Movie Review: A DAY AT THE RACES, 1937

Movie Reviews

Directed by Sam Wood
Starring: The Marx Brothers
Review by Steven Painter


Doctor Hugo Hackenbush, Tony, and Stuffy try and save Judy’s farm by winning a big race with her horse. There are a few problems. Hackenbush runs a high priced clinic for the wealthy who don’t know he has his degree in Veterinary Medicine.

OSCAR NOMINEE – Best Dance Direction


In 1933 the Marx Brothers released Duck Soup. The movie was a commercial failure. Today it is considered by film scholars to be the Marx Brothers’ best work, but at the time it caused Groucho, Chico and Harpo to leave Parmount. It also caused Zeppo to leave the group in order to pursue a career as an agent.The three Marx Brothers ended up at MGM where they made A Night at the Opera in 1935 under the watchful eye of film genius Irving Thalberg. The movie was a smash hit and was considered by Groucho to be the best movie the Marx Brothers ever made.In 1937 the Marx Brothers followed up A Night at the Opera with A Day at the Races. This movie took the same basic formula that Thalberg had used to make A Night at the Opera a success. A plot was used to weave together four or five big comedy scenes. Also the antagonists in each movie were beefed up so that they could cause real harm to the Brothers, unlike in the Parmount movies where the bad guys were just straight men to the jokes thrown out by Harpo, Chico and Groucho.

A Day at the Races is a decent movie. It is worlds better than anything the Marx Brothers did after, but it is not as good as the movies that preceded it. One of the reasons might be that it runs for 111 minutes. Compare this to Duck Soup and Horse Feathers (1932), which each lasted for just over an hour. The Marx Brothers comedy is based on speed. Groucho delivers his one-liners quickly. Chico’s brain takes some time to work, but his timing is still quicker than a lot of modern comedies. The comedy suffers when a Marx Brothers movie lasts for almost two hours. The normal lulls that occur during the musical portions of their movies is really drawn out here.

Anyway, the story involves Groucho as veterinarian Hugo Z. Hackenbush. Hackenbush happens to be the only doctor who the wealthy Mrs. Upjohn, played by Margaret Dumont, feels comfortable receiving treatment from. Mrs. Upjohn is staying at the Standish Sanitarium, which is about to be sold to some developers and turned into a casino. It is vital that Mrs. Upjohn get treated and then donate the necessary money to keep the Sanitarium running as a sign of thanks.

That is the basic plotline. Chico is an assistant to Judy Standish, the head of the sanitarium, and one of our two lovebirds. Alan Jones, who took over for Zeppo, plays her love interest. Harpo is a jockey at the racetrack near the Sanitarium. He becomes involved with the plot, loosely, because Jones’ character buys a race horse.

One of the great things about the Marx Brothers is that before they would shoot a movie, they would go on the road with their four or five major comedy routines written and perform those for a live audience. During this tour Groucho’s character was called Quackenbush, but apparently there were numerous Dr. Quackenbush’s who complained about the name. So instead of being a quack, Groucho’s veterinarian parading as a medical doctor is a hack.

Today there are three major comedy scenes that are memorable, although it was probably intended to make the ending a major comedy routine as well. Too bad it tends to drag on.The first great routine occurs when Groucho finds out there is a racetrack near by after being introduced as the new head doctor of the Sanitarium. He goes to check out the track and finds Chico, who offers to sell him some hot racing tips. Groucho eventually agrees and buys the tip. It is written in code however. So Groucho has to buy a book from Chico in order to decipher the code. This book refers him to another book. So Groucho buys another and another. Eventually Chico tells him he has to buy a whole set of books. So Groucho does and finds out what the code means. By this time the race has started and Chico has already placed all the money Groucho gave him on the horse Groucho wanted to bet on. Chico’s horse wins and he’s happy. He leaves Groucho standing with his whole body covered in books.

In the 1930s a new game took the country by storm. It was called charades. Naturally there would be no better player than Harpo. As happens quite frequently in Marx Brothers movies, Harpo finds out the evil plot that will unravel all the happiness in the movie. Since he can’t talk he has to communicate the evil plans somehow. Here he tries to warn Chico of a femme fetale’s plot to be caught while alone in the same room as Groucho, thus making Mrs. Upjohn angry and assuring that the sanitarium becomes a casino. Harpo’s charades work after a while and Chico understands what is about to happen. Harpo does a great imitation of Groucho’s walk and puts his finger under his nose like a mustache, but Chico’s first guess is “Buffalo Bill goes ice skating.”

That night Chico and Harpo do their best to break up Groucho and the femme fetale’s meeting. They bring up room service. They dress like Sherlock Holmes detectives and bring a dog. To which Groucho throws a piece of meat and the dog drags Chico around the room. They end up as wallpaper pasters and drop wallpaper on Groucho and the girl, just as Mrs. Upjohn is brought to the room by the evil developer. She is irate at what has happened to the room, but not at Groucho’s actions.

The final big scene occurs when the casino developers bring in a real doctor. They say that he can assure Mrs. Upjohn that nothing is the matter with her. Groucho and his two assistants, Chico and Harpo, do their best to stall the examination. They finally have to examine Mrs. Upjohn and end up trying to give her a shave, as well as many other things. In classic Marx Brothers fashion a horse comes galloping through the examination room and the three Brothers jump on it and leave the room.A Day at the Races is good up to this point. Then there is a minstrel song and finally the long drawn out ending in which Harpo ride’s Jones’ horse to victory in a race and everything ends happily. The movie can be considered the last good Marx Brothers film. This was also the last good movie they did for MGM. Thalberg, who really enjoyed the Marx Brothers, died suddenly during the filming of the movie. They did not have someone who understood or wanted their brand of comedy around, so they were kicked out on the streets once again, much like they were in their two MGM movies before they came back for the grand finale. Only this time there would be no grand finale for their career.

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