Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, March 25, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1937)

7. A Day at the Races

What happens a night at the opera? If you're familiar with the Marx Brothers or Queen, then you know the answer to that question is “A Day at the Races.” The Marxes first feature as MGM was such a success that they immediately went to work on a companion film of sorts. The Brothers' seventh film would continue their previous one's formula for success: Slapstick and witty humor combined with a more story-focused direction and far more singing and dancing. The result would be the only Marx Brothers movie to be nominated for an Academy Award. “A Day at the Races” was nominated for Best Dance Direction, a short-lived category that was only given out from 1935 to 1937.

The Standish Sanitarium is on the verge of closing down, much to the chagrin of its owner, Judy Standish. The only thing keeping her in business is Mrs. Upjohn, her richest client, who insists on hiring Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush. This is despite Hackenbush actually being a veterinarian. Judy's boyfriend, a singer named Gil, has an idea to save the hospital. He's raised a race horse named Hi-Hat and hopes he can win some prize money at an upcoming big race. With the help of Hi-Hat's jockey, Stuffy, and a friend named Tony, the gang hope to make their scheme work and avoid detection by those that wish to buy the sanitarium for their own needs.

To me, “A Day at the Races” seems to better compromise between the anarchic style the Brothers displayed in their Paramount films and the more restrained approach MGM insisted upon than “A Night at the Opera.” Yes, the plot, romance, and music are big parts of the film. But the Brothers are a little zanier than last time. Chico is still helping out the boring romantic lead but he spends more time hassling Groucho and being a nuisance. Harpo is still a bullied victim, instead of a public menace. However, the three do get to mess with some stately authority figures here, inflicting some comedic mayhem on square fuddie-duddies. It's not the level of chaos witnessed in “Monkey Business” or “Duck Soup” but the elements are balanced better.

Groucho is back in the role of a con artist attempting to hoist some money from a rich woman, played once again by Margaret Dumont. Groucho's character is given another excellent name, one that went weirdly unused by Rob Zombie. Dr. Hackenbush is a horse veterinarian posing as a shrink, fleecing Dumont's Mrs. Upjohn out of her fortune. What's unusual is how the dynamic is changed. See, Groucho is usually the one pursuing Dumont – when he's not insulting her anyway – in the hopes of getting her riches. In “A Day at the Races,” Dumont is the one in love with Groucho, spending the film trying to get him to marry her. It doesn't change their dynamic too much, other than explaining why Dumont puts up with Groucho's acerbic insults.

Of course, one of MGM's big miscalculations with this comedy team was assuming that anyone goes to a Marx Brothers movie for the plot. “A Day at the Races” features, thus far, the most inane story line out of any of the films. Despite the title, the race track only occupies about half of the film. The other half is concerned with the Standish Sanitarium. How MGM's writers decided that a horse racing plot and a mental institution plot made for a natural pairing, I don't know. The film has to jump through some odd loops to justify the connection. The reveal at the end that Gil's horse is actually an adapt jumper, especially the way this information is discovered, is a hacky bit of screenwriting.

But at least there's no opera this time. In fact, “A Day at the Races” holds off until the forty minute mark before getting to its first song and dance number. The movie was just bidding its time though. That first number, involving Allan Jones floating out on a boat and dancing girls leaping into a pool, goes on and on. There's an even longer number later called “All God's Chillun Got Rhythm.” It begins with Jones reassuring his love interest before Harpo's flute playing attracts the attention of a group of stereotypical black dancers. These Aunt Jemima antics only get more cringe-inducing as the scene goes on. The dance number concludes with the Marx Brothers applying black face in an attempt to escape unnoticed. Boy, could I have done without that.

Dr. Hackenbush's status as a veterinarian pretending to be a human doctor produces some fine comedic material in “A Day at the Races.” Groucho's quick-wit is well deployed as usual. He pulls a puppy out of his coat sleeve early on before he's cracking jokes with a horse. He soon begins to mess with the staff at the hospital. By making a comment about trying to marry an old man, discovering late that the college he used to work at was a girl's school, or an especially brilliant bit of verbiage involving bridges in mouths. A highlight has Groucho on the phone with his adversary, messing with the guy by assuming different voices and improvising various sound effects.

As I said, Harpo is more an antagonized victim here than randomly annoying people. He's introduced being chased around the horse stalls by the film's villain. However, he still gets to raise a little hell throughout. While Chico feeds another man some cash, Harpo sneakily picks the same dollars back out of the man's pockets. When a femme fatale instructs him to blow out of a room, Harpo instead blows on her compact, sending powder into her face. Later, he mishears “take her pulse” and attempts to steal Dumont's purse. There are gentler gags that are just as solid. When Groucho attempts a check-up on Harpo, a bubble grows from an unusual place. At one point, he has to explain some plot relevant information to Chico through a game of charades. There is a long harp sequence but at least it begins with a fun scene of Harpo destroying a piano.

Chico is not quite relegated to being the romantic lead's sidekick this time. He has a really funny bit with Groucho. Meeting him outside the ticket booth at the race track, he sells him more and more books out of his ice cream cart. The absurdity in that scene mounts and mounts until the older brother is completely fed up. That kind of chaotic abuse reaches its peak  in a scene where all three brothers meet Dumont in an examination room. It begins with them repeatedly washing their hands, builds to an attempted shaving, and concludes with the three riding out on a horse. Good stuff.

“A Day at the Races” is the longest of any of the Marx Brothers' films, going on for 109 minutes. That's probably way too long for a gag-based comedy. Even some of the Marxes' better films start to drag in the last act. This especially holds true for this one. By the time we actually get to the climatic horse race, the audience's interest has seriously started to wane. Most of the jokes in this sequence, involving Harpo racing a water tanker onto the track or the guardrail being moved around, are fairly weak. Instead of the laughs getting bigger and bigger as the film goes on, they peak somewhere in the middle and tapper off until the movie finally concludes.

It's apparent to me that the glory days of “Monkey Business” and “Duck Soup” may have been behind the Marx Brothers by this point. However, “A Day at the Races” is at least an improvement over “A Night at the Opera.” The trio doesn't seem totally tamed and there are several really stand-out gags. The film is far too long and the dragging moments keep it from really shooting out into the atmosphere. But it is still a decent generator of chuckles. [Grade: B]

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