I have to admit that I have a sentimental attachment to A Day at the Races (1937). It was the first Marx Brothers picture I saw with an audience. It happened to be playing at a university in St. Pete, Fla., and my dad happened to notice it in the paper and decided to take me (I was 15), so it has pleasant associations. (It also marked my discovery of university and film society showings that were then proliferating 60-odd miles away.) Even so, I’m aware of the fact that it’s the Marx Brothers movie where the MGM-ification of the Brothers really began to take its toll. The idea of “softening” them by turning Groucho, Harpo and Chico into devoted friends of the romantic leads, which had started in A Night at the Opera (1935) starts getting out of hand here. (It’s not helped by the fact that the insipid Maureen O’Sullivan doesn’t have the appeal of Kitty Carlisle in the previous MGM outing.) But, apart from a few moments, this isn’t yet fatal.
But everything takes just a little longer than necessary to set up: The Marxes are kept offscreen too long at the beginning and there’s too much story that’s hard to care much about. There’s also a tendency to try to copy the template of A Night at the Opera, which results in one gigantic musical misfire. In its favor, this particular big number — an indifferent song called “Blue Venetian Waters” that feels like a refugee from the 1935 Astaire-Rogers Top Hat — comes at the 40-minute mark and runs long enough for bathroom breaks, popcorn refills or even a quick smoke. (Think of it like Bob Hope in Road to Bali warning the viewers that Crosby’s “about to sing, folks — now’s the time to go and get the popcorn.”) However, when Groucho’s in charge of things — and that’s most of the time — A Day at the Races is full of great stuff.
Groucho plays Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush, a horse doctor, who, in some unseen episode before the film started, bamboozled the wealthy Mrs. Upjohn (Margaret Dumont, of course) into believing he’s a bona fide medico. It just so happens that when Mrs. Upjohn — the only notable patient at Maureen O’Sullivan’s sanitarium — announces her intention of leaving and going to Dr. Hackenbush, Tony (Chico) overhears her and manages to gets her to stay by convincing her that Hackenbush is coming to take over the sanitarium. It’s an easy matter to get him to come — the magic phrase is, “You can write your own ticket.” Of course, since Groucho is the recruited “doctor,” he does nothing to make anyone think he’s the goods, relying instead on their faith in his unfounded abilities — but it doesn’t matter, since (as usual) nothing can shake Mrs. Upjohn’s belief in him. It doesn’t even perturb her when he tries to give her a horse pill or almost immediately runs off to the nearby race track. The whole point from the sanitarium point of view is to make Mrs. Upjohn happy, so she’ll take over the debts that threaten to close the place.
Groucho at the racetrack being fleeced by Chico is pretty prime. His insane approach to someone trying to check up on his credentials is close to brilliant. His constantly thwarted attempts to romance Esther Muir are choice Groucho. All of his scenes with Margaret Dumont are a delight. Better still is the examination scene. That there’s some dead air in between these things is the price we pay for the Marxes’ move to MGM — something they thought was a swell idea at the time. In a way, it was, since A Night at the Opera made more money than any of their Paramount films had, while A Day at the Races made even more.
Perhaps the most telling thing is that the big musical number involving Duke Ellington vocalist Ivie Anderson and the Crinoline Choir — a mix of “Who Dat Man?” and “All God’s Children Got Rhythm” — may well be the most wholly memorable thing in the movie. (It certainly made an impression on Bryan Barber who copped some of its choreography for his 2006 musical Idlewild.) In itself, that’s fine. I’m certainly more than grateful for the existence of the scene, which marks the only feature film performance from Ivie Anderson, and is just remarkably infectious. The only problem with all this is … shouldn’t the Marx Brothers be the most memorable thing in a Marx Brothers movie? Still, the boys do get into it at the end — with the most half-assed attempt ever at using blackface as a disguise — and the whole thing is pretty darn irresistible. So, for that matter, is most of the movie.
The Asheville Film Society will screen A Day at the Races Tuesday, Dec. 31, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.