Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Horse Feathers (1932): “You can’t put the wall over my ice”

Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo.  Three clowns and a straight man. Anarchists all. Whatever it is, they’re against it.

Gonzo intellectual and all-round eccentric Slavoj Zizek from Slovenia has posted a short video on YouTube.  For those who know what the appellation means – I can’t make head nor tail of it – Zizek is a  Lacanian-Marxist philosopher. Quick, get me a four-year-old child. Zizek posits that Freud’s construction of the human psyche applies perfectly to the three erstwhile lunatics Groucho, Chico, and Harpo.  The video is titled ‘How the Marx Brothers Embody Freud’s Id, Ego & Super-Ego’. I am not quite sure what to make of it, but let’s explore how the elephant got into Groucho’s pyjamas.

Zizek says Groucho, “with his nervous hyper-activity”, is superego.

I don’t know what they have to say
It makes no difference anyway
Whatever it is, I’m against it…
And even when you’ve changed it or condensed it,
I’m against it!

Chico “the rational guy, egotistic, calculating all the time”, is ego.

Professor Wagstaff: In case I never see you again, which would add ten years to my life, what would you fellas want to play football.

Baravelli: Well, first we want a football.

Professor Wagstaff: 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.

And, “the weirdest of them all, Harpo, the mute guy, he doesn’t talk”, is id. “Freud said that drives are silent… The id in all its radical ambiguity… childishly innocent, just striving for pleasure… But, at the same time, possessed by some kind of primordial evil, aggressive all the time. And this unique combination of utter corruption and innocence is what the id is about.”

In Horse Feathers, in the speak-easy while Chico is in the back-room filling a bottle of Scotch and a bottle of Rye from the same container of hooch,  Harpo passes a poker-game and when he overhears one of the players say “Cut the cards”,  he pulls an axe from his raincoat and happily obliges.  Later, Harpo stokes a raging fireplace with a spade filled from a pile of books.  Indeed, the movie’s original ending which was cut (and replaced by the bigamous marriage scene with the three villains scrambling to be the first to hump their new bride) had the college burning to the ground after another fire lit by Harpo, while the musketeers play cards.

Some see a social critique of sorts in Horse Feathers, and you can pretty well read what you like into the narrative about college football, which is essentially only a pretext for a string of gags and absurdities melding irreverent and raunchy vaudeville with subversive attacks on authority.

The movie was a box-office smash in 1932, and both the in-crowd and the intelligentsia wasted no time in claiming the Marx Bros as their own. Stefan Kanfer laid out the critical response in his authoritative biography of Groucho (2000) quoting from articles in Le Monde, London’s New Statesman, and Time magazine, which had the boys on the cover of the August 13, 1932 issue, and referring to Groucho’s “unsquelchable effontry.”  The left-leaning New Statement gave the reportage a surrealist twist: “They [the Marx Bros.] introduced the psychological disturbance that is caused by seeing something that is mad and aimless… something which, if not utterly disconnected, depends for its connections on the workings of the unconscious.”

Put simply, Horse Feathers is damned hilarious.  Ask a four-year-old child.