Monday, September 20, 2010

Looking Back

One of the finest movies about college football featured four short Jewish men from Manhattan’s upper east side.

In 1932, riding a wave of Vaudeville popularity, the Marx Brothers (Groucho, Chico, Harpo and the oft forgotten Zeppo) starred in Horse Feathers, their fourth feature film. Directed by Norman Z. McLeod, whose career would span more than three decades, and who would later direct such screen classics as Topper (1937) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), the film lampooned university life, higher education and the collegiate gridiron.

Horse Feathers features the slapstick and irreverent humor found in the Marx Brothers’ first three films, including Monkey Business (1931), also directed by McLeod. That humor would define the brothers’ cinematic career and make them Hollywood immortals. The most striking aspect of the film, however, is its relevance to today’s college game.

Although the film is nearly eighty years old, it deals with issues fresh as today’s sports headlines. Groucho plays Quincy Adams Wagstaff, the new president of Huxley College, preparing for its big game against its rival, Darwin College (the names given the universities exemplify the level of sophistication often found in the brothers’ humor; Thomas Henry Huxley was a defender of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution). In an early scene, Quincy’s son Frank (Zeppo), a student at Huxley, convinces his father to recruit professional players for the game:

FRANK: Dad, this college has had a new president every year since 1888.


FRANK: And that’s the year we won our last football game. Now, I like education as much as the next fellow –

QUINCY: Well, move over and I’ll talk to the next fellow.

FRANK: But a college needs something else besides education. And what this college needs is a good football team, and you can’t have a good football team unless you have good players.

QUINCY: My boy… I think you’ve got something there, and I’ll wait outside until you clean it up. I know it’s dangerous, but I’m going to ask you one more question. Where do you get good football players?

FRANK: Well, in a speakeasy down…

QUINCY: Are you suggesting that I, the president of Huxley College go into a speakeasy without even giving me the address?

The reference to speakeasies is telling of the time. This was, after all, the era of prohibition. Armed with the establishment’s address, Quincy heads to the speakeasy, resulting in the famous “Swordfish” password scene, and the following exchange between Quincy and Baravelli (Chico), an “iceman” who delivers ice and bootleg liquor and who, together with Pinky (Harpo), also an iceman and part-time dog catcher, is inadvertently recruited to play for Huxley:

BARAVELLI: Well, first we want a football.

QUINCY: Well, I don’t know if we’ve got a football, but if I can find one, would you be interested? I don’t want a hasty answer, just sleep on it.

BARAVELLI: I no think I can sleep on a football.

QUINCY: Well, let’s get down to business. I’m looking for two football players who always hang around here.

BARAVELLI: We always hang around here, but we don’t –

QUINCY: Well, that’s all I want to know. I’m Professor Wagstaff of Huxley College.

BARAVELLI: That means nothing to me.

QUINCY: Well, it doesn’t mean anything to me either.

The elevation of sport above education, the improper recruiting of players, the use of ineligible athletes at the college level – these are issues very much present in today’s college game. Indeed, some of these very issues recently led the University of Southern California to forfeit a national championship, and its marquee player, Reggie Bush, to relinquish his Heisman trophy.

Horse Feathers is justifiably listed by the American Film Institute as one of the top 100 comedies of the twentieth century. It contains numerous hilarious and memorable scenes, including the film’s climax, considered one of the best football related scenes in movie history, where the four brothers win the game by carrying the ball into the end zone in a horse-drawn garbage wagon driven like a chariot.

Yet it is sobering to realize that the subject of the film’s humor indicates how little we, as a society, have learned over the past eight decades. It makes us wonder whether our great-grandchildren will be dealing with the same issues in another eighty years, when the memories of our time will seem as distant as the world depicted in grainy black and white footage of four comedic geniuses at the height of their career.

1 comment:

  1. Considering the UM scandal in what was it? 1994? 1995? We, as a society never seem to learn.

    The only lesson the involved officials at USC have seemed to learn is that it's only wrong if you get caught.