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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
As a Marx Brothers fan, I have much praise for "A Day at the Races," a
screwball comedy starring our heroes Groucho, Chico, and Harpo! Groucho
is Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush, a horse doctor who takes over as chief of
staff at a sanitarium. Chico is Tony, sanitarium chauffeur. Harpo is
Stuffy, a jockey at the nearby racetrack. Together the threesome, along
with the handsome tenor Gil Stewart (Allan Jones), rally to help the
lovely Judy Standish (Maureen O'Sullivan) maintain her rightful
ownership of the sanitarium. And that's all I need to reveal about the
plot. (Don't read any further if you haven't yet seen this picture.)
My favorite highlights from "A Day at the Races" - and believe me, there are many - include the following. In the unforgettable "tootsie frootsie ice cream" scene at the racetrack, Tony gyps Dr. Hackenbush out of his money by selling him loads of books containing phony racing tips. The medical examination of the humorless Mrs. Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont) is absolutely WACKY! Hackenbush does some clever telephone voice acting in order to distract Judy's crooked business manager Mr. Whitmore (Leonard Ceeley). There is a grand musical celebration involving Stuffy and the African-American community in a combination of singing, cheering, playing games, playing instruments, jitterbugging, and overall merrymaking. (The singing of "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" is led by Ivie Anderson, for years a staple with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.) During the dance - featuring excellent musical accompaniment conducted by Franz Waxman - Hackenbush repeatedly switches his partner from Mrs. Upjohn to a rather sneaky blonde (Esther Muir). Stuffy completely destroys a grand piano with Rachmaninoff's famous Prelude in C-Sharp Minor (which in real life Harpo once played repeatedly on the harp just to annoy the composer), and then he plays the piano's soundboard like a harp. Tony and Stuffy add a lot of loud, boisterous hilarity to Hackenbush's quiet dinner date with the aforementioned sly blonde. Every time Tony gives a five dollar bill to the sheriff (Robert Middlemass), Stuffy secretly takes the bill out of the sheriff's pocket and gives it back to Tony. Dr. Hackenbush's medical examination of Stuffy is zany, with several memorable lines that could only come from Groucho.
"A Day at the Races" might not exactly be the BEST Marx Bros. comedy every made - the water carnival ballet interferes with the comedic pacing of this film, for example - but it is still a winner. It's quite astonishing how many tricks the Marx Bros. can think of in order to stall the final horserace while they are able to sneak Gil Stewart's thoroughbred (named Hi Hat) onto the track, with Stuffy as the jockey, of course. At the very end of the picture, when Hi Hat wins the race and all the principal protagonists parade around the track, Hackenbush bursts into a snippet of song, and his one brief phrase is very lyrical. It may be a pity that Groucho doesn't sing more often in this film, but this is more than made up for in other Marx Bros. films.
The Marx Brothers had a run of four critically and commercial popular
films for Paramount--but when DUCK SOUP was released in 1933 it tanked
in a major way, so much so that Paramount was suddenly unenthusiastic
about future projects. Enter Irving Thalberg, who was best known for
"prestige pictures" made at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, a studio that tended
to emphasize family fare. Thalberg and MGM seemed an unlikely venue for
the anarchy of the Marx Brothers, but Thalberg had ideas--and the
result was two extremely popular films: A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY
AT THE RACES.
In both instances Thalberg placed the wild humor of the Marx Brothers at the service of a romantic subplot. Where RACES is concerned, that plot is particular bizarre. Judy Standish (Maureen O'Sullivan) has inherited a sanitarium and if she is unable to repay her debts she will be bought out by a casino! Her fiancée Gil (Alan Jones) has a plan to save the day: he has bought a race horse and hopes to win the money she needs. Judy finds the scheme ridiculous and turns instead to wealthy patient Emily Upjohn (the formidable Margaret Dumont)--who insists that Judy employ her favorite doctor, Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush. And with a name like that, this can only be one actor: Groucho Marx.
Marx Brothers fans argue a lot about whether the Paramount or MGM films were better. I tend to come down on the side of the Paramount films, which are edgier, but there's no denying that both A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES are exceptionally entertaining films--and when you combine horse racing, a water ballet, a medical sanitarium, mistaken identities, and mix them thoroughly with some of the most outrageous one liners and set pieces imaginable... well, you have a classic on your hands. The whole thing is a hoot, and if you can get through the famous Florida call scene without busting a gut you need to go to a sanitarium yourself.
The DVD release offers an extremely good, if not entirely pristine, print of the film and it comes with several bonuses. Unfortunately, these are not particularly memorable; the commentary track is at best uninspired. But who cares when you've got the Marx Brothers zinging along very close to the peak of their skills? Strongly recommended.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
"A Day at the Races" follows the smash Marx Brothers hit, "A Night at
the Opera," their first film at MGM under their advocate, Irving
Thalberg. Thalberg took the brothers on after they left Paramount. He
insisted on stronger scripts, a love story, musical numbers, and that
the brothers try their bits out in front of a live audience to see what
got a laugh and what didn't. Many people prefer the Paramount films;
they probably are funnier, with the exception of "A Night at the
Opera," my all-time favorite.
At MGM, the characters the Brothers played were also softened. Here, Chico and Harpo are trying to help the beautiful Judy Standish (Maureen O'Sullivan), who is trying to keep her sanitarium afloat. To that end, to please a wealthy hypochondriac, Mrs. Upjohn (Margaret Dumont), Dr. Hackenbush (Groucho) is brought in so that Mrs. Upjohn will stay at the sanitarium. Hackenbush doesn't mention that he's a veterinarian. On the romantic side, Judy's boyfriend (Allan Jones) has invested in a horse, High Hat (with Harpo as the jockey) and is hoping he wins the big race so he can give Judy the money.
The most famous bit in this film is the Tutsi Frutsi ice cream sketch, which is a riot. Then there's the physical exam of Mrs. Upjohn and the horse race, both hilarious. Jones sings beautifully, but the best music is the big gospel number and the accompanying dancing - just wonderful.
I was fortunate to have been around during the huge Marx Brothers revival in the 1970s, and as a result, I saw a lot of their films in revival houses. They really need to be seen with an audience; the pace is better, for one thing, because laughter comes when it's supposed to, and there's no beat for the laugh. At Paramount, MGM, or RKO, the Marx Brothers are always funny even if the scripts aren't always top drawer. Highly recommended.
The Marx Brothers, Margaret Dumont & Irving Thalberg are together here.
The trouble is that Thalberg died early on while this was being
developed. It seems to have cast a bit of a shadow over the film.
While the Marx routines are finely honed, this film has some inane music & the plot becomes very obtrusive to the point of distracting the audience from the laughs. Sam Woods directed & this film, while not as good as Opera, or Duck Soup & another notch below Horse Feathers, is still entertaining.
Once again, the Marx routines in this were tried in front of live audiences. This film gets too long which is to include a plot which really adds little to the picture, plus in this one, the music tends to stop the action in its tracks. Groucho said it best in an earlier film when he said "You know I have to stay here, but you folks can go out to the lobby until this blows over." This film gets so slow, I wonder if the lobby might have been moving faster.
The Marx Brothers (Groucho as "Dr. Hackenbush", Chico as "Tony", and
Harpo as "Stuffy") and Alan Jones (he's Gil) must help Maureen
O'Sullivan (she's Judy) save her financially troubled sanitarium. Their
fortunes rest, finally, on the back of race horse "Hi-Hat" - will he
win the "Big Race" and save sanitarium Standish?
The situation is very, very funny - placing the Marx Brothers in a sanitarium. In one of the funniest scenes, Dr. Hackenbush examines the ailing hypochondriac Margaret Dumont; he was mistakenly hired, however - he's a veterinarian! The Brothers' impeccable comic timing is on good display. Unfortunately the film's routines go on too long, with the musical production numbers a considerable drag. This is the "Marx Brothers" film formula with the weaker elements showing up a noticeable strain.
******* A Day at the Races (1937) Sam Wood ~ Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx
With tomorrow the day that Groucho Marx died 30 years ago, three days after Elvis did, I thought I'd view what is now considered the last classic film he and his brothers would ever make: A Day at the Races. Highlights: "Tootsie-Fruitsie" ice cream sequence with Chico and Grouch, Groucho's dancing with both Margaret Dumont and Ester Muir (acceptable replacement for the late Themla Todd), the entire "operation" sequence with all Marxs, Dumont, and the hilarious reactions of Sig Ruman, Chico and Harpo's piano/harp sequence, the race at the end, and the musical sequence with Harpo playing flute with many energetic African-American performers dancing up a storm. Forget that the last group are stereotyped here, they're still entertaining. The romance between Allan Jones and Maureen O'Sullivan may slow the proceedings down at the beginning but they become more tolerable as the film goes on. A bit longish but still entertaining with some of the most funniest set-pieces in the Marx Brothers' careers, celebrate Groucho Marx by watching this or any of his earlier classic films with his brothers if you're really in the mood for some zany laughter!
If Thalberg had lived longer, chances are he would've tightened up the
pacing of this film, which does drag in spots. This is, however, the
last Marx Brothers film that was an "A" picture.
The brothers went along with Thalberg's plan to expand their audience by making them more sympathetic to women. This paid off in spades in their first two films for MGM, less so afterwards as production values gradually declined in their three other MGM pictures.
A Day At the Races was meant to be viewed in a movie theatre packed with people, and the "dead spots" between some lines of dialogue was intentional. Certain key scenes were rehearsed live in front of audiences, and the laughs were timed with stopwatches.
When filming, pauses were timed to coincide with the expected laugh time of the audience. Otherwise the audience would miss hearing some important dialogue.
Consequently, when viewed on TV, the film does drag a bit.
Leonard Maltin is right when he describes the plot as "The Marx Bros.
wreak havoc at the sanitarium." That about sums up the plot of this
typical Marx Bros. outing with MARGARET DUMONT in fine form as the
leading hypochondriac patient who thinks Groucho is Dr. Hackenbush.
Little does she knew he's a veterinarian.
It's classic Marx Bros. stuff, with the seduction scenes between Dumont and Marx rating some of the funniest laughs. In between there are a few song numbers, the most vivid being the extended water ballet sequence with ALLAN JONES on the vocals and some dazzling dancers photographed in blue/gray filters for this sequence only.
The plot has pretty MAUREEN O'SULLIVAN needing some fast cash to keep hold of ownership of the sanitarium, with the rich Dumont being their only hope--unless their race horse comes in. But the plot is of little consequence. The film is a series of running gags or vignettes that make as little sense as a crazy patchwork quilt. As a real medic, veteran comedian SIG RUMAN has fun with his role as Dr. Steinberg.
For Marx Bros. fans who can go with the flow, it's one of their top hits. No one else has much of a chance to shine and the songs Allan Jones is given to sing are pretty forgettable.
Strange that Sam Wood was chosen to direct this zany kind of farce. Production-wise it has the typical MGM gloss.
After the success of Night at the Opera, the Marx Bros. were
sensational again. Reunited with Night at the Opera director Sam Wood,
A Day at the Races was their second movie with MGM, and it is widely
agreed that this was their last "great" film. Chico, Harpo, and Allan
Jones (also from Night at the Opera) come up with a plan to make money
in a horse race to save Maureen O'Sullivan's Sanitarium. Groucho, in
his favorite role, plays the horse doctor posing as Psychiatrist Hugo
Z. Hackenbush. The plots are never that important so I'll stop there.
The comedy routines are hysterical, which is all you need to know. God
bless Margaret Dumont for putting up with the examination scene!
Unfortunately, this doesn't mean the movie is perfect. The MGM Marx Bros. films recycled the same love story in all of their movies, so they tend to drag. The musical numbers are far too long and just plain boring. There is one scene where the Bros. appear in black face to blend in with an all black chorus; needless to say this scene is offensive. This film's ending is just not up to par with Duck Soup, Night at the Opera, or Horsefeathers.
Still, this is a must see for any Marx Bros. fan. The Tootsie-Fruitsie Ice Cream skit and Groucho's shenanigans on the telephone are classics. A Day at the Races was the Bros. most financially successful film. From here on out the Marx Bros. films declined. Groucho, Harpo, and Chico were never able to reach the top again. Well, Groucho did make a comeback in the world of television, but that's a different story.
I know most persons like the Paramount Marxes best! And Maybe it's the better ones for the pure Marxists (Not Karl of course). I can also agree with the ones that think the MGM Marx Brothers pix had too many operatic numbers! What this movie had was the gloss MGM feel with outlandish slapstick! We get the famous Ice-cream scene, which is actually another front for Chico and betting. Groucho who is actually a horse doctor or vet, but yet as always pains the life of Margaret Dumunt. That is where the hand washing comes in!. I'm not sure of the interviews with Groucho in early 70's on Dick Cavett, that Margaret Dumont never understood that they joked with her. Without telling spoilers! somehow the scenes in Young Frankenstein when they say Frau Bluscher! and a horse gets mad, can come from this film, even if the reason is very different. Anyway I think this is one of the Marx Brothers broadest funniest pix they made!
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