A Day at the Races-1937
Starring-Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx
Scott’s Review #1,011
Reviewed April 13, 2020
Spewing out a collection of successful films throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, A Day at the Races (1937) is a creation by the Marx Brothers that continues the zany adventures of the bumbling men. Not as laugh out loud funny as their earlier works, particularly the memorable Duck Soup (1933), considered to be their best achievement, the film has trademark chuckles and physical comedy for miles that celebrate their vaudeville roots. A horse and a private sanitarium are the major players in this installment.
The film suffers from a myriad of stereotypes and startling racial overtones as any apt viewer will likely need to remind themselves of the decade the film was made. These scenes are thankfully brief and not the highlight of the story. A Day at the Races belongs to the Marx Brothers as their klutzy humor and one-liners are the best parts leaving the romantic leads and the foils as standard characters. Backstage problems were prevalent leaving some continuity issues in the final product.
Judy Standish (Maureen O’Sullivan) owns the struggling Standish Sanitarium which she can barely afford to keep afloat. The devious J.D. Morgan (Douglass Dumbrille) owns a nearby racetrack and nightclub and aspires to use the sanitarium space to open a successful casino. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho Marx), a horse doctor, treats the wealthy Mrs. Upjohn (Margaret Dumont), who she thinks is a “real” doctor and agrees to financially back the sanitarium, but only if Hackenbush runs it. Suspicions arise when Morgan and his business manager attempt to locate the real Hackenbush in Florida.
Meanwhile, Judy’s fiancé, singer Gil Stewart (Allan Jones), who performs in Morgan’s nightclub, has just spent his life’s savings on a racehorse named Hi-Hat. His hope is that the horse, which he purchased from Morgan, will win a big race and the money will save the sanitarium. Hi-Hat is terribly afraid of Morgan and runs away whenever he hears Morgan’s voice. All the principal players gather for a hysterical conclusion as an exciting horse race ensues with a case of mistaken identity mixed in for good measure.
The main attraction is Groucho, Harpo, and Chico as they provide a robust dose of clumsy, action-filled pranks, misunderstandings, pops and bops that keeps them fluttering about the silver screen in fast-paced fashion. The other characters serve as either foils or support for the trio of funny men, so much so that they feel like stock characters. Jones and O’Sullivan have some chemistry as the straight leads and a few tender moments, but neither is the film about them.
The running time of one-hour and fifty minutes feels awfully long for a genre film like this and several scenes meant only to balance the physical comedy could have been eliminated. The famous exchange between Hackenbush and Mrs. Upjohn where she exclaims “I’ve never been so insulted in all my life!” and he, without missing a beat replies, “Well, it’s early yet” is classic comedy and heartwarming to the eyes and ears as the pacing between the characters is nice.
A Day at the Races (1937) feels dated during some scenes and a stark reminder that inclusion did not always exist in cinema and laughs were to be had at the expense of minority groups. Putting this aside, as a comic creation the writing is witty and entertaining and a perfect showcase for the Marx Brothers to continue their fantastic run of films. The film might be a suggestion as one in a group of a marathon or binge-watching effort rather than as a stand-alone since better chapters are to be found elsewhere.
Oscar Nominations: Best Dance Direction