Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.
Where A Day at the Races (1937) is referenced in Life Itself: In the first edition hardback, A Day at the Races is referenced on page 28. Roger remembers the film as his first trip to the cinema. He says he was so young at the time that he had to stand on his seat to see the screen. He also remembers this occasion as the hardest he’s ever heard his father laugh & mentions that his father was a huge Marx Brothers fan, having seen them on the vaudeville stage before they were in motion pictures.
What Ebert had to say in his review: Roger never had the chance to review the film proper, but he does recount the very same anecdote about watching A Day at the Races as a child in his “Great Movies” review of Duck Soup.
The seventh Marx Brothers feature film, A Day at the Races is par for the course in terms of the impossibly talented comedy crew/family’s brand of sublime silliness & rapidfire insanity. I’ve only ever seen a few Marx Brothers titles, leaning towards indisputable classics like A Night at the Opera & (my personal favorite) Duck Soup, but their comedic style is so instantly comfortable & genuinely funny that familiarity with their work is not necessary for enjoying their material. I have no qualms admitting that of all the comedic acts that spilled over from vaudeville to motion pictures, the Marx Brothers are an easy favorite for me, outshining even names like Charlie Chaplin and Abbott & Costello. I’d like to say that this is due to the quick, oddly sophisticated wit of Marx Brothers poster boy Groucho, but the truth is that it’s Harpo who steals my heart in every picture. Taking physical, slapstick comedy to deeply deranged, yet subtly masterful territory, Harpo is a one of a kind talent. Part of the reason I ended up liking the somewhat minor Marx title A Day at the Races so much is that Harpo is so damn funny in it. I was laughing at his madman antics as the criminal horse jockey Stuffy so hard that almost all of the film’s third act problems (of which there are many) ultimately felt meaningless.
The plot of A Day at the Races concerns a young couple in financial crisis. An entrepreneur owner of a sanitarium (a type of health resort) is struggling to keep her business alive & out of the hands of overeager financial vultures. Her bonehead beau is a musician who foolishly decides to get into the horseracing business without knowing thing one about what he’s doing. Groucho, Harpo, and Chico Marx get caught up in both ends of this struggle. Chico & Harpo help the musician doofus evade the law & prepare his horse to race in competition. Chico & Groucho conspire to keep a wealthy hypochondriac, Mrs. Upjohn, enrolled in the sanitarium’s care, luring her into complacency through seduction & encouragement of her groundless worrying. Long story short, they all fail miserably. Groucho is ludicrously incompetent as Dr. Hackenbush (originally named Dr. Quackenbush, but subsequently changed due to fear that the dozen or so real Dr. Quackenbushes in the country might potentially sue), a veterinarian posing as a medical doctor, an easily recognizable hack/quack (it’s right there in the name, after all). When described as “a doctor with peculiar talents”, he retorts that he has “the most peculiar talents of any doctor around.” Harpo is a silent, deranged jockey who sends far more time running from the sheriff that he does wining races. Chico plays both sides of the coin as an eternal huckster who’s always able to scrape by on a quick buck, but rarely able to pull off any large scale schemes. Their collective incompetence brings the whole story down to the fate of both the sanitarium & the potential marriage of the central couple depending on the outcome of a single horse race. Its a tidy conclusion to a very messy farce that largely exists to support the Marx Brothers’ zany comedy antics, which are all top notch even when the film isn’t trying too hard on a formal level.
As I said, there are some major third act problems with A Day at the Races that keep it from being an entirely perfect product. The fact that it boasts the all-time longest Marx Brothers runtime weighs heavily on the proceedings. There’s a definite point towards the end where the laughter starts to die down & it transitions into time-to-constantly-check-your-watch territory. At first it’s endearing that A Day at the Races fits firmly in the kind of Old Hollywood variety show spectacle that tries to have it all: romance, suspense, comedy, musical numbers, etc. It’s the exact kind of expensive mixed bag that Josh Brolin’s overworked producer struggles to hold together in Hail, Caesar!. By the time it reaches its second song & dance number this variety is a little more trying. It’s time for the movie to wrap up its plot, so a sequence where Harpo plays a demonic pied piper to a poor black community who burst into a rendition of “All God’s Chillun’ Got Rhythm”that might normally be a welcome diversion in another context starts to feel like wasted time. It also doesn’t help that this sequence is played like a long setup for an unfortunate punchline involving the Marx Brothers evading the law by donning blackface to “blend in”. All of this and a singularly terrible performance by an overacting oaf playing an indignant Dr. Steinberg that goes way too broad to remain endearing, perhaps even watchable, which is saying a lot for a comedy this zany.
With or without that mess of a concluding half hour, though, A Day the the Races is a finely tuned comedic act, one that values spotlighting the talents of its three sibling stars over telling a concise, well-rounded story. It’s no wonder that Ebert remembers his first trip to the cinema so vividly as the hardest he’s ever seen his father laugh. The film really is a laugh riot, especially in its early proceedings. Watching Harpo chew & swallow a thermometer (with a chaser clearly marked “POISON”) when Dr. Hackenbush takes his temperature in one scene & turn around to beautifully pluck the strings of a harp in another is a treat I’ll never forget. Groucho’s proto-Bugs Bunny one-liners & Chico’s slick, smooth-talking scams are also pricelessly amusing, even if I’m heavily biased toward Harpo’s particular brand of comedic madness. A Day at the Races is widely considered the beginning of the end for the Marx Brothers’ cinematic winning streak, but for me the joke never felt stale in this film, just a little overlong & unfocused in the back end.
Roger’s Rating: N/A
Brandon’s Rating: (4/5, 80%)
Next Lesson: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)