Day at the Races, A (1937)

“I’ve got the most peculiar talents of any doctor you ever met.”

Synopsis:
The assistant (Chico Marx) to the owner (Maureen O’Sullivan) of a struggling sanitarium tries to help solicit much-needed funds by hiring a horse doctor (Groucho Marx) who a wealthy hypochondriac patient (Margaret Dumont) has a crush on. Meanwhile, O’Sullivan’s boyfriend (Allan Jones) buys a racehorse, hoping that a jockey (Harpo Marx) will ride him as a money-making winner at an upcoming race.

Genres:

Review:
While this successful follow-up to A Night at the Opera is beloved by many (it was chosen by the American Film Institute as the 59th funniest American film), it nonetheless seems to subtly mark the beginning of the Marx Brothers’ decline as a comedic force to be reckoned with. Irving Thalberg (an enormous supporter of the brothers at their new home of MGM Studios) died suddenly during its production, and Groucho claimed to lose all interest in making films from this point forward — which can somehow be sensed here. All the right ingredients are certainly available, with plenty of humorously conceived interactions between the three brothers and their diverse supporting cast (including the “fifth Marx Brother”, stalwart Margaret Dumont) — but I simply didn’t find myself laughing out loud very often. Plus, at 111 minutes, the film definitely feels far too long, with numerous lengthy (and often tedious) musical dance sequences trying one’s patience. Interestingly, one such scene — in which Harpo plays a flute amidst a cast of African American stable hands (led by Ivie Anderson), singing “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” — was actually nominated for an Academy Award for Best Dance Direction, and the dancing is impressive (as long as you can get past the painfully commonplace stereotypes presented).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Plenty of humorous situations, dialogue, and one-liners:

    Whitmore: Do you actually give those to your patients? isn’t that awfully large for a pill?
    Dr. Hackenbush: Well, it was too small for a basketball, and I didn’t know what to do with it. Say, you’re awfully large for a pill yourself!

Must See?
No, though of course it’s worth a look. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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One Response to “Day at the Races, A (1937)”

  1. A once-must, at least, for its deserved status as a classic comedy.

    I’ll confess that, as I started a revisit of this, hopes were not high – nor helped as the film began to progress. It all seemed pleasant enough; I certainly found it slightly charming. Occasionally a particularly clever quip or visual would fly by. And I probably did have a smile on my face.

    But it wasn’t until about midway that I felt the film shift into inspired comedy. The second half of ‘Races’ far out-shines the first. It maintains a level of consistently satisfying mayhem.

    A particular highlight (which is around midway) is the long sequence in the medical examination room – in which no real examination takes place. It’s from around here that the film segues from just pleasant to refreshingly zany. For example, it’s one thing to have Groucho standing next to Margaret Dumont and ‘insult’ her – but it’s quite another to have her raised, back flat in an examination chair, shaving her like a man (!) and causing her legs to be thrown wildly into the air (now *that’s* zany!).

    Another welcome surprise is (as noted) the ‘All God’s Chillun…’ number. It comes rather out-of-nowhere and builds to swinging jazz and a wild dance routine. From here, we’re led to the day at the races itself – and what a riotous day it is!

    I think it was a smart decision to anchor this film in more of a plot – and to round it out with other elements surrounding the Brothers (i.e., an extended and elegant dance sequence). As well, the Brothers are joined here by other quite capable actors. O’Sullivan was a surprising but welcome choice for her role – and I didn’t even mind Jones’ singing. I mean, I usually don’t go for the kinds of songs he sings here, but I must admit I admire his vocal control and musical phrasings; very nicely done. I was also considerably tickled by Groucho’s midnight rendezvous scene with Esther Muir as the woman out to frame him – here, timing is just about everything; especially when Chico and Harpo are thrown in as detectives and then as handymen. Lovely lunacy indeed!

    It’s easy to understand why ‘Races’ is held in high esteem; it builds slowly but surely in a wonderfully madcap way and has a terrific payoff.

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