A Day at the Races (1937)
A Day at the Races (1937)

Genre: Slapstick and Musical Running Time: 1 hr. 49 min.

Release Date: June 11th, 1937 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Sam Wood Actors: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Allan Jones, Maureen O’Sullivan, Margaret Dumont, Leonard Ceeley, Douglass Dumbrille, Esther Muir

 


 

A

t the bus station for Sparkling Springs Lakes, America’s foremost resort, Tony (Chico Marx) attempts to steal customers away to Standish Sanitarium, where owner and chief of staff Judy Standish (Maureen O’Sullivan) desperately needs the clientele. She’s so in debt that the establishment is on the verge of closing. Further bad news arrives from her boyfriend Gil Stewart (Allan Jones), who has spent all of his savings on a race horse, rather than pursuing a dream career in radio. And to top it all off, the wealthiest patient at the sanitarium, Mrs. Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont), threatens to leave, unless the mysterious Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho Marx) is brought to the facility at once.

All the way from Florida, Hackenbush turns up, though he’s merely a veterinarian who knows how to seduce older ladies. Meanwhile, scheming business manager Mr. Whitmore (Leonard Ceeley) is up to no good, hoping to swindle the sanitarium away from Judy, while a nearby racetrack provides a regular diversion. Crooked owner Mr. Morgan (Douglas Dumbrille) tries to get simpleton jockey Stuffy (Harpo Marx) to throw a race, resulting in Stuffy losing his job, though Morgan – secretly in league with Whitmore – is ultimately after Judy’s establishment in order to turn it into a casino.

Despite the villains unsuccessfully vying to cheat the protagonists, the bulk of this classic Marx Brothers comedy involves the brothers themselves engaging in various hoaxes of their own, scamming one another quite fruitfully. Once again, Chico plays more of the straight man – goofy as it may be – while Harpo is his mute accomplice, and Groucho is the scatterbrained outsider, brought into the fold to aid the more sincere heroes at the heart of the plot. Madcap chaos ensues, utilizing plenty of slapstick, feckless matchmaking and wooing, and utter nonsense, with the dependable troupe enacting numerous routines of confusion and coercion. “Either he’s dead or my watch has stopped.”

Also of note is a lengthy, lavish musical number (one of several throughout, including a later, brief sequence of blackface), featuring Jones’ powerful tenor and Vivien Fay’s graceful ballet. These inclusions, while artistic and not unexpected, pad the running time, setting a record as the longest of the Marx Brothers’ theatrical endeavors. Groucho, too, gets to demonstrate his quick-footed rumba, while Chico gets a turn at the piano and Harpo capitalizes on the more destructive, physical follies (and, of course, a bit on the harp). The alternating arrangement of musical showstoppers and frivolous frolicking (one of the best involves a game of charades), complete with costumes and props (such as bulldogs) contributes to a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes.

Also in line with their other works is the notion that the serious characters have to essentially pretend that the Marx Brothers’ shenanigans aren’t taking place directly in front of them; the slapstick gimmicks and colorful insults are so over-the-top, hysterical, and persistent that they must be outright ignored in order for the realistic portrayals to not mentally fall apart or lash out in violent assaults. The majority of them can do little more than shake their heads – and yet it’s Groucho who does the most exaggerated eye-rolling. In the end, the antics don’t amount to much, nor are any of them particularly memorable (the actual day at the steeplechase race provides additional pandemonium but isn’t even that significant of an event – its meaning is lost to the absurdity of everything before it), yet the scatterbrained humor is trusty Marx Brothers material.

– Mike Massie

  • 4/10