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Well, here's one more zany uniquely-Marx Brothers film, one noted for
being the longest feature movie they made at 111 minutes.
Even with the longer running time, it's still not the story but all the gags and musical talent of the Marx Brothers that is on parade here and is the selling point of the film. That was normal procedure for them. In this edition, the gag scenes were longer and the amount of music was much greater.
The major skits involve a race track tout (Chico conning Groucho) , a physical exam (Margaret Dumont, who else?), a delay of the big horse race and a bunch of other crazy skits. Some are good, some go on too long.
Maureen O'Sullivan, of Tarzan fame among other films, gives the film some beauty and Dumont is treated with more respect here than in the other Marx Brothers films. Groucho takes it easy on her because her character has the money that will save the day, so to speak.
This MB film has a ton of music, from Chico on piano, to Harpo with harp and flute solos plus a flute number with a group of black folks. Then there is Allan Jones crooning away to O'Sullivan with several ballads. Also, there are several group numbers featuring the aforementioned group of blacks . I liked their rousing gospel numbers best of all the music.
The ending of this movie reminded me of Horse Feathers, in which the most outrageous football game was ever filmed. Here, it was a horse race, unlike any you would ever see. It is so ridiculous, you just laugh out loud....and that's the idea of the movie.
I haven't seen enough of the Marx Brothers' films to say which is their best
and which is their worst. I have seen Duck Soup, which I would say has to be
at least one of their best, seeing that I believe it to be one of the
funniest comedies ever. I have also seen A Night at the Opera, which is also
often considered one of their best, often the best. I myself found it much
less funny than Duck Soup. I wanted to kill myself during the musical
numbers of that film.
Now I've seen A Day at the Races, the Brothers' follow up to A Night at the Opera, a smash hit in theaters. Generally, Races is considered a weak follow-up to a great film. I disagree. I liked A Day at the Races much more than A Night at the Opera (but a bit less than Duck Soup). All three Brothers are firing bullseye after bullseye. Harpo could stand to do a little bit more. He may have had the funniest role in Duck Soup. He was an utter maniac with total disregard for human life. When the Marx Brothers left Paramount for MGM, their edge was dulled down a bit. Oh well, Races still succeeds.
Also, except for the boring opera voice, even the musical numbers work here. I love to watch Chico play the piano. That's hilarious. Harpo's harp number is less good, but still not bad. The ballet sequence is also quite good. There's one more musical number that's just fantastic: the poor black folk singing "Who's that man?" as Harpo runs around playing the flute. It's somewhat shocking to see a scene like this. It does not exploit them (it may seem to now, but it was probably quite inclusive and progressive in its day), and it's a smash.
Forty years after the release of A Night At The Opera the rock group
Queen released an album with the same title. When, the following year,
they released another called A Day at the Races, it was largely knocked
for not matching the quality of its predecessor. The actual films
follow this pattern, too, with Races, coming two years later, being
held to be good but lacking in comparison. It's a fair assessment.
Everyone knows the Marx brothers, of course. There's Groucho (The anarchic wise guy with the drawn-on moustache), Chico (The likable Italian stereotype), Harpo (The mute, childish, slightly annoying one, there for kid appeal) and Zeppo (The normal-looking one who was always left as the straight guy). Zeppo didn't appear in either of these two films, of course, though gets his usual substitute - in Day it's Allan Jones as the stiff romantic lead.
Even today Groucho is still very funny and his rapid one-liners hit the target ("Take these bags and run up to my room and here's a dime for yourself" "Oh, no, no, no, no - this is Mr. Whitmore, our business manager." "Oh, I'm terribly sorry - here's a quarter.") but after many lines there's a forced silence, as if to anticipate the audience laughter. As a result it feels strangely artificial and muted, never more so than in his first scene at the sanatorium. Things do get better, particularly when he's appearing opposite Chico, with whom he understandably has a greater rapport. Groucho talking to Whitmore via phone and Dictaphone, using multiple voices, is another winner.
The need for a romantic subplot and occasional reliance on the traditional trappings of the American sitcom do hold things back. The Brothers would be held to have more art and attitude than Laurel and Hardy, though they're nowhere near as amusing. Perhaps this is because Stan and Ollie generally avoid the over-earnest sentimentality of a Marx Bros. Movie.
Another major sticking point is the song and dance sequences. There are three in total, all of them lasting over twenty minutes combined. That's twenty minutes where we could have had more verbal by-play from Groucho, who is a little neglected in sections. An elaborate routine (not all that well directed) during the first forty minutes slows things to almost a standstill, even before the film has really got going. It's really quite irksome and not what a Marx Brothers film is - or should be - about. Much funnier is Groucho doing the rumba. For someone so well known as a verbal comedian, it's notable how much of a gifted physical performer he is, too. Okay, he's not a full-on slapstick contortionist like some of his peers, but just seeing the way he walks into a room has me in hysterics.
The film adheres to a formula as usual, with Chico again coming across a piano and Harpo again coming across, yes, you guessed it. It's another musical interlude that is too self-consciously cute, and, at six minutes, too long. The best musical segment is a later sequence where Harpo leads a group in a rendition of "Gabriel Blow Your Horn". This is marred only by t he fact that the group in question is the most stereotyped portrayal of black people ever laid to celluloid. After much hand shaking and eye rolling, the brothers themselves get in on the offensive act by dousing their faces in oil in an attempt to blend in. Like Laurel and Hardy's "Pardon Us", this is a film that cannot be judged by contemporary sensibilities... it's just the way things were.
Sometimes the mania can be a little forced and artificial - witness the "examination" scene, where the brothers - Harpo particularly - do zany things just because they're zany and not because of any consequence of plot. The ending is satisfying, though, with a well-presented sabotage of the horse race and the eventual song to play out. This isn't a perfect film by any means - judging it via the rather trite metaphor of a cake mixture, then the ingredients aren't quite right. With two additional songs that were removed, there's clearly too much music in the film. There's also slightly too much Harpo and there was room for more Groucho. The romantic subplot should have been scrapped and there are long stretches that unfortunately discard the need for dialogue. Yet while the cake isn't baked to perfection, the basic ingredients are there, and this is still, if not wholly satisfying, a worthwhile view. 6/10.
POSTSCRIPT 2012: "Now listen, it was nobody's fault but mine." Words that Groucho should never speak. It's almost 11 years to the day since I reviewed this movie, and, as I'd only seen A Night At The Opera beforehand, I really had nothing to compare it to. It was a little bold on my part, reviewing a Marx Brothers movie when I really didn't know the Marx Brothers.
Generally I'd still agree with most of it, except for the examination scene, which is at least an attempt to claw back what they once were, albeit an unsuccessful one. For this is the end of the Marx Brothers, an out of character endeavour that's way too plot-heavy to register. Their longest picture, it drags terribly, and the "boys who just want to help others" is the anathema of the gang who sent Freedonia to war, or cheated in college football games. It's the Marx Brothers stripped bare and declawed, retooled as cutesy foils to a dreary romantic plot, often support in their own film, narratively speaking.
There's still a certain amount of class to the production and enough funny moments to maintain my initial 6/10 rating, but the MGM track record for Marx Brothers movies is a poor one, letting just A Night at the Opera (Q.V.) stand as a genuinely worthwhile work. Should you care, I take up the story in a review of Go West...
Superb comedy that puts our heroes in a sanitorium to help out owner O'Sullivan and an ailing Dumont. Groucho is the doctor brought in to help things along and it equals hilarious results. He and Chico share a wonderful sequence at the racetrack with Chico, in need of quick cash, looking for a sucker to con...Groucho just happened to walk by. The telephone scene between Groucho (as numerous voices) and Leonard Ceeley is also priceless. Allan Jones appears as O'Sullivan's love interest and even sings a bit. A bit too much for me, but he still sings lovely. The long dance numbers are uninspired and lose the comic flavor after a few minutes. We get it back in the wooing scene between Groucho and beautiful Esther Muir and in the rollicking good finale. The film, under Wood's direction, is well paced, with exception to the barnyard musical numbers. They drag it down for a bit. A comedy classic nonetheless.
When MGM had such a great success with A Night at the Opera, their
first film with the Marx Brothers it was only natural that they reunite
them with Allan Jones again. Jones is once again doing the Zeppo part
and helps out with all the racetrack shenanigans they pull. And of
course unlike Zeppo, Jones sings beautifully.
Allan's in love with Maureen O'Sullivan who owns a sanitarium that the wealthy Margaret Dumont patronizes. Douglass Dumbrille wants it real bad and will do everything in the best Snidely Whiplash to get it from O'Sullivan. Dumont will help out, but only if her personal physician, Doctor Hugo Hackenbush takes over the sanitarium. Problem is that Dr. Hackenbush is a fake.
Of course you know Dr. Hackenbush is Groucho. I've said this on many occasions. But there are two schools of thoughts as to who had the best character names in films. W.C. Fields or Groucho Marx.
Jones has both Chico and Harpo as his sidekicks and of course like they had to save the opera in the first film, they have to save the sanitarium for Maureen O'Sullivan and to do it, they have to enter Jones's horse High Hat in the Steeplechase. What they did to delay the opera is nothing compared to the riotous stuff pulled to stall the race.
But I like A Day At the Races most of all because it is the best showing of Chico in that Tuttsi Frutsi Ice Cream bit where the ignorant immigrant takes in the greedy Groucho with his racetrack tips. The only one whoever really got the better of Groucho. Chico invented disingenuous it was the only way to deflect Groucho's razor wit. A lot of people in the audience identified with Chico in fleecing Groucho so thoroughly. It's my favorite Marx Brothers moment.
And if you watch A Day At the Races it might become your's as well.
A DAY AT THE RACES (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1937), directed by Sam Wood,
capitalizes on the current trend of horse-racing movies done by the
numbers during the 1937-38 cycle, notably MGM's own 1937 releases of
"Saratoga" and "Broadway Melody of 1938" as well as "Stablemates"
(1938). Starring those three Marx Brothers, in their second
collaboration for MGM, following the enormous success of A NIGHT AT THE
OPERA (1935), this horse opera, being the longest running feature film
of their screen career, stop-watched at 111 minutes, did prove quite
successful then, and because of its good track record, still remains a
sure bet comedy today.
The first Marx Brother to be introduced in the story is Chico. He plays Tony, a chauffeur for Judy Standish (Maureen O'Sullivan), whose sanitarium is in financial trouble. Morgan (Douglass Dumbrille), the owner of a nearby racetrack and hotel, along with his associate, Whitmore (Leonard Ceeley) want to take over the sanitarium so to convert it into a gambling casino. He offers Judy the option of accepting $5,000 from them or face a mortgage foreclosure, but she prefers to wait the 30 days. Gil Stewart (Allan Jones) her fiancé, has purchased Hi-Hat, Morgan's race horse, for $1,500, gambling her life savings hoping to win enough money to get Judy out of debt. However, Mrs. Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont), an exclusive patient of the sanitarium, expresses her need for a doctor, even though there is really nothing physically wrong with her. Realizing that Mrs. Upjohn's financial support could save the hospital from ruin, Tony notifies Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho Marx) of Palmville, Florida, who is well acquainted with Mrs. Upjohn, unaware he is a horse doctor, and making him chief of staff. Then there's Stuffy (Harpo), Morgan's jockey, with a natural flair for horses, who gets to ride Hi-Hat, who turns out to be a jumper, as well as quite fearful to the sight and sound of Morgan himself.
The Music and Lyrics by Bronislau Kaper, Gus Kahn and Walter Jurmann: "On the Blue Venetian Waters" (Sung by Allan Jones/ danced by Vivian Fay,recently restored to its original sepia tone); "Tomorrow is Another Day" (sung by Jones); "Blow That Horn, Gabriel," "All God's Chillin' Got Rhythm," "All God's Chillin' Got Rhythm" (reprise/finale), along with "A Message From the Man in the Moon" (sung briefly by Groucho Marx/ otherwise cut from final print, and heard instrumentally during opening credits). "Tomorrow is Another Day" is quite a good tune with Jones in fine voice singing to charming heroine O'Sullivan that shifts into a parade from the black community singing and dancing to "All God's Chuillin Got Rhythm" with the Marxes, headed by Harpo playing a flute like the Pied Piper, with one of the vocalists being future star Dorothy Dandridge.
As already mentioned, A DAY AT THE RACES is quite long, in fact, everything about the movie is long: the song numbers, the comedy routines, the narrative, and the horse racing finale (so clever that it's been reused several times since then in other hydrazine), resulting to perfectly timed structures, although the water carnival ballet number performed by Vivian Fay near the beginning could have been shortened, in fact substituted into another movie categorized as a musical. One of MGM's debits is having this look more like a lavish scale musical than a Marx Brothers comedy, with the trio off screen for long intervals, with occasional cutaways during the ballet as a reminder that this is a Marx Brothers comedy and not a ballet musical choreographed by George Ballachine. After it is all over, Chico and Harpo get to do their traditional musical bits with piano and harp at length. Groucho doesn't do a song solo, which is unfortunate, because his style of singing and dancing always brings pleasure during these musical interludes.
With this being the seventh Marx comedy, it's evident that some of their routines are rehashes yet improvements from their earlier outings. At this point, could anything new be added to their comedy material? In fact, something has: Harpo's mimed message through constant whistling, facial and hand gestures, telling Chico about Groucho falling victim to Flo Marlowe (Esther Muir), as schemed by Morgan. The Groucho and Chico exchanges are highlights, the best being their seven minute Tootsie Fruitsie ice cream bit where Chico posing an ice cream vendor actually a race tract tout making a sucker out of Groucho by selling him racing tips that ends up being a stack of hardbound books taken from his pushcart. The madcap examination room sequence involving Harpo and Dumont are notable attention grabbers as well. In true Marx tradition, Margaret Dumont falls victim to their shenanigans, usually being the prime insult by Groucho through one of his classic re-marx: "Emily, I have a little confession to make. I really am a horse doctor, but marry me and I'll never look at any other horse." Sig Rumann should not go unnoticed as Doctor Steinburg, a pointed beard Viennese specialist who arrives to examine Mrs. Upjohn, thus preventing Hackbush from performing his own examination on Emily.
In spite of long stretches, A DAY AT THE RACES does have its doses of winning streaks thanks to the staff and performers combined, several recalls from A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. The film in general is not perfect, but worthwhile comedy thanks to the Marx Brothers expert horsemanship. Recommended viewing during the late evening hours before "hitting the hay." Formerly available on video cassette, a format that had been in circulation since the 1980s, which has since been discontinued in favor of the much improved DVD format, A DAY AT THE RACES can be seen intact whenever shown on Turner Classic Movies. (***)
After this one, the quality fell off...dramatically.
This one has everything but Zeppo. Groucho and Chico work together like a well oiled insane asylum. The ice cream bit still makes me laugh and I've seen it upwards of twenty times. The timing is incredible. The examination room bit with Harpo ("Either this man is dead or my watch has stopped") is equally tight. There isn't a slow moment in the film.
What is unusual in this film is the big musical number with the African-American race track employees. Instead of people in black face or grotesque caricatures, real black singers and dancers are featured. Imagine seeing the Jitterbug fifteen years before white teens were performing it. It is not the only time the Marx Brothers have featured black musicians in one of their movies (At the Circus comes to mind)...
Margaret Dumont as Mrs Upjohn is wonderful. A Marx Brothers fan, like myself, tends to fall in love with the woman after many years. Her beauty and naivety eventually charm even the most cynical Grouchophile...
Overall, this is a good Marx Brothers feature that is sometimes a
little uneven, but that looks pretty good as long as you don't compare
it with their very best pictures. The basic setup is amusing, and it
provides some good material for the cast to work with. Groucho, Chico,
and Harpo all get their moments, with Margaret Dumont once again
joining in the fun.
The sanitarium setting and Groucho's attempt to run it are used pretty well.
There is a very funny scene when one of the heavies tries to check on Groucho's credentials, and another one when Dr. Hackenbush has to compete with an outside expert (Sig Ruman, who is always fun in this kind of role) for Dumont's confidence.
Not all of it works quite that well, and one or two of the musical numbers could have been skipped with no loss at all. But there are plenty of good moments and creative sequences, and a satisfyingly chaotic finale as good as those in any of their films.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The Marx Bros. had such a hit with "A Night at the Opera" that MGM
wanted to cash in as soon as possible with another movie that is
basically more of the same. That isn't to say that this movie doesn't
have enjoyable parts but there is too much emphasis on the rather tired
plot of the good woman (here played by the MGM "Jane", Maureen
O'Sullivan) trying to save her business from the despicable villain
Morgan (Douglas Dumbrille).
Another disappointment is that we don't get to see the usual sparring of Groucho and Margaret Dumont (I think they share only a couple of scenes including the rather ridiculous "Examination") which had been such a staple in most of the Paramount films. Here, Dumont portrays a hypochondriac and there is only so much you can find amusing about that. The one scene that is hilarious between them is when Groucho shows the pill she apparently has been prescribed and tells her how much water is needed to swallow it: "5 or 6 gallons should do it". Never mind. Such a joke always falls flat when having to describe it.
As for the musical numbers, there aren't so many of them but they have totally been grinded through the MGM machine which states: "Make it big and give it class". The rather tasteless musical number with the Marxes in blackface is a product of a more unenlightened time and should therefore be seen as such and nothing more.
The Marxes are of course the same as they always were and there is only so many times you can see them and still find them funny, except maybe Groucho but one of the rather ridiculous scenes is between Harpo and Chico where Harpo makes Chico play a bizarre game of charades to figure out what is going on and it is sort of unnecessary. I have already mentioned the "Examination" scene but one thing is sort of funny about it and that is the great Sig Rumann who again gets to play the totally perplexed character he made a specialty and Groucho saying: "Stop pointing that thing at me unless you intend to use it" (referring to his beard).
The horse race is somewhat funny but is bogged down by the rather poor editing job that many 30's movies suffer from and of course there is a happy ending where all the main characters march down the street singing which is also a typical MGM staple.
So all things considered it is moderately funny but there aren't really any really hysterical scenes as in their former films and the age of the premise and the brothers themselves are also starting to show. That they would make 5 more or so movies as a team is of course surprising but it has been well documented why they did it (see biographies).
I love movies from the 1930s and 1940s and TCM is my favorite channel,
so I've seen most of the Marx Brothers movies over the years. My
comments here about A Day at the Races could apply equally to any of
the movies they made at MGM.
Something I was struck by is the stark differences between their early features - Animal Crackers and Duck Soup to name two - and later releases like A Day at the Races. The difference, I realized several years is in early releases done at Paramount the Marx Brothers are "best actors" - the focal point of the story. Once they moved to MGM the brothers became "supporting actors" and their gags were subordinated to romantic subplots and over-earnest sentimentality.
This change also affected my perception of the song and dance numbers. When the brothers were the leads the predictable formula - Chico comes across a piano and Harpo finds a harp - feels more integrated into the "plot". Whether in A Night at the Opera, The Big Store, or A Day at the Races the musical interludes feel self-consciously cute - an interlude that stops the storyline (opera singers or horse owners) while the music plays.
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