Movie Review: A DAY AT THE RACES, 1937

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A DAY AT THE RACES, 1937
Movie Reviews

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

SYNOPSIS:

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.

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REVIEW:

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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Movie Review: A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, 1935

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A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, 1935
Movie Reviews

Directed by Sam Wood
Starring: The Marx Brothers
Review by Jeremy Richards

SYNOPSIS:

Rosa and Ricardo are two aspiring opera singers and lovers. Rosa is close to fame, while Ricardo is forced into the background. Enter Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx), an opera manager trying to marry the widowed Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), who is a large contributor to the opera. While spending a night at the opera, Otis runs into old friends Fiorello (Chico Marx) and Tomasso (Harpo Marx), who manage Ricardo’s career. Unwittingly, Groucho signs Ricardo as his client, but can convince no-one of his talent. The four men set off from Italy to New York in search of Rosa and fame; however, found out as stowaways, they become fugitives in America and lose all prestige with the opera companies. Their only chance is to sabotage the stage and prove their talent one night at the opera.

REVIEW:

The Marx Brother’s comedic genius shines through in “A Night at the Opera,” one of their most popular films ever. Including some of the brother’s famous vaudevillian jokes, the film also went on to have two hit songs. The jokes are delivered with such speed and conviction that by the time you get one you may have missed the next. Brothers Chico and Groucho play off each other and the entire cast; all the while Harpo Marx delivers his unique brand of slapstick. The film has gone on to become a classic, so much so that the Library of Congress keeps this film preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry.

Made in 1935, this black and white movie may not hold up to the acting styles we are used to from today’s Hollywood stars. Then again, some Hollywood stars may find it difficult to keep up with the comedic timing the brothers perfected while working in Vaudeville. The jokes are usually a simple set-up and punch line style, with almost the entire cast playing straight roles to the brothers’ comedic fools. Particularly in this film, the brothers were encouraged to practice the jokes while they were performing their live stage show, to see what kind of laughs they could get from the audience.

This film also has a romantic sub-plot between two opera singers. Although uncommon today, a film like this would often have romantic sub-plots, songs, and of course the brothers’ comedy. This was also a common theme in Vaudeville, where there would be many different types of entertainment on one stage in an evening. Subsequently, two of the songs sung in this film later went on to become hits of their day.

Again this is an older style of film, so don’t expect many camera tricks or special effects. There are no rapid close ups and most of the scenes have few cuts if any at all. Despite this, there are still famous action sequences of Harpo Marx doing his own stunts, like hanging off the side of a cruise ship, and swinging on ropes behind the scenes during an opera.

In the early days of film there weren’t the same capabilities as today. Theatre was the only way to see this kind of show, so the films were set up very similarly. The brothers had perfected their characters on the stage, and were very simply transporting them to film. What film allowed the brothers to do was have an hour-and-a-half dedicated to their unique humour, as well as allowing the brothers to showcase their other talents. I don’t think there is a Marx Brother’s film which does not include a scene with Harpo playing the harp.

This film represented a few firsts for the brothers, such as switching to MGM studios from Paramount. Some of the suggestions made by MGM were to make the brothers’ characters more helpful to the two lovers instead of making everyone the butt of their jokes. This is also the first film were brother Zeppo Marx didn’t play the role of the romantic lead. Zeppo had left the group, feeling he didn’t have any more to contribute, as his character wasn’t well-fleshed-out. Zeppo became a talented Hollywood agent. Rumour has it though, that Zeppo could play a better Groucho than Groucho himself.

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