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A Day at the Races (1937)

Dir: Sam Wood


Ruthless hotel owner and town bigwig J.D Morgan (Douglass Dumbrille) is trying to take over the local Standish Sanatorium, owned by Judy Standish (Maureen O'Sullivan, “Tarzan the Ape Man“), so he can turn it into a casino. He has the inside help of the scheming Whitmore (Leonard Ceeley).

Helping Judy in saving the sanatorium are her friend and employee Tony (Chico Marx) and his friend Stuffy (Harpo Marx), a jockey formerly employed by Morgan.
Judy's singer boyfriend, Gil (Allan Jones) has tried to help by investing all his money in a racehorse named Hi Hat, which he hopes will win enough to pay off the sanatorium debts.

Meanwhile, to stop the sanatorium’s main patient and possible donor Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont ) from leaving her favourite Doctor, Hugo Hackenbush (Groucho Marx) has been brought into the sanatorium to help. Little does Emily Upjohn, or anyone else, know is that Dr. Hugo Hackenbush is really a Horse Doctor!…


“A Day at the Races”, basically the last truly great ‘Marx Brothers’ comedy, ranks up there for me in the top 2, jostling for the top spot with the classic “Animal Crackers”.
It was also the last ‘Marx Brothers’ film that young MGM guru Irwin Thalberg produced as he died, (dogged by ill health for years) at just 37 years old, in the middle of production.
But if he was to leave a ‘Marx Brothers’ legacy, then he could not have picked a finer one than this.

Perhaps even more so than “Animal Crackers” (and indeed the superb “Horse Feathers”) “Races” highlights all 3 Brothers at their best both as solo and group performers.
If it is Groucho Marx who ultimately owns the film with his most enjoyable character (indeed his own favourite) Dr. Hackenbush, but both Chico and Harpo are given some great scenes and their extended work with Groucho (this features maybe their longest set-pieces as a threesome) is the best the Brothers have ever done next to the classroom scene in “Horse Feathers”.

Highlights in the first 30 minutes alone are numerous and in one case the best single routine they ever did, the famous ‘Tootsie-Frootsie ice cream’ sequence, appears to give “Races” a gem of an opening.
This classic moment sees the normally sly Groucho being well and truly played by Chico who is selling tips on horses (incognito as an ice cream salesman).
A quick $1 slip of paper, supposedly with the name of the sure thing horse on, is just the start of a joyously absurd exchange as Groucho’s Hackenbush finds he needs to purchase book after book after book to simply decode the name of his horse.
It’s perfectly acted, played and staged and has a wonderful pay-off. It’s not only a classic example of why the ‘Marx’s’ are so damn beloved, but a genuinely classic comedy moment that can stand with anything in the genre.

Unlike “Monkey Business” where, quick fire delivery or not, his funny lines seem to have vanished, Groucho is given virtually an entire script of verbal gold here. From his first scene to his last this is pure undiluted Groucho greatness.
With machine gun rate delivery he dazzles us with (famously well honed during touring) verbal routines and gags.
Dr. Hackenbush: “To begin with I took four years at Vassar“.
Mrs. Upjohn: “Vassar? But that's a girls' college“!
Dr. Hackenbush: “I found that out the third year. I'd 've been there yet, but I went out for the swimming team“.

Tony: “Have you got a woman in here“?
Dr. Hackenbush:
“If I haven't, I've wasted 30 minutes of valuable time“.

Dr. Hackenbush (pointing to a portrait of one of Judy's parents): “You know, I proposed to your mother once“.
Judy: “But that's my father“!
Dr. Hackenbush: “No wonder he turned me down“!

With great delight Groucho’s Hackenbush also rips into the stuffy and the ever welcome Sig Ruman as a gruff, bristled, Germanic Doctor (“Don't point that beard at me! It might go off”!) and his faux phone-call, split screen, scene with Whitmore is a absolute riot as Whitmore (wonderfully played by Ceeley) is reduced to a shrieking wreck as Hackenbush flicks between being the telephone operator, a befuddled Southern Doctor on the line and himself in the sanatorium, on the intercom, telling the flustered Whitmore to stop shouting.

Two superb sequences that see all 3 Brothers sparking off each other to perfection are an examination of Harpo’s Stuffy by Hackenbush and an examination of Mrs Upjohn by all of them.
In the first routine Groucho and Chico verbally spa with genius comic timing as Harpo delivers delightful, mute, support in the doctor’s chair.
Dr. Hackenbush (taking Stuffy’s pulse); “Either he's dead or my watch has stopped“.
Dr. Hackenbush (looking closely at Stuffy through an eyeglass): “I haven't seen anything like this in years. The last time I saw a head like that was in a bottle of formaldehyde“.
Tony: “Told you he was sick“.
Dr. Hackenbush: “That's all pure desecration along there. He's got about a 15% metabolism, with an overactive thyroid and a glandular affectation of about 3%“.
Tony: "That's bad".
Dr. Hackenbush: “With a 1% mentality. He's what we designate as the ‘crummy moronic type‘.
All in all, this is the most gruesome looking piece of blubber I've ever peered at“.
Tony: “Hey doc. Hey doc“!
Dr. Hackenbush: “Huh“?
Tony: “You gotta da looking glass turned around, you're looking at yourself“!

The second examination is pure slapstick anarchy at its finest as all 3 Brothers try to delay the examination of Mrs Upjohn (the lovely Dumont being a real trooper as she is bent, bashed and generally mistreated on a folding examination couch) with constant hand washing, zany antics, Groucho insults and a horse!
Again the comic timing is perfect.

Harpo and Chico have a classic duet scene as well as the mute Stuffy, via whistles and a manic game of charades, tries to warn Chico’s Tony that Hackensbush is being framed by a glamorous femme fatale (a great straight support turn by Esther Muir) and they both have their best ever musical moments with their harp and piano. Chico’s piano scene is particularly fun and frivolous and he’s particularly, gloriously, eccentric in his ‘pistol finger’ playing style.

Mention of music does being up one of the real big hates though as far as “Races” goes for ‘Marx Brothers’ fans. It’s a big MGM watery stage show where Allen Jones warbles on a boat before the film truly stops dead for a damn ballet!
Thank Christ for the DVD chapter skip button (indeed on the DVD commentary Glenn Mitchell admits he’s going to skip it too!), but after this sequence the film soon gets back on the right comic track with no reason to touch that skip button again.
These musical/dance moments are generally loathed nowadays, but they worked well for the 1930’s audiences (where some of Jones’ songs became big gramophone hits) and Thalberg astutely knew such sequences helped to anchor the utterly anarchic Marx antics to a more recognisable, mainstream user-friendly, base that saw them have their biggest box office successes.

The other big song and dance sequence is actually one, despite a rather cloying cuteness, that works and is actually entertaining. Hiding out in a barn we see the Marx’s and Allen (who it has to be said does a better, more likeable, ‘Zeppo’ than Zeppo) taking stock when Harpo walks outside to reveal the barn is in fact in the middle of a little shanty town populated by Black rural workers (including The Duke Ellington Band no less) and lots of cute kids.
Quite what this town is isn’t explained, but it gives us a talent filled mix of 3 different songs as Harpo plays his flute and leads the adults and children (like some pantomime Pied Piper but with only goodwill in mind) around shacks and into the barn, where perhaps the most famous song in a ‘Marx Brothers’ film is bashed out ("All God's Chillun Got Rhythm") as some wonderfully crafted Swing/Jive dance routines flip and spin across the screen.
Unsubtle and rather stereotypical (singing, jolly, coloured folks happy with their lot) it may be but it’s a lot of good natured fun, well sung and danced, and adds a genuine feel of comradeship to the proceedings as all come together to help our heroes against the nasty Morgan and the corrupt local Sheriff.
This sequence has a nice payoff at the very end as well as we see everyone who helped benefiting from the expected triumphant (though very much fantasy) outcome.

The race track finale is perhaps the single best finale to any ‘Marx Brothers’ film as it’s a bona-fide narrative sequence and a fine plot wrap-up while also being packed with slapstick humour and utterly anarchic chaos and destruction (though thanks to Thalberg the Marx’s love of attacking order with chaos now has a moral reason, helping Judy, as opposed to simply just being destructive) that is pure ‘Marx Brothers’ buffoonery.
Mind you morals seem to be missing a far as the treatment of Mrs Upjohn by Judy goes. It is made obvious there is nothing really wrong with her but she is happy to have Hackenbush continue to make her think she has all kinds of weird illnesses (low blood pressure on one side of her body, high on the other!) to snag her money!
That’s actually the kind of self-serving naughtiness the ‘Marx Brothers’ would have embraced in their early films!

With the blessing of helpful technology, that now means you can skip past the unwelcome song and dance blip in the middle of the film, “A Day at the Races” is now truly a classic ’Marx Brothers’ film and one that is far more consistent and stronger in its comedy content than their first MGM outing “A Night at the Opera” (a film that “Races” is wrongly in the shadow of for some reason) .
And with some of their best musical numbers (watery rubbish aside of course) , a very strong support cast (O’Sullivan is quite a catch here) and an interesting narrative, to add to some of the best comedy routines the ’Marx Brothers’ ever did, means this is utterly essential viewing for old fans and newcomers alike.