Friday, April 7, 2017

Film Review: A Day at the Races

"A Day at the Races"  *** (out of ****)

All bets are off with the Marx Brothers and "A Day at the Races" (1937).

For years I believed "A Day at the Races", MGM's Marx Brothers follow-up to "A Night at the Opera" (1935), the brothers first movie at the studio, was a "lesser" comedy, one that lacked the zest and zingers of their earlier comedies. Watching it again I find my memory wasn't too far off however the movie is better than I remembered and there are laughs to be had.

This seems to be a slightly different opinion compared to other modern Marx Brothers fans, who over the years I have always heard say, "A Day at the Races" ranks among their best. While I firmly believe one should not criticize the Marx Brothers (they are simply too funny) I also believe nothing quite compares to their earlier Paramount comedies like "Duck Soup" (1933) or "Horse Feathers" (1932) and should be the standard bearer that all other Marx Brothers comedies are ranked against. By comparison, "A Day at the Races" doesn't reach the apex.

Watching "A Day at the Races", the seventh Marx Brothers comedy, the team appears to be slowing down a bit and their age is showing. That by itself is no reason to dismiss any comedy, as I am someone who frequently argues against ageism. Great comedians don't stop being funny because they get older. If "A Day at the Races" is a "lesser" comedy it is only in comparison to what the Marx Brothers had previously accomplished. Excluding that, it is an entertaining movie worthy of an audience. In fact, the movie was a box-office success when first released.

"A Day at the Races" feels comfortably familiar in its plot with Groucho playing Dr. Hackenbush, who has been hired as chief of staff at the Standish Sanitarium, in an attempt to keep the sanitarium's only patient, Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont), who is convinced she is ill, content. However unknown to everyone, Dr. Hackenbush is a veterinarian. But, with business so bad the sanitarium cannot afford to lose its patient. Judy (Maureen O' Sullivan) owns the sanitarium and would like to ask Ms. Upjohn for financial help or else she will be forced to sell the property to J.D. Morgan (hmm, if you replace that "D". Played by Douglas Dumbrille) who owns a nearby casino and race track.

What I dislike about the movie is Groucho doesn't play Dr. Hackenbush with the same brash confidence he played his other memorable characters. This time around Groucho is worried about being discovered as a veterinarian. Normally Groucho would pretend to be the foremost authority on the issue of his choosing. This attitude plays better for Groucho's persona and allows him to get more laughs.

As is usually the case, some of the best scenes involve Groucho interacting with Margaret Dumont. As in their other comedies together Groucho would flirt with Ms. Dumont's character because of her great wealth despite not being physically attracted to her. In "Duck Soup" Groucho discovers Ms. Dumont is a rich widow. Groucho ask her "will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first."

This leads to a great sequence with Groucho and Ms. Upjohn dancing. Groucho notices a good looking blonde, Flo (Esther Muir, who you may recognize from Wheeler & Woolsey comedies) and begins flirting with her behind Ms. Upjohn's back and sometimes in front of her. What Groucho doesn't realize is Flo has been hired by Whitmore (Leonard Ceeley), Judy's business manager, to catch Groucho in a compromising situation which would turn Ms. Upjohn against Groucho and result in her leaving the sanitarium.

Another memorable sequence involves Chico and Groucho with Groucho trying to place a bet at the race track. Chico, wanting to con a few dollars out of Groucho, pretends he has a hot tip for Groucho in one of the races however the tip is in code and instead of simply telling Groucho its meaning he must buy book after book in order to de-code the code.

We also get to hear two staples of Marx Brothers movies, Chico at the piano. This time he uses Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody as an introduction (he does this in "A Night in Casablanca" (1946) as well) to "On the Beach At Bali-Bali" while Harpo plays some Rachmaninoff for us.

Unfortunately as is the case with several comedies of this era the comedy is mixed up with a romantic sub-plot. This time it involves Judy and her singing boyfriend Gill (Allan Jones). In an effort to help Judy, Gill, along with some friends, Tony (Chico Marx) and Stuffy (Harpo Marx), have bought a race horse. Gill hopes if his horse wins a big race Judy's financial problems will be over.

For a Marx Brothers comedy the movie is unusually long, 111 minutes. It is the longest comedy the boys appeared in. It is too long. The movie was going to be longer but musical numbers were cut out (one of them was sung by Groucho). One more song could have been cut in my opinion, "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm". Though it features Ivie Anderson (who was part of Duke Ellington's orchestra) it does nothing for the picture and wouldn't interfere with the rest of the plot if it was cut. It would however spare us seeing the brothers in blackface. Comedies like "Horse Feathers" and "Duck Soup" were only 68 minutes. They focused exclusively on the comedy which may explain their shorter running time and why I find them funnier.

The movie was directed by Sam Wood, perhaps best known for the dramas he directed including "Kitty Foyle" (1940) starring Ginger Rogers, in a role she would win an Academy Award for, and Ronald Reagan's best movie, "King's Row" (1942). It was said Mr. Wood, who also directed "A Night at the Opera", didn't understand the Marx Brothers' style of comedy and supposedly lacked a sense of humor. Rumor has it he and Groucho did not see eye to eye.

While there is a definite shift in tone in "A Day at the Races" compared to the Paramount comedies one has to admit there are funny moments in the movie. It is much better than later efforts like "The Big Store" (1941) and "Love Happy" (1949). Worth watching.