The Marxes skewer medicine and bring home a racetrack winner in the hilarious A Day At The Races. In his favorite role, Groucho is Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush-MD, PhD, RFD, MC, PDQ, BYOB and none of the above-dispensing horse pills and quips with equal glee. Chico, Harpo and favorite foil Margaret Dumont join the fun of this thoroughly thoroughbred comedy. Enjoy tootsie-frootsie ice cream, Dumont’s medical exam, Harpo’s pretty-girl pantomime sketch, wallpaper wackiness and wall-to-wall hilarity the Marx way.
eyelights: the outstanding musical centrepiece. the quality of the production.
eyesores: the Marx Brothers’ contrived and unfunny routines.
“Emily, I have a confession to make. I really am a horse doctor. But marry me, and I’ll never look at another horse.”
‘A Day at the Races’ is the Marx Brothers’ follow-up picture to ‘A Night at the Opera‘, one of their biggest hits yet. Released in 1937, their seventh picture (and second with MGM) was also a tremendous success. It is considered the last great Marx Brothers movie.
It takes us to Standish Sanitarium, whose owner, Judy, is facing such dire financial difficulties that it is about to fold. Tony (Chico), one of her staff, is trying his best to bring in new clientele – and to keep their only major one, the wealthy Mrs. Upjohn, from leaving.
To that end, he brings in Hugo Z. Hackenbush, a veterinarian who has made all sorts of false claims to Ms. Upjohn, including that he is a highly qualified doctor. She is so devoted to his care that Judy and Tony believe that, if he’s the Standish’s director, she may become a patron.
Meanwhile, Judy’s financial advisor and her creditor are conspiring to buy the property from Judy so that the latter (who owns the racetrack across the way) may open a large gambling facility on the property. With the help of Harpo (playing a jockey), Chico and Judy try to prevent them.
Frankly, even though ‘A Day at the Races’ is considered one the Marx Brothers’ greater achievements, I was somewhat disappointed with it: I thought that its success rests largely on the quality of the production and not on the Marxes’ nonsensical dialogues and antics.
In fact, the most entertaining moments of the picture were the musical spectacles that had very little to do with the Marxes – and this coming from someone who dislikes musicals. Although the picture begins as a prototypical comedy, it’s soon overrun by song and dance numbers.
The best of them all is a really elaborate number at around the midway point, featuring lots of dancers, strings, …etc. Although the male lead sings opera for the show, the Marxes aren’t even involved. Frankly, it’s so impressive to watch, that I wonder how this didn’t make it in ‘That’s Entertainment!‘.
This sequence is already fairly long, but it actually gets longer: later on, at the same soirée, Chico plays the piano and then Harpo plays and destroys it – after which he uses the strings to play the harp. Sounds lame but, actually, this was quite an inspired moment of dual destruction and music.
Another extended musical number finds Harpo leading black children by playing the flute as they sing and dance. This basically turns into a showcase of dozens African-American performers in a poor shanty town setting. Ironically, the song was written by Caucasians. Don’t ask.
I honestly didn’t know what to make of this sequence. Were the filmmakers and the Marx Brothers paying tribute to these performers? If so, why use “white” songwriters and a “white” director? To me, it appeared like a recontextualization of the traditional musical, no more.
Further confusing matters is the fact that the Marx Brothers do a blackface at the very end of the number to escape the Sheriff. If the sequence was a tribute, then wouldn’t performing in blackface sort of cheapen the moment? Well, at least the scheme doesn’t work; they’re easily spotted.
And the scene remains entertaining anyway.
What’s less successful are the lengthy routines: the long exchange between Chico and Groucho about betting on a horse was rather tedious, the three brothers during a Groucho checkup on Harpo is lame, and Chico and Harpo trying to warn Groucho about the girl is dull and stupid.
The only one that truly works is the exam that Groucho does on Mrs. Upjohn, which devolves into pure anarchy of the likes not seen in a Marx Brothers movie in years. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, but it’s delightful to watch the level of absurdity rise to such a degree.
It’s interesting to note that, for the first time since the Marxes transitioned from the stage to the screen, Chico is the wiliest of them all; he’s by far less goofy and he even has an understanding of complex elements like the conspiracy against Mary – enough so that he tries to foil it.
Beyond that, the only notable aspect of ‘A Day at the Races’ is its sheer scale: between the musical numbers and the racetrack sequence (with all the people, long shots and complex gags) it outshines all previous Marx Brothers productions. Too bad it wasn’t nearly as funny.
Dates of viewings: June 21+22, 2015