Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Day at the Races, A (1937)



Director: Sam Wood

Honors:

They seem to get better and better with each picture they make, and here with A Day at the Races the Marx Brothers are at full force in another crazy story as they try to save a friend with their hilarious antics. It would be the group’s longest film, include large musical numbers that mixed styles, and contains comedy routines that are so funny they could stand on their own, but are fondly remembered from this picture. As with many films at this time out of MGM, it marked the end of an era with the passing of producer Irving Thalberg, and marks the peak of the Marx Bros. in the form of probably their finest film.

A Day at the Races is a Marx Bros. comedy as they desperately try to save a sanitarium and its beautiful owner from going broke. Standish Sanitarium is having a difficult time financially, and its owner, the young and lovely Judy (Maureen O’Sullivan), tries to think of ways to save it from falling to the bank. With her greatest and wealthiest patient, Mrs. Upjohn (Margret Dumont,) and her fancy for a certain Dr. Hackenbush (Groucho), Judy hires the doctor aboard hoping Upjohn will make a large donation to the sanitarium for the services as her favorite physician, despite his is really only a veterinarian. Meanwhile Judy’s boyfriend, singer Gil (Allan Jones), attempts to help Judy by taking his entire life savings to buy a race horse that turns out to be rather slow, instead of helping his own career.

Antics abound throughout the film with many hilarious acts by the Marx Bros. interacting and causing much distress on others. Chico plays Tony, an employee of the sanitarium and friends with horse jockey Stuffy, played by Harpo. Much of the picture bankers are trying to prove Hakenbush as a fake doctor, but ultimately the fate of the sanitarium lies in the horse owned by Gil. With the jockeying of Stuffy, and the trickery of Tony and Hakenbush, Gil’s horse “Hi-hat” wins the big steeplechase race saving Judy’s sanitarium.

First to put the film into proper perspective for contemporary audiences: A sanatarium in the 1930s was a place for generally the wealthier class would go to “get well” instead of a possible misconception of a place for physically or mentally unwell people. Sanatariums were generally places in the “country or other nature surrounded places that made people think that getting closer to nature and being “healthy” made them, both body and mind, become more fit after years of stress and labored filled lives. In reality they were resorts and not hospitals.

 The film is a real tour de force of the Marx brothers. Veterans of the vaudeville stage this picture proves the groups hard work and timing to hit precise moments for optimum laughs. Besides some of the funniest routines the trio had produced, the film is filled with musical numbers that are full MGM status. Included in it a number in the style of Busby Berkley with a rather large and very beautiful water fountain on a lavish set similar to that of a Astaire/Rogers film, such as Top Hat, where we see many pretty young dancers perform. Aside from that the most memorable musical number is a jazz scene inspired by the wave of African American musicians which grew in popularity during the 1930s. It is a jazz filled number with energetic dancing and singing, added by the excitement of Harpo joining in the fun. The film is really the largest picture the Marx Bros. had been in together, and much of that is thanks to Irving Thalberg, who sadly passed away shortly before filming began.

Tutsie fruitsie ice cream scene is one of the film's best routines
To help bring the same level of success as seen in the previous Marx Bros. feature Thalberg brought back director Sam Wood as well as actor Allan Jones to play the romantic lead, for which the true plot of the story centers around. Wood’s contribution is mostly overlooked as the film is really the hard work of all three Marx brothers. Thalberg, as before when they joined MGM, sent the trio on the vaudeville circuit to perfect the routines that would play out in the film. The brothers were originally from the stage and fed off the response of live audiences. Routines such as the tutsie fruitsie ice cream scene where Chico sells Groucho horse race tip through a series of books would be worked out to perfection and filmed based off the real life laughs they received on stage.

The style in which the film was produced, which was very similar to that of A Night at the Opera, allowed A Day at the Races to be an even larger success for the comedy group. It was the creative producer of Irving Thalberg that endorsed the brothers to expand and perfect their craft to the point they were able to produce such comedies. With the passing of Thalberg only two weeks before shooting, the production of the feature would go as planned in tribute to Thalberg, but as the production side of MGM moved into the hands of studio head Louis B. Mayer the creative control of the Marx Bros. in their future films would dwindle and the trio would not see the success they would here with A Day at the Races.

A Day at the Races would mark a first (and only) for a Marx Bros. film as the picture was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of best dance direction, because of the creative musical numbers in the picture. This category would be one of many short lived awards passed out by the Academy, which was still in its earlier years.

To go along with any Marx Bros. film would be the supporting cast, of which the real plot of film was actually based around while the brothers tried to help, only to cause chaos. First and foremost there is Groucho’s straightman in Margret Dumont. As always she provides the great bouncing board for all of his quips and one-liners that make fun of her, while being his storied love interest. Groucho almost needed Dumont to be in every film to be the butt of his jokes in many sequences.

The vocally talented Allan Jones returns from A Night at the Opera to take the place left behind when Zeppo departed the group as the romantic lead. Jones with his singing voice, which was also on display in the popular adaptation of Show Boat, also provides musical interludes in the comedy. His love interest would be played by the rather well known Maureen O’Sullivan. A regular actress under the MGM studio of stars, O’Sullivan was best known as Jane in the Tarzan films, but still fails to find a strong footing to play major dramatic roles. Even so she still finds her way into many notable films as a supporting actress as seen here.

For years A Day at the Races has been thought of as the Marx Bros. finest comedy picture. Groucho for years would even refer to himself at “Hakenbush” manifesting his love for this feature. In 2000 the American Film Institute would honor it by placing it as n#59 on their list of top comedies of all time. Time would provide this feature to be the panicle of the group’s motion pictures, manifested in the lesser films to follow in their time with MGM. A classic comedy that continues to entertain A Day at the Races is a fondly remembered film in any library on cinema and comedy lovers.


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