Saturday, June 15, 2013

Penny Thoughts ‘13—A Day at the Races (1937) ***½

NR, 111 min.
Director: Sam Wood
Writers: Robert Pirosh, George Seaton, George Oppenheimer
Starring: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Allan Jones, Maureen O’Sullivan, Margaret Dumont, Leonard Ceeley, Douglas Dumbrille, Esther Muir, Sig Rumann, Robert Middlemass

This makes my third Marx Brothers movie after “A Night in Casablanca” and “Duck Soup”. After watching those I was surprised to find that I preferred the former. As you can guess by its similar title “A Day at the Races” is more in line with that film. “Duck Soup” is more like unbridled madness, while the “Day/Night” movies have much more traditional storylines. These two are definitely entry point Marx Brothers movies.

The story is about a woman who runs a sanitarium who has come upon some financial hardship. She’s so desperate for clients she has one of employees (Chico) trying to rustle up patients as they leave the train station. Ho Ho! They decide to convince one of their few rich clients to help fund the hospital. She agrees, if they hire her former doctor (Groucho) on as chief of staff. The thing is, he’s really a veterinarian. Meanwhile, the woman’s boyfriend has just sunk his life savings into a racehorse that just doesn’t have the speed for the track. The jockey is Harpo.

It turns out the woman’s accountant is in cahoots with the race track owner to get the sanitarium signed over so he can make a casino out of it. Well, the Marx Brothers don’t have much trouble throwing a wrench into those works. Groucho is in his best form as the doctor treating people with the knowledge of a horse doctor. The scene when he examines Harpo is one of their best. Chico also shines pretty bright in this one, crafting the tutsie fruitsie wagon scene into a classic Marx Brothers bit.

The musical numbers are also one of the big highlights of this film. The Banana Boat Club scene is a classic Silver Age Hollywood musical moment with its big show stopping set and water fountains. Chico and Harpo have memorable music bits here and in the big show stopping number “Tomorrow is Another Day”, which includes several other songs in its medley format, including Harpo’s unusual jaunt through an African American community as the Pied Piper. Yes, the trio appearing in black face at the end of the number is a little uncomfortable, but the musical treatment around it is wonderful.

Next up on my Marx Brothers schedule “A Night at the Opera”.

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