Skip to main content

The last time I saw a head like that was in a bottle of formaldehyde.

A Day at the Races
(1937)

(SPOILERS) Very much of a piece with its predecessor, right down to the title, A Day at the Races lacks the highs of A Night at the Opera (there’s nothing here to compare to the State Room sequence), but it’s probably more even overall. Certainly, while it’s fifteen minutes longer (and there are about twenty minutes of music), overall it has a better sense of flow, and just the fact of Groucho’s false pretences (Dr Hugo Z Hackenbush, a horse doctor posing as the human kind) gives it a certain distinction.

Whitmore: This is absolutely insane!
Hackenbush: Yes, that’s what they said about Pasteur!

Of course, the architect of the brothers’ dual off-the-bat MGM hits, Irving Thalberg, died during the production, leaving them somewhat at sea with Louis B Mayer, who didn’t really “get” them. Thalberg is commonly cited as having salvaged their careers after Duck Soup, but since reports of its failure are greatly exaggerated (even on the documentary accompanying the DVD release of A Day at the Races), it would probably be more accurate to suggest he broadened their appeal by neutering their more extreme elements. Subsequently, they’d be even less connected to their anarchic roots. Still, it’s interesting to hear the levels to which Thalberg would shrewdly analyse the mechanics of their act (a scene where Harpo mimes to Chico shifted the character, in his view, from one who didn’t talk to one who couldn’t talk).

Whitmore: Just a minute, Mrs Upjohn. That looks like a horse pill to me.
Hackenbush: Oh, you’ve taken them before.

Returning is the entirely unmemorable Allan Jones, his romantic lead this time being Gil Stewart. Entirely unmemorable aside from his character spending the equivalent of $28k on a horse he hopes will save the sanitorium owned by Maureen O’Sullivan’s Judy Standish.

Gil: Are you a man or a mouse?
Hackenbush: You put a piece of cheese down and you’ll find out.

Judy makes more of an impression, fortunately, not least for employing Hackenbush’s services (“You’re the prettiest owner of a sanitorium I’ve ever seen”). Her reason for getting hold of Hackenbush? Margaret Dumont’s Mrs Emily Upjohn, of course (“Why, I didn’t know a thing was the matter with me until I met him”), whose ready funds could save the sanatorium from going under. Whitmore (Leonard Ceeley) makes a particularly good villain in this regard (“Say, you’re awfully large for a pill yourself”), although one also has to single out the returning Sig Ruman for praise as the bearded Dr Leopold X Steinberg from Vienna, enlisted to expose Hackenbush. Meanwhile, Chico’s Tony is Judy’s good-hearted Italian driver devoted to helping her out (“You don’t have to pay me but you can’t fire me”). Harpo’s a jockey, Stuffy; the connection between the sanatorium and the horse racing is as tenuous as their being situated next to each other (it’s quite believable that this went through eighteen different versions before reaching the final draft).

Flo: I’ve never been so insulted in my life.
Hackenbush: Well, it’s early yet.

A Day at the Races highlights include Hackenbush’s initial arrival and round of insults, Whitmore attempting to contact the Florida Medical Board to establish Hackenbush’s credentials (it’s Hackenbush on the other line, simultaneously interrupting Whitmore’s call via the sanitorium switchboard), a medical exam of Harpo (“Either he’s dead, or my watch has stopped”), and Cokey Flo (Esther Muir) attempting to entrap Hackenbush but somewhat confounded by the wallpapering antics of Chico and Harpo. Even the grand climax works reasonably well, with Hi-Hat encouraged to jump in the steeplechase by the sound of Morgan’s (Douglass Dumbrille) voice, facilitated by ensuring a microphone is placed near the banker at vital moments.

Hackenbush: And don’t point that beard at me! It might go off!

To be honest, I’m not as keen on the attempt to recapture the sharpness A Night at the Opera’s of the sanity clause scene, whereby Chico scams Groucho into buying a series of code books in order to translate a coded tip he has bought from him. The sanity clause scene works so well because the two of them are both willing participants; here, Groucho is required to be uncharacteristically dim for the purposes of the extended gags (Thalberg presumably didn’t object to that!) There are some extended duets and musical sequences, inevitably, but at least this time we treated to Harpo committing mass destruction on a piano and Groucho dividing dancing duties between Dumont and Cokey Flo. There’s also a lively dance routine later on (“All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm”), which has the brothers rather unfortunately escaping their pursuers by donning black face.

Hackenbush: I haven’t seen so much mudslinging since the last election!

Groucho definitely comes out A Day at the Races the best, while Harpo has his moments (pretending to be a horse, wearing a bucket on his head, he even manages to pull a nurse’s uniform off!) If not operating at their Paramount peak, there’s nevertheless a feeling of a well-oiled machine here that could have carried on operating at a legitimate strength; A Day at Races is generally regarded as the last gasp of Marx Brothers movie greatness. Certainly, post-Thalberg’s death from pneumonia at thirty-seven, there was no great desire to re-up with the studio; they went to RKO for Room Service, before returning to MGM to diminishing returns and increasing lack of substance.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lieutenant, you run this station like chicken night in Turkey.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) (SPOILERS) You can’t read a review of Assault on Precinct 13 with stumbling over references to its indebtedness – mostly to Howard Hawks – and that was a preface for me when I first caught it on Season Three of BBC2’s Moviedrome (I later picked up the 4Front VHS). In Precinct 13 ’s case, it can feel almost like an attempt to undercut it, to suggest it isn’t quite that original, actually, because: look. On the other hand, John Carpenter was entirely upfront about his influences (not least Hawks), and that he originally envisaged it as an outright siege western (rather than an, you know, urban one). There are times when influences can truly bog a movie down, if it doesn’t have enough going for it in its own right. That’s never the case with Assault on Precinct 13 . Halloween may have sparked Carpenter’s fame and maximised his opportunities, but it’s this picture that really evidences his style, his potential and his masterful facility with music.

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

He must have eaten a whole rhino horn!

Fierce Creatures (1997) (SPOILERS) “ I wouldn’t have married Alyce Faye Eicheberger and I wouldn’t have made Fierce Creatures.” So said John Cleese , when industrial-sized, now-ex gourmand Michael Winner, of Winner’s Dinners , Death Wish II and You Must Be Joking! fame (one of those is a legitimate treasure, but only one) asked him what he would do differently if he could live his life again. One of the regrets identified in the response being Cleese’s one-time wife (one-time of two other one-time wives, with the present one mercifully, for John’s sake, ongoing) and the other being the much-anticipated Death Fish II , the sequel to monster hit A Fish Called Wanda. Wanda was a movie that proved all Cleese’s meticulous, focus-group-tested honing and analysis of comedy was justified. Fierce Creatures proved the reverse.

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

Ours is the richest banking house in Europe, and we’re still being kicked.

The House of Rothschild (1934) (SPOILERS) Fox’s Rothschild family propaganda pic does a pretty good job presenting the clan as poor, maligned, oppressed Jews who fought back in the only way available to them: making money, lots of lovely money! Indeed, it occurred to me watching The House of Rothschild , that for all its inclusion of a rotter of a Nazi stand-in (played by Boris Karloff), Hitler must have just loved the movie, as it’s essentially paying the family the compliment of being very very good at doing their very best to make money from everyone left, right and centre. It’s thus unsurprising to learn that a scene was used in the anti-Semitic (you might guess as much from the title) The Eternal Jew .

No, I ain’t a good man. I ain’t the worst either.

A Perfect World (1993) (SPOILERS) It’s easy to assume, retrospectively, that Clint’s career renaissance continued uninterrupted from Unforgiven to, pretty much, now, with his workhorse output ensuring he was never more than a movie away from another success. The nineties weren’t such a sure thing, though. Follow-up In the Line of Fire , a (by then) very rare actor-for-hire gig, made him seem like a new-found sexagenarian box office draw, having last mustered a dependably keen audience response as far back as 1986 and Heartbreak Ridge . But at home, at least, only The Bridges of Madison County – which he took over as director at a late stage, having already agreed to star – and the not-inexpensive Space Cowboys really scored before his real feted streak began with Mystic River. However, there was another movie in there that did strong business. Just not in the US: A Perfect World .