The inimitable Marx Brothers followed up their magnum opus A Night at the Opera with the light-footed A Day at the Races, repository for another handful of elaborate and indelible comedy scenarios. Following the now-established Marx formula, A Day at the Races offers music, dance, and comedy as proof that vaudeville--which spawned the Marxes--wasn't quite dead.
In the popular summer resort of Sparkling Springs, Standish Sanitarium isn't drawing customers like it used to do; when Judy Standish (Maureen O'Sullivan) frets to Tony (Chico Marx)--her loyal man Friday--that the sanitarium faces closure, he sets to work to save it. Tony overhears the sanitarium's best customer--hypochondriac dowager Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont)--heaping praise on a former doctor, so Tony tracks the doctor down and convinces him to take a position at the sanitarium.
Unfortunately, the doctor is actually a veterinarian by the name of Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho Marx). He must keep up his act, or nasty opportunist Morgan (Douglass Dumbrille) will force Judy to sell him the sanitarium. If only Hi-Hat, the horse owned by Judy's hubby Gil (Allan Jones of A Night at the Opera), can win the big race, the sanitarium will be saved, but the de facto team of Judy, Gil, Hugo, Tony, and the mute jockey Stuffy (Harpo Marx) will have to dodge Morgan and his slinky gal pal Flo (Esther Muir) to cross the finish line.
The Marx Brothers, of course, had established personas which represented a refraction of their collective id: irreverent, girl-crazy, anarchic, and irrepressible. Harpo and Chico--the musicians--represented the lawless heart, and Groucho the razor-sharp mind ever-ready to cut corrupt and greedy authority (as long as it's not himself) down to size.
A Day at the Races isn't Harpo's finest hour, though he delivers his typical lovely harp solo (the one in which a broken piano becomes a makeshift harp). His most lasting impression in Races is his central position in the "Who's Dat Man?"/"All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" smilin' shantytown song-and-dance number, which climaxes with a blackface gag (on the bright side, the swinging Crinoline Choir number showcases jazz singer Ivy Anderson, who was performing with Duke Ellington at the time, and includes Dorothy Dandridge).
Chico scores points as the driving force of the hilarious, theatrical "tootsie-fruitsie ice cream" sequence, a successor to Opera's contract duet with Groucho. Chico, too, gets to perform his signature musical number, shooting the piano keys with rakish sleight-of-hand. The Marxes' musical numbers come during a hokey yet impressive "Winter Carnival" sequence, during which musical ingenue Jones gets his first of two songs ("On Blue Venetian Waters" and "Tomorrow Is Another Day") and Vivien Fay dances ballet.
But A Day at the Races belongs primarily to Groucho, a comic force of nature with his punchlines built on fractured logic, beautifully bizarre dancing, and silly, loping gait (here's where Bugs Bunny learned his moves, folks). Even in repose, he's completely magnetic, because of course, he's never truly in repose. Groucho's best lines have a free-associative, ad-libbed quality, like his remark about a lineup of stuffed shirts: "Just a moment--I'm calming these paralytics."
Marx works wonders with a beautiful dame to manhandle, like Muir in a bravura, chaotic bedchamber sequence with the other brothers. When Muir tells Groucho, "I've never been so insulted in my life," Groucho shoots back, "It's early yet." Foils Dumont and Sig Rumann (the one with the pointy beard) play cannon fodder to Groucho with practiced perfection. In Races, pesky business manager Whitmore (Leonard Ceeley) gets the worst of it in a phone mêlée .
All this and more in A Day at the Races: Chico and Harpo communicating in fractured charades, a riotous examination in which all three brothers pose as doctors and lay waste to an operating theatre, and, naturally, a big finish at the races, complete with horse stunts. Modern comedians could learn plenty from the creative invention and breadth of performance abilities the Marxes display. Sure, the odd bit is dated, but A Day at the Races is mostly timeless and thoroughly entertaining.
Warner Home Video gives this 67-year-old film a strong presentation: the print betrays some light scratching sharpened by the digital mastering, but the film has never looked or sounded this good on home video. On a second audio track, Glenn Mitchell (author of The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia) introduces the players, provides academic analysis, and gives the production skinny, including details of the live stage tryouts which tested the comedy sketches. The surprisingly spotty commentary provides some worthwhile tidbits for listeners patient enough to brave it, but I'd rate this for fanatics (or those with swanky scan capacity) only.
The thoughtful addition of subtitles doesn't carry over into the extras, which amount to a veritable time machine of the late thirties. Primary among the bonus features is an audio vault which includes a priceless outtake: Allan Jones's recently unearthed vocal of "A Message from the Man in the Moon"; the song was originally intended for inclusion early in the picture (and Groucho "reprises" it briefly in the film's final moments). The other audio clip is a crackly 15-minute radio promo, "Leo Is on the Air." Though cheesy and poorly produced, this blurbfest ressurects the Golden Age of Radio and reminds us that corporate synergy is nothing new.
The disc also includes "On Your Marx, Get Set, Go!" a newly produced 28-minute documentary surveying Marx expert Robert B. Wiede, comedians who are Marx enthusiasts (from the inexplicable Dom DeLuise to fellow Sid Caesar scribes Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner), and even a couple of contemporaries who worked with the brothers Marx: writer Irving Brecher (Go West, At the Circus) and A Day at the Races star Margaret O' Sullivan, seen in vintage interview footage. The interviews are decidedly hit-and-miss, but Gelbart (who lunched with Groucho) and Weide provide some particularly incisive comments. Aside from generally waxing enthusiastic about the Marxes' appeal, the documentary covers the influence of "boy genius" producer Irving Thalberg (and his untimely death during production), director Sam Wood, the brothers' respective talents, and supporting players like "fifth Marx Brother" Margaret Dumont; the comedy writers on camera also dissect the film's key comedy scenes. The documentary suffers a bit from sloppy video noise, but neophytes and even Marx fanatics will find something of value here.
Lastly, Warner thoughtfully includes some vintage short subjects. The first—Robert Benchley's ten-minute, Oscar-nominated "A Night at the Movies"—is a quaint curiosity of historical value (and a bit redolent of Seinfeld's comedic minutiae). Three well-preserved cartoons round out the set: 1938's "Old Smokey" and 1939's "Mama's New Hat" (both "Captain and the Kids" cartoons based on the Sunday funnies), and the Technicolor Hanna-Barbera cartoon "Gallopin' Gals" (1940). The latter is slightly zestier (turning a stable into a coffee klatsch), but these are mostly kids' stuff.
Quibbles: why not secure the rights to include Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby's "Dr. Hackenbush," the Groucho song excised from the film which, as Mitchell explains on the commentary, later became a staple of Groucho's stage act? At least the lyrics could've been included as a text extra. A photo gallery and/or text screens of script fragments would also be welcome, especially as evidence of the five cut sequences Mitchell describes on the commentary. Nevertheless, movie buffs can be very grateful for Warner's A Day at the Races disc: a classic movie tidily packaged. (Also available as a part of The Marx Brothers Collection 5-disc set.)
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