Judge Dan Mancini really is a horse doctor, but if you marry him, he'll never look at another horse.
Our review of TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Marx Brothers, published February 2nd, 2010, is also available.
The Year's BIG Laugh, Music and Girl Show!
The second of their films with MGM and the final with producer Irving Thalberg, A Day at the Races is the last of the top-tier Marx Brothers pictures.
Facts of the Case
Judy Standish (Maureen O'Sullivan, Tarzan and His Mate) owns a sanitarium for under-the-weather wealthy, situated alongside the Sparkling Springs Lake Resort and racetrack. Problem is, Ms. Standish isn't attracting a lot of patients and her current cash cow of a hypochondriac, Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont, Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera), is ready to up and leave because of her dissatisfaction with the sanitarium's too-competent medical staff. In order to retain Ms. Upjohn, Judy's ne'er-do-well staffer, Tony (Chico Marx), summons the old dame's favorite physician in the whole world, one Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho Marx). Ms. Standish is more than happy to make Hackenbush Chief of Staff in order to keep Upjohn's cash flowing because a cad banker named Mr. Morgan is eager for her to miss a mortgage payment so he can foreclose on the sanitarium and turn it into a casino. The fact that Hackenbush is actually a horse doctor with a long history of conning Upjohn is bound to complicate things.
Meanwhile, Judy's nightclub singer beau, Gil Stewart (Allan Jones, A Night at the Opera), has bought a racehorse named Hi Hat. When the nefarious Mr. Morgan fires his shenanigan-pulling jockey, Stuffy (Harpo Marx), the mute equestrian throws his lot in with Gil. The two hope to turn Hi Hat into a winner, transforming their meager assets into enough loot for Judy to save the sanitarium. All that will be for naught, though, if Ms. Standish's double-crossing business manager, Whitmore, succeeds in exposing Hackenbush as a fraud. But making a fool of the irrepressible doctor is likely to prove a Herculean task for the stodgy Whitmore.
There are certain things one expects when sitting down to watch a Marx Brothers picture. Like James Bond flicks, the brothers' movies are a formula of specific and predictable devices. The joy of any particular film is in how cleverly it knits together those devices. Groucho must be a duck-walking charlatan who leers, chews on his cigar, and whose speech is a dense tangle of puns, innuendoes, and non-sequiturs. Chico must mangle the English language as much as Groucho finesses it; he must also have a scene in which he plays the piano with manual acrobatics and comic panache. Harpo must exude a combination of big-hearted kindness and stiff-necked resistance to authority figures reminiscent of Chaplin's tramp; he must also be allowed—for one scene—to drop the clown persona and play the harp with stunning virtuosity. There's must be a wealthy society dame (preferably played by Margaret Dumont) who is entirely smitten with Groucho, though he walks all over her. There must be no fewer than two lavish musical numbers featuring a plethora of dancers and the singing talents of the male romantic lead (be it Zeppo Marx in the early pictures, or Allan Jones in the later ones). There must be a string of brilliant comic set pieces, honed to perfection from having been performed by the Marx Brothers since their days on the vaudeville stage. And, above all, there must be a beautiful young couple whose dreams are put upon by the wealthy, influential, and greedy, and whose hopes for happiness depend on that peculiar variety of elite-busting chaos only the Marx Brothers can deliver.
Though, their earlier Paramount flicks have individual moments more hilarious than anything in A Day at the Races, there's no shortage of quality shtick in the picture. Chico's bilking Groucho with an offer to sell him a hot racing tip, then a book to interpret the code in which the tip is written, and rider's guide to further make sense of the uncoded tip, and breeder's guide to help explain which horse the jockey in question is riding, and on and on, is funny for the absurd lengths to which the duo takes it, and because it's so rare to see Groucho on the receiving end of a scam—it's like watching Daffy Duck make a chump of Bugs Bunny for once. When Dr. Hackenbush performs a physical examination of Emily Upjohn—with Tony and Stuffy acting as his muddled assistants—in order to maintain his medical charade despite the scrutiny of the stodgy Dr. Leopold X. Sternberg (Sig Ruman, Stalag 17), Whitmore's ringer from Vienna, the scene collapses into mayhem as quickly and brilliantly as any the Marxes ever conceived, ending with an appearance by Hi Hat, who rescues the boys as the exam room is flooded by a malfunctioning sprinkler system. But the scene that makes me laugh out loud every time I see it is Hackenbush impersonating a daffy member of the Florida medical board in a phone conversation with Whitmore, who is trying to prove his nemesis is an unlicensed quack but comes quickly to the end of his rope as Hackenbush repeatedly interrupts the phone call by berating Whitmore, as himself, over the interoffice Dictaphone.
If there's a problem common to even the best of the Marx Brothers pictures, it's that they tend to play as strings of loosely-connected vaudeville skits—which is basically what they are—instead of fundamentally cinematic pieces. One of the reasons I've always favored A Day at the Races, even though it's not the most side-splitting of the Marx Brothers works, is that it's probably the most cinematically coherent. Take the obligatory Chico-goofs-around-on-the-piano scene. A Day at the Race's version is set in the nightclub where Gil works, and comes on the heels of the first of the elaborate musical numbers. It emerges fairly organically out of the earlier number, which itself has a certain logic because of the nightclub setting. Best yet, Chico's number is interrupted by Harpo, who goes to town on the piano, getting increasingly violent in a pantomime parody of concert pianist pomposity. The instrument finally crumbles under his wrath, at which point he rips out its soundboard and begins playing it with his fingers, providing a smooth transition into the obligatory Harpo-plays-the-harp scene. It's the least forced these hallmarks of the Marx Brothers' style feel in any of their films.
Speaking of the elaborate musical numbers, like most modern viewers, I find them difficult to bear, a distraction from the comedy. The problem is they pre-date jazz's ascent into the realm of popular music. Allan Jones may have had a strong singing voice but who, in this day and age, wants to listen to saccharine, light operatic white-guy music? (Besides Josh Groban fans, that is.) A Day at the Races benefits, first of all, from having fewer musical numbers than the typical Marx Brothers flick. The usual song near film's beginning was excised (more on that later). On top of that, the second big number—which takes place in a shantytown—is (mostly) a jazz number. It's easily my favorite of any of the Marx Brothers musical numbers (granted, that's not saying much). Energetically performed by African American singers and dancers, Harpo gallivanting among them, the piece is musically prodigious and it swings. While some of the slang in the song's lyrics, as well as Groucho, Chico, and Harpo smearing their faces with axle grease in order to blend with the crowd and avoid the cops, slip a bit over the line into lame racial stereotyping, there's none of the Stepin Fetchit crap that can make old movies cringe inducing. As a matter of fact, the African American performers are simply presented as highly-skilled singers and dancers knocking our socks off with a dazzling musical number. Everybody onscreen looks like they're having a damned fine time.
The folks at MGM have performed a solid restoration on A Day at the Races in order to deliver a quality DVD. The image is characterized by excellent contrast and detail. While minor flaws show up occasionally, there's no major damage or dirt to be found. The mono audio track is marred by a bit of hiss, but is likewise free of major flaws.
This single-disc presentation of the movie is supplemented with a decent array of bonus material. Glenn Mitchell, author of The Marx Bros. Encyclopedia provides a so-so feature-length commentary. The tone of the track is similar to the academic commentaries one finds on Criterion Collection releases, and Mitchell certainly seems to know his stuff. Unfortunately, he doles out information in tiny factoids and leaves long gaps of silence between them.
On Your Marx, Get Set, Go! is a half-hour documentary that provides an overview of the Marx Brothers' movie career as well as specifics regarding the production of A Day at the Races. Contributors to the piece include writer Irving Brecher (At the Circus), writer/director/actor Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show), director Robert B. Weide (Curb Your Enthusiasm), film historian Robert Osborne, and writer Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H). There's also archive interview footage from the 1980s of Maureen O'Sullivan talking about the film.
From the MGM vaults we've got A Night at the Movies, an Academy Award-winning short film by Robert Benchley that has no relation to the Marx Brothers, but was released the same year as A Day at the Races. It's a humorous little piece. Three vintage cartoons are also offered.
There are two audio features on the disc. The first is an outtake of "A Message from the Man on the Moon," Allan Jones's missing song from the beginning of the film. Hearing it makes me happy it was cut, but MGM's done right in archiving it on this disc for those interested. There's also a promo for the MGM radio show, Leo is on the Air.
The film's theatrical trailer rounds out the supplements.
A Day at the Races—along with A Night at the Opera—represents the Marx Brothers' finest work for MGM, and this DVD treats it with the respect it deserves. Until Paramount gets cracking on the early films, this title is easily your best bet for enjoying the Marx Brothers in digital splendor.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Glenn Mitchell
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