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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.

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