Saturday, December 4, 2021

Episode 41: Waxing Wroth (Our Horse Feathers Deep Dive featuring Adam Gopnik)

Listeners to the podcast, podcast listeners, readers of the blog, and blog readers -- I guess that covers everything -- we have one of our epic deep-dives for you this month. The subject is the great masterpiece Horse Feathers, and the guest is the great essayist Adam Gopnik, whose most recent Marx-adjacent project is the new Library of America S.J. Perelman anthology. Where's the seal? Where's the seal? Where's the seal? Where's the seal?

Official description: "Adam Gopnik, New Yorker writer and editor of S.J. Perelman: Writings, joins us for an exhaustive look at the Marx Brothers’ 1932 classic, Horse Feathers.

"Adam discusses Perelman’s influence and tries to pinpoint his specific lines, Noah is skeptical that Horse Feathers owes anything to the brothers’ vaudeville school act, Matthew keeps track of the differences between the film and shooting script, while Bob constantly derails the conversation with trivial observations.

"Singing the film’s praises, we can’t help but lament the mangled version history has left us with…we talk about what’s missing and why. We also touch upon Chico’s limp, Thelma Todd’s traveling birthmark, and how Harpo isn’t a mime at all.

"Discussion more than twice the length of the movie with 1/10th the entertainment value!"

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  1. Very good discussion on one of the funniest films ever made. This is the first Podcast I listened to here, all the others I listened to on You Tube. It's as good here as it is there lol. keep em coming.

  2. I had a wonderful time listening to the Horse Feathers podcast. Horse Feathers is my favorite Marx Brothers movie, meaning it is my favorite movie of all time.

  3. One aspect of the movie that I've always felt rather curious about is its repeated use of objects, placed between the camera and the action, to provide a sense of depth. It happens several times: in one of the speakeasy scenes with the cash register, on the street with the front of a couple of cars, in the first musical number, with the napes of two students... I don't think I've ever seen the technique so frequently used in any of the other Paramount films, nor the rest of the Marx filmography. Maybe Ray June, the cinematographer, was particularly fond of this way of composing shots; it would be interesting to look for it in his other films of the period.

    Allen Eyles' description of the missing bits of Conney Bayley's apartment scene (provided to him by somebody else, if I remember correctly) seem to confirm that the last part of it was there in the original version. They coincide almost totally with the continuity script that we have, except for the ending. Eyles claims that Groucho jumped through the window, when the continuity script, as well as the shooting script, have him knocking out Jennings offscreen.

    By the way, from another of the missing bits that were described by Eyles (and that the continuity script confirms), the one of Harpo with the puppies, we can see one trace that remains in the film that we have: the fake lamp posts can be seen inside Harpo's van.

    Also, one particularly interesting aspect of the continuity script is the way certain sequences are edited, like the one that takes place at the speakeasy. The gags are in a different order. The sequence didn't end with Groucho and Chico running away from the bartender; instead, this was continued by many of the Harpo bits that hadn't been used until then all one after another. They must have found this didn't work and placed the "Swordfish!" exit to make the scene have an ending, with the Harpo gags distributed all through the scene.

    Another mystery that the continuity script provides is a scene where some actions seem to have been cut in the film as we have it, except that the place where they would go is one continuous single shot. Actually the continuity script also describes one continuous shot for that moment, when the speakeasy owner tells Baravelli about the password there's a pan to a swordfish that's hung on the wall. The dialogue refers to it, but the scene as we have it doesn't have any of that. They must have filmed two versions.

    Something else that seems inexplicable to me is how the editing sometimes seems very careful and others needlessly choppy. When the speakeasy owner calls Baravelli, there's a cut to a shot of a different part of the set, which is panning, and immediately it dissolves to Chico's first shot. The thing is, why make the cut with the panning already happenning and then dissolve so quickly. They could've retained the whole pan movement and not make any dissolve at all, just a cut to the room where Baravelli is.

    Last but not least, one very weird moment that I think deserves some mention is the shot of Harpo crying (apparently in a very sincere way) when Mullen and McCarthy trap him and Chico. It's strange because Harpo never seems capable of feeling such thing as anguish or sadness in any other Paramount movie, much less for himself than for others (you could make a case for his reaction to Polly crying in Cocoanuts).

    1. Good stuff....are you in the Facebook group? you should post this there.

  4. Horse Feathers is not only my favorite Brothers film but it was the first one I ever saw. During the 70s nostalgia craze our local Nashville station would show one movie every Sunday. One week I noticed Shemp Howard in WC Fields' "The Bank Dick" and stopped to watch it (Stooges are great). The preview for the next week was Horse Feathers. The one scene in the preview that got me to watch the next week was Groucho walking to the camera telling people to go into the lobby. From that point I was hooked.

    I have never understood the "asparagus" line. I've never found it funny -- just lazy. It reminds me of a David Letterman "joke" where he just throws nonsensical words of phrases at the end of a line and expects his sheep to laugh.

    As I have mentioned in previous podcast notes, I don't think Chico is playing on "Everyone Says I Love You" nor the "noodling" part. During the song you never see his hands, the piano sounds like its off stage and its not Chico's style of playing.

  5. EDITING NOTE - At about the 44 minute mark, Noah mentions a word in a line that Matthew quoted (it sounds like he's saying "parvenue"??), but we never hear Matthew mention this prior to that. What line was Noah referring to??

  6. Thanks for pointing that out, I have now fixed it (on all versions but YouTube, which won't allow me to simply replace the show), by adding back in Matthew's bit a minute or two before Noah's reference to it.

  7. During the late 1970's and early 1980's I saw Horsefeathers a number of times in a movie theater and at no time did anyone laugh at the end joke of three of the marx brothers marrying Thelma Todd all at the same time. They laughed throughout the film but not the end gag.

    1. It was all four of the THAT'S funny!


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