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Marx Brothers Mondays: A Day at the Races (1937)

Last week, we started our Marx Brothers tribute series with a look at what is by far and away yours truly’s favorite of the Brothers movies: A Night at the Opera. This week, I’m sticking with the teams’ MGM fair for an examination of yet another Kim favorite, A Day at the Races

A Day at the Races follows the Brothers as they struggle to help a young woman (Maureen O’Sullivan) keep her floundering sanitarium open in the shadow of a popular racetrack. Marx Brothers staples Allan Jones, Margaret Dumont and Sig Ruman co-star in the picture. Sam Wood directs the movie from a script Robert Pirosh, George Seaton and George Oppenheimer. 

Last week, I spent a great deal of time talking about the supporting players in A Night at the Opera, the team’s previous film. This time out, much of the cast remains the same, the only difference is Maureen O’Sullivan tagging in for Kitty Carlisle. Ultimately though, this is very much a vehicle for the Brothers. Of course, this isn’t to say the supporting cast is at all weak. In fact, if there were an encyclopedia of solid and dependable 1930s players, Maureen O’Sullivan would be pictured while the others bring their usual flair (or delightful opera singing ability).

The difference though really lies in the construction of the narrative which this time out, centers on the Brothers. Judy (O’Sullivan) needs Dr. Hackenbush (Groucho) to save the sanitarium while Mrs. Upjohn (Dumont) needs Hackenbush and only Hackenbush to be her doctor. Meanwhile, Gill (Jones) needs ‘Stuffy’ (Harpo) and Tony (Chico) to help him with his race horse. The Marx’s play an integral part in the action playing out on screen. By contrast, in A Night at the Opera, the Brothers are less the focus of the narrative and instead are participants in the bigger story of Rosa and Ricardo’s quest for love. 

As a result, the zaniness of some of their earlier films returns a bit in A Day at the Races. This is seen in its most striking clarity in the third act as the Brothers (disguised as doctors) examine Mrs. Upjohn before the action then moves to the nearby racetrack. It’s manic, it is chaotic and the scale of the scenes are much bigger than anything staged in the previous film.

However, even the smaller bits of humor in this one are completely and utterly memorable. The comedy sticks with you, whether it’s Dr. Hugo Hackenbush’s real identify as a veterinarian or his well-crafted banter with Tony throughout the film. In fact, I discovered during my most recent rewatch of the comedy that I’m still able to recite the ‘Tootsie Frootsie ice cream’ sequence even though its been a while. These smaller moments show that the large, zany set pieces aren’t needed (as we discovered in the last film). After all, the Marx’s got their start on Vaudeville and they are perfectly able to captivate audience by sheer stage presence alone. 

A Day at the Races integrates much the same feeling as in A Night at the Opera. This is peak MGM after all. There may be more Marxian chaos in A Day at the Races, but the polish and prestige is unmistakable. A Day at the Races is packed with music numbers. Allan Jones does most of the heavy lifting this time around due to a lack of other singing leads. The movie compensates with the usual Marx music numbers (Harpo and Chico doing what they do best) along with the Vaudeville-esque, spontaneous performances musical fans of the era are more than familiar with.

Along these lines, can we pause a second to talk about the courage it takes for a movie to stop its narrative cold for a harp solo? We would never see a film do this today!  How about Chico’s ability to drop everything and bang out a charismatic as all get-out piano solo. It may stop the narrative cold, but bow to Harpo Marx and his harp! I will admit, these sequences usually bored me to tears as a kid, but as I’ve grown (and learned to appreciate magic when I see it), the confidence inherent in this “flex” always surprises the heck out of me. Dare I say, these are true talents?

In the grand scheme of things, I suppose it can be said that A Day at the Races shows The Marx Brothers cusping the peak of their screen career. In their recognized format, they went on to make At the Circus to bring the 1930s to a close. They made a handful of movies throughout the 1940s (their work together ending with Love Happy in 1949), unfortunately though, few of these matched the prestige of their earlier films.

The Brothers did continue acting after Love Happy. Chico and Harpo both worked throughout the 1950s on television (usually as versions of their standard characters). Both men passed away in the 1960s (1961 and 1964 respectively). Meanwhile, Groucho worked steadily (particularly on television) until he passed away in 1977. Groucho’s mark is perhaps most felt in his talk show appearances of the 1970s, during which he preserved memories and nostalgia of the classic era, while also participating in some fascinating discussions.

As we discussed in last week’s write-up, Irving Thalberg was instrumental in developing The Marx Brothers style after the team left Paramount for MGM. The young executive passed away in September of 1936 as A Day at the Races was very early in the production process. The film would hit theaters in the summer of 1937. Groucho Marx reflected on Thalberg and his contributions in an interview with Dick Cavett in 1971: 

He was certainly the greatest producer that Hollywood had… 

In a different conversation with Cavett, Groucho continued the discussion: 

(Thalberg) died at 37… all geniuses die young. We did two pictures with him A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races and by an odd coincidence they are by far the best pictures we ever did and it was a severe loss to us when he died.

When looking at this period in The Marx’s career, I’ve long heard the MGM Pictures receive a bit of derision. As A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races are two of my favorite films… I don’t get it. Sure, these movies are certainly a million miles away from the Marx’s earlier work with Paramount, but they are representative of an important transitional period in their comedy history. The Marx Brothers were able to relocate to a new studio, come under a different creative umbrella and they were still riding high and doing some of their best work.

Come back next week as I drift back in time a bit to look at The Marx Brothers work for Paramount with a discussion of Monkey Business

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