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A Day at the Races

A Day at the Races (1937), the Marx Brothers' seventh film and their second for Irving Thalberg's MGM, recycles the formula that buttressed A Night at the Opera. Groucho, Harpo, and Chico cajole and connive to keep a pair of young lovers (Maureen O'Sullivan, Allan Jones) from hitting the skids; meanwhile Groucho woos wealthy matron Margaret Dumont, and everyone runs around barely avoiding the grasp of the stock-character authorities. Once again the pretension-busting Brothers are rebels on the side of the status quo. But like a rubber stamp reused without a fresh supply of ink, the impression A Day at the Races leaves is that of a paler, blotchy imitation of its predecessor. Thrown into the formula this time is a ploy involving a racehorse to save the sanitarium O'Sullivan runs, a chestnut one inch to the left of "The orphanage is in trouble so let's put on a show!" If Thalberg hadn't died during production, Races might have been another Opera. Instead it's the beginning of the end for the Marxes. Thanks to nostalgia for its glimpses of Marxian brilliance, it has acquired a reputation above its actual merits. All the same, it's the last "good" Marx Brothers movie, with enough sparkling moments to make it an essential item for loyal devotees.

Groucho is Hugo Z. Hackenbush, a veterinarian posing as a people doctor ("Either he's dead or my watch has stopped") when hypochondriac Emily Upjohn (Dumont) proves to be an easy meal ticket. Chico is O'Sullivan's dogsbody at her sanitarium, where Dumont is a well-heeled patient whose financial contributions could save the place from being turned into a casino. Naturally, right next door is a race track. That's where Harpo is a jockey bullied by Morgan (Douglass Dumbrille). Morgan is determined to take over the sanitarium if O'Sullivan can't raise the funds on time. Jones is her hapless boyfriend trying to raise the money by purchasing a racehorse. Like the Verdi at the Met in A Night at the Opera, the climactic steeplechase race goes awry in a typhoon of Marxian frenzy.

Severe editing before its general release maimed a movie that's choppy and flabby and still overlong. And when footage got snipped the first thing to go was the comedy. Proof of the absence of God comes when Marx Brothers gags get the scissors, their footage destroyed, yet we still must endure a show-stopping (in the worst sense of the word) water-ballet number that's a dose of Robitussin when the movie needs a double espresso. ("Somebody stole the gags," said Frank Nugent in the New York Times, "because they aren't in the picture.") Plus, some too-many-cooks rewriting watered down the Bombay Sapphire characters Groucho, Harpo, and Chico had established over the years. Perennial foil Margaret Dumont is also oddly out of character as a neurotic whiner rather than a marble pillar of society there to be toppled by Groucho. Still, the manic medical exam Dumont undergoes is a raucous throwback to their heyday. Groucho's comedus interruptus canoodling with femme fatale Esther Muir could be lifted from the better parts of their earlier Paramount films such as 1932's Horse Feathers (though oh how we miss Thelma Todd). And here is Chico and Groucho's "tootsie-frootsie ice cream" sketch.

Despite director Sam Wood's poor fit for the project, Groucho's acerbic one-liners and other moments that remind us why the Marx Brothers remain a comedy institution are worth waiting for; it's just a shame that we have to wait so often. And because the film was edited for packed theaters, some of the routines (such as "tootsie-frootsie ice cream") deflate when the Marxes pause for laughs and thus slow the timing, something especially noticeable when we're watching on home video.

As for the lovers, they're moved through the plot as if by peristalsis. Allan Jones' song-breaks leach the life force from your blood, but at least Maureen O'Sullivan is a lovely soft-focussy romantic insert. (Grahame Greene in his review observed that she "satisfies a primeval instinct for a really nice girl.")

Besides the Marxes, A Day at the Races's only memorable standout is a gospel-swing production number that's riveting both musically and in a "you can't do that today" way. This wonderfully performed slice of pure 1935 presents an all-singing, all-dancing chorus of "Negro" po' folk who mistake Harpo for the angel Gabriel and follow him Pied-Piper-style. As Ivie Anderson and the Crinoline Choir (with, evidently, the Duke Ellington orchestra) belt out "Who Dat Man?" and "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm," we're inclined to wave our arms in the air and jitterbug with them as they bring us the movie's most joyous scene, even though it hits the wall of roll-dem-bones, bug-eyed racial caricature, including the Marxes hidy-ho'ing in black-face. While Races feels the most dated of the Marx Brothers' peak-years films, this scene, despite its wince-worthy Hollywood stereotyping, is not the worst reason why.

*          *          *

Warner Brothers' DVD edition of A Day at the Races is a beauty. The sterling print gives us a black-and-white image that's clean, clear, sharp, and well balanced. While the dynamic range of its DD 1.0 monaural audio is thin (no surprise), the sound is as clear and clean as we could hope for.

The commentary track is by Glenn Mitchell, whose Marx Brothers Encyclopedia is indispensable reading. He narrates too much and is not an effusive speaker, but Mitchell offers good information on the film's multiple rewrites and cut scenes, Irving Thalberg, and production anecdotes. In a new retrospective, "On Your Marx, Get Set, Go!" (27 mins.), Maureen O'Sullivan, Dom DeLuise, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Robert Osborne, and others speak affectionately about the Marxes and the film.

For a taste of period movie-going variety, we have three vintage MGM cartoons and Robert Benchley's 1937 Oscar-nominated short, A Night at the Movies (10 mins.), directed by Ray Rowland (The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T).

An Audio Vault holds two items — a recording session of Jones singing "A Message from the Man in the Moon," which was cut from the film, and the "Leo is on the Air" Radio Promo that previewed A Day at the Races for radio audiences. The film's theatrical trailer is here too. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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