doc!") Horsefeathers packs more laughs into a 68 minute running time than most current sit coms manage in a whole season.

And I'd be remiss if I failed to mention the film's lasting impact on my own football viewing. Whenever I want my team to run the ball I recall Chico's own signal calling at the line of scrimmage: "Hi Diddle diddle the cat and the fiddle, this time I think we go up the middle."

Classic comedy.

No comments: