Some Fine Fellas, by Bob Connally

27 Dec

Family and the holiday season inherently go together. Whether it’s time we spend with our families or the desire to be with them if life and circumstances do not allow for it. There are also the memories of the times we spent with those who are no longer with us. But beyond memories there are things that can still make us feel connected to those who have left us behind.

I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with my grandma and grandpa growing up. They lived in Seattle near the library my mom worked at and I spent countless summer days and occasional weeknights after school with them while my parents worked. Their house was also the sight of every Christmas morning I remember from childhood through college. (My aunt and uncle now own the house and still host every Christmas.) But this article is not about Christmas. It’s about the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Specifically about that week in 1991. A week that has foreved shaped how I see the week between Christmas and New Year’s, how I remember my grandparents, that introduced me to classic film, and that moulded my taste in comedy.

In December of ’91, I was 9 years old. My brother was 15 at the time, so it’s not that we needed to be babysat while our parents worked, but we really loved spending time with Grandma and Grandpa. Grandma was a retired school teacher from Oregon while Grandpa (who called me his, “fine fella”) was a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, WWII veteran, and retired Navy Captain. That description could make them sound like strict disciplinarians but the reality was they were the two most genuinely warm and kind people I’ll ever know. My prevailing memories of them involve them smiling. They loved to laugh.

There was a time when AMC stood for American Movie Classics and they lived up to that name by showing classic American movies. This was also the era when MTV showed music videos. It was a wild time. During our days at our grandparents’ house, my brother and I had watched countless hours of Looney Tunes shorts. But we were about to learn that before Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck (our favorite), there were some looney siblings who may have been the funniest people who’ve ever lived. They were called the Marx Brothers.

AMC ran and re-ran The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup during that last week of 1991. These were the movies that made Grandma and Grandpa laugh when they were in their 20s. Now, here they were 60 years later laughing alongside their grandchildren and seeing our faces as we experienced these films for the first time. It didn’t matter that some of Groucho’s zingers went over my head or that the cultural references meant nothing to me. I wasn’t averse to black and white or to the stagey acting style of their more buttoned down co-stars. These guys were so bonkers and funny that I couldn’t stop laughing or take my eyes off the screen. 

Groucho delivered witty insults at a rapid fire pace, while Harpo said everything using his face and the occasional horn honk. My immediate favorite though was Chico. Speaking with a farcical Italian accent, Chico played the ultimate fool. A man-child with a constant grin on his face who never seemed to grasp anything. My grandpa was an incredibly smart man but he had qualities that were very Chico-like. His mischievious grin when something tickled him or their shared love of terrible puns, something that I have fully embraced throughout my life. Grandpa quoted Chico’s, “Why a duck?” and “Swordfish,” routines (from The Cocoanuts and Horse Feathers, respectively) on a regular basis. My mom remembers hearing them from him throughout her life long before she knew where they came from.

Those five movies all made me laugh but my favorite was decidedly Horse Feathers. I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the satirical elements of Duck Soup yet but I was most definitely old enough to laugh hysterically when Harpo pulls an axe out of his oversized coat to quite literally, “Cut the cards,” when he hears a man say that to another in a speakeasy. Horse Feathers is probably still the ultimate Marx Brothers movie to me. The Cocoanuts while often very funny, bogs itself down with a love story we don’t care about and musical numbers that don’t involve any of the brothers so they aren’t funny. Animal Crackers and Monkey Business each move more and more in the direction of having just enough of a plot to hang all of the madness on but Horse Feathers perfects this. There’s a story involving Professor Wagstaff (Groucho) being hired as the new dean of Huxley College, whose football team hasn’t won a game since the late 19th century (this is 1932, incidentally the year Grandpa graduated from the Naval Academy). His son (Zeppo) is a student who insists that the football team must be improved. Wagstaff’s plan to enroll ringers at the school backfires when he mistakenly picks bootleg alcohol delivery man Baravelli (Chico) and mute dog catcher Pinky (Harpo). Insanity ensues and all four of them try to strike up a romance with Huxley student Connie (Thelma Todd). Later on, Baravelli and Pinky try to kidnap the two real ringers who have been enrolled at Huxley’s rival, Darwin. That’s really it as far as the story goes.

Horse Feathers opens with Groucho telling the members of the Huxley faculty through 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!” It’s a glorious and perfectly anarchic beginning to a movie that really exists to be a showcase for Groucho, Harpo, and Chico. As performers they’re all at the top of their games here. They play off of each other perfectly and as musicians their extraordinary talents are on full display. Each (along with Zeppo) delivers his own version of the song Everyone Says I Love You to Connie. Zeppo’s is straightforward and unaccompanied while Chico sings a silly version as he plays it on the piano. (Watching Chico play the piano is a delight all its own.) Harpo naturally plays it on the harp in what is a surprisingly moving take, and Groucho makes up his own words to it as he plays a guitar.

Their next film and last with Paramount, Duck Soup, eschewed the piano and harp scenes which had been staples of their first four movies. It was the first to really use the brothers in service of a story with a little bit of depth and as noted above, something with real satirical sting. But this being Horse Feathers, Chico’s joy as he “shoots” the piano’s keys are part of the full entertainment package. It’s during this scene where he notes to Connie, “You sing-a high.”

“Yes, I have a falsetto voice.”

“That’s-a funny; my last pupil, she got-a false set-a teeth.” I can hear Grandpa laughing at that now.

Running a mere 68 minutes, Horse Feathers knows when to get in and get out as it finishes with a fitfully bonkers football game. Victory is achieved using a chariot. 

All of these years later these movies still make me laugh. They just get me, not just because they’re so genuinely funny but because in their way they helped to shape who I am. December is full of moments that connect me with my grandparents. The Army-Navy Game, Christmas of course, and the days leading up to New Year’s when it’s time to watch Marx Brothers movies again. 

When Navy beats Army, I can still hear Grandma cheering loudly and I see Grandpa sitting in his chair, quietly taking it in with a look of pure satisfaction. On Christmas morning I can see them watching their children, grandchildren, and great-grand children eat breakfast and unwrap presents. And when I watch the “Swordfish” scene in Horse Feathers I can still hear them laugh. Who could ask for more from a movie?

One Response to “Some Fine Fellas, by Bob Connally”

  1. Matthew December 28, 2019 at 10:49 am #

    Horse Feathers was the first Marx Brothers film I ever (mostly) saw. It was on TV one Saturday and I watched it on the recommendation of a family friend. Frustratingly there was a neighbourhood dinner happening that night, so several times my mother made me leave to help carry something down to another house, and I remember being desperate to get back so I could carry on watching that hilarious film. I still remember losing it at the chariot; one of the funniest things I’d ever seen.

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