Each film begins with a speech — a declaration of intent right from the top. This is not as preachy or boring as it sounds, though. First of all, one of these speeches only comes across via pantomime and intertitles, while the other quickly turns into a song. Second, the individuals doing the speaking were unique: Joseph Frank Keaton and Julius Henry Marx, known by the respective stage names “Buster” and “Groucho.” Third, the two scenes are palpable examples of both the worst and best case scenario in public speaking. Keaton’s valedictory address at his high school graduation is so unpopular that everyone walks out except his mother. Marx’s inaugural message as president of a college is filled with outright hostility, yet he gets the entire auditorium to sing along. Far more important than planting the seeds for the narrative, these scenes set the tone for their films. One will be about an egghead’s desperate attempts to impress a girl, while the other will be about a trio of rascals who don’t need anyone’s approval.
College, a Buster Keaton film from 1927, and Horse Feathers, a Marx brothers film from 1932, make for a natural pair, despite the fact that one is a silent and the other a talkie. The vaudeville roots of both Keaton and the Marxes shine through in the episodic nature of these films. The performers are far more interested in seeing a particular gag through to completion than in following the trail of a plot. There is a cohesive narrative in each film, but it’s so thin that it can be picked up at the protagonist’s leisure. Buster needs to find a sport in which he can excel so that he’ll win the respect of the girl he fancies (he also needs to hold down a steady job to afford tuition at the college she attends). The Marx brothers, insofar as each of them decides to participate for various reasons, need to find a way to help a college football team win a game for the first time in decades. That’s it. These movies are each barely more than an hour long, but they still have plenty of time to show Buster trying out every track and field event in existence, and Groucho deciding on a whim to teach a science class (poorly).
The primary conflict in each film is the same: academics versus athletics, nerds versus jocks. It’s a template that has survived for several generations of American teens and several generations of comedies about them. Sports were already in the midst of attaining a preeminent place in American culture in the late twenties and early thirties. Keaton focuses mostly on Olympic sports, which feels rather quaint eighty-seven years later. The Marx brothers, though, were scarily prescient about how big football was going to get in the U.S., and they did us all the service of knocking it down a peg long before the words “super bowl” had passed anyone’s lips. Narratively, these movies set forth the idea that success in sports is essential to personal success and the welfare of the college as a whole. But these movies are farces. They make a mockery of their narratives.
Still, these films can’t be reduced to a simple “books not sports” message. Keaton, in particular, fills his film with self-deprecating humor until the final ten minutes — establishing his character as a thoroughgoing underdog before a climactic triumph. The character might disparage sports and make a fool of himself when he tries them, but in real life Keaton adored baseball and was perhaps the most athletic comedian in history. Meanwhile, the Marx brothers could be irreverent about anything. With equal aplomb, they go after the pretensions of academia and the bullying tendencies of beefcakes. They don’t stop there, either. Horse Feathers also touches on Prohibition and the Depression, with Harpo stealing liquor in one scene and giving a cup of coffee to an unfortunate in another — just because he can. The brothers are all about the little guy rebelling against any and all institutions, authorities, and rule books.
One specific prop used in both films summarizes their different approaches to comedy pretty well: an umbrella. Keaton visualizes it as an obtrusive object, something intended to aid quality of life that manages to be more trouble than it’s worth. At the graduation ceremony, he has difficulty closing an umbrella. Afterwards, he finds himself torn between holding the umbrella above his sweetheart’s head or his mother’s. The prop helps establish the character and his situation; it gives us a reason to sympathize with him. Horse Feathers does something quite different. A Marx brothers staple was the scene in which several characters repeatedly sneak in and out of a room, each of them trying not to be discovered by one or more of the others. In this example, Groucho carries an umbrella, which he opens and sets on the floor every time he enters, and closes again every time he leaves. The umbrella’s presence is inexplicable. It’s just part of the brothers’ constant delight in sowing chaos. (Who uses the prop better? I’d give that distinction to Keaton, because he brings it back later. When his character finds himself the victim of freshman hazing, getting tossed in the air from a sheet, he opens an umbrella and the film starts moving in slow motion as he falls. That’s Keaton, as usual, exploring cinematic possibilities, while the Marx brothers stuck to more stagebound antics.)
These films find plenty of ways to play up the silliness of sports, especially their arbitrary and convoluted rules. Sports represent rigid structure, and it’s the sworn duty of comedy to oppose that kind of structure, to loosen the tensions of life. What’s remarkable is that both College and Horse Feathers conclude their stories by embracing the narrative that’s been dearest to sports fans from the very beginning: David beats Goliath. The underdog steps onto the field of play and emerges victorious against ridiculous odds. Yes, in these movies the underdogs bend the rules somewhat in order to win, but how boring would it be if they didn’t? More importantly, how out of character would it be? It’s all an invitation not to invest so much emotion in the outcome of a game. The final thing that these movies have in common is that immediately after their protagonists win the sporting event, they get married. Athletic success is implicitly tied to virility; it’s amazing how much remains unchanged after eighty-plus years.