Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.
Title: A Day at the Races
Release Date: June 11, 1937
Director: Sam Wood
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
The previous movie introduced a “kinder, gentler” Marx Brothers, but the change in tone is more jarringly evident in their second film with MGM. The feel of the movie is more sitcom than the “vaudeville-on-film” that preceded it. Chico and Harpo adapt well, but Groucho just seems out of place. The general plot is that a sanitorium in a resort town run by Judy Standish (Maureen O’Sullivan) is facing a fiscal crisis and could be bought and turned into a casino. Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho Marx) is brought in to care for a wealthy client who could be impressed upon to invest in the sanitarium, Mrs. Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont). What no one knows is that Hackenbush is actually a horse doctor. Meanwhile, fiancé Gil Stewart (Allan Jones) has unwisely spent his life savings on a race horse hoping to win a big race and give the prize money to Judy. The movie feels a little feminist by having its two main women characters be responsible and sensible, while the men are irresponsible and nonsensical.
The movie feels very episodic with the Marx Brothers comedy bits inserted between bits that advanced the plot and musical numbers. There are two major musical numbers. The first is “On Blue Venetian Waters” is a Busby Berkeley-esque song and dance spectacular with Jones singing solo and Vivien Fay leading the dancers. “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” features the Marxes and Jones in a barn when out of nowhere dozens of African American singers and dancers appear, featuring Ivie Anderson from Duke Ellington’s orchestra and troupe of lindy hoppers. It’s a delightful sequence and I was pleased that the Marx Brothers weren’t wearing blackface, until, of course, they do. They actually but axle grease on their face to disguise themselves from the sheriff. If one is feeling generous, one could say that they are mocking how ludicrous it is to wear blackface since it doesn’t make them look Black at all.
I feel this movie is hit-or-miss, but the hits are good enough to make it worth watching. It is a good, but not great, Marx Brothers movie. But with the Marx Brothers, good is still pretty entertaining.