Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Day at the Races (1937) * * *

Judy Standish (Maureen O'Sullivan) is running her late father's Standish Sanitarium with the help of Tony (Chico Marx) and jockey Stuffy (Harpo Marx). But the sanitarium is losing money and the creditor, J.D. Morgan (Douglass Dumbrille) owner of the local race track, is threatening to foreclose if the debt isn't paid off by the end of the month. Morgan wants to take over Judy's sanitarium and turn it into a casino. To add to Judy's troubles, rich patient Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont) plans to leave because the doctors have the nerve to tell her that she is healthy. The wealthy hypochondriac orders her luggage taken to the train station so her previous physician, Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho Marx) can treat her.

Tony: Getta your Tootsie Frootsie ice cream!

Thinking quickly, Tony sends a telegraph off to Hackenbush asking him to come to the sanitarium. Dr. Hackenbush arrives, but it turns out he's a veterinarian, not a licensed physician, but that doesn't stop him from treating patients. Whitmore (Leonard Ceeley), Judy's business manager, tries to discredit the veterinarian as a horse doctor illegally employed as the sanitarium director. He encourages Judy to sell the sanitarium to Morgan for $5000, but she declines because she believes Dr. Hackenbush will save the sanitarium.

Gil: Are you a man or a mouse?
Dr. Hackenbush: You put a piece of cheese down there and you'll find out.

Dr. Hackenbush, Tony, and Stuffy try to save Judy's sanitarium by winning a big race with horse "Hi Hat" owned by Judy's boyfriend Gil (Allan Jones). Gil discovers the horse is a jumper and not a racer, so the boys try to win a major steeplechase race, while villain Morgan and his men try to prevent the horse from getting onto the race track. To try to expose Dr. Hackenbush as a fraud, the bad guys call in Dr. Leopold X. Steinberg (Siegfried Rumann). He investigates Dr. Hackenbush’s qualifications with an interrogation and medical exam.

Mrs. Upjohn: Dr. Hackenbush tells me I'm the only case in history. I have high blood pressure on my right side and low blood pressure on my left side.
Dr. Steinberg: There is no such thing. She looks as healthy as any woman I ever met.
Dr. Hackenbush: You don't look as though you've ever met a healthy woman.
Dr. Steinberg: Where did you study?
Dr. Hackenbush: Oh, well, uh, 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.
Whitmore: Just a minute, Mrs Upjohn. That looks like a horse pill to me.
Dr. Hackenbush: Oh, you've taken them before.
Mrs. Upjohn: Are you sure, Doctor, you haven't made a mistake?
Dr. Hackenbush: You have nothing to worry about. The last patient I gave one of those to won the Kentucky Derby.
Whitmore: May I examine this, please? Do you actually give those to your patients? Isn't it awfully large for a pill?
Dr. Hackenbush: Well, it was too small for a basketball, and I didn't know what to do with it. Say, you're awfully large for a pill yourself.
(Stuffy blows a balloon during a medical exam)
Dr. Hackenbush: If that's his adam's apple, he's got yellow fever.
Whitmore: The doctor seems reluctant to discuss his medical experiences.
Dr. Hackenbush: Well, medically, my experiences have been most unexciting. Except during the flu epidemic.
Whitmore: Ah, and what happened?
Dr. Hackenbush: I got the flu. And I've got a question for you: Steinberg, what do you do with your old razor blades?

Dr. Hackenbush keeps busy wooing wealthy matron Emily Upjohn to help Judy. There are many hilarious complications, and in the end the sanitarium is saved. The extended race finale is both funny and moderately tense.

The film uses its plot as the framework for a series of skits. Among them is the "Tootsie Fruitsie ice cream" skit, considered one of the funniest scenes in the movie, in which Chico gives Groucho a tip on a horse, but all in code, so that Groucho has to buy book after book from Chico to decipher the code. Another skit involves Chico and Harpo trying to interrupt a frame job involving Groucho's seduction by a femme fatale Flo Marlowe (Esther Muir). When they fail to dissuade Groucho from his interest in the woman, they end up disrupting the frame-up by concealing themselves under layers of wallpaper, using a bucket perched on Harpo's head to hold the paste.

Dr. Hackenbush: If I hold you any closer, I'll be in back of you.
Tony: Have you got a woman in here?
Dr. Hackenbush: If I haven't, I've wasted 30 minutes of valuable time. You've got it all wrong. This is my aunt. She's come to talk over some old family matters.
Tony: I wish I had an aunt look like that.
Dr. Hackenbush: Well, take it up with your uncle.

Songs in the movie are "Tomorrow Is Another Day" and "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm". Two more songs were filmed but cut. One, "Dr. Hackenbush" was sung by Groucho about what a great doctor he is: "No matter what I treat them for they die from something else". The other, "A Message From The Man In The Moon", is missing from the main part of the film but shows up in the titles and is reprised by Dr. Hackenbush for the happy ending. The real fun from a Marx Brothers film comes from the one-liners and comedic set pieces, and the gags here rival their best material.

Dr. Hackenbush: Either he's dead or my watch has stopped.

A DAY AT THE THE RACES was the Marx Brothers' seventh film and their second for MGM. It was the follow-up to A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935) and basically recycles its lunatic formula. RACES has longer and more lavish production numbers, and a more solid plot. And though this outing isn't quite as funny as OPERA, the boys are in fine form here, performing difficult classic routines with such skill that they come across as effortless. It's easy to imagine the "Tootsie Frootsie" sequence dragging and dying if the lines hadn't been performed perfectly. Apart from the routines, the strength of the script lies in its coherence, a quality often lacking in other Marx efforts. What's surprising is how animated perennial foil Margaret Dumont is in this film. She is also oddly out of character as a neurotic whiner rather than a marble pillar of society there to be toppled by Groucho. Although the score's big ballad is not impressive, its two production numbers--one of which features an art deco set using lily pad tables, fountains and a Vivian Fay dance routine--are memorable. The other is simpler, but packs a greater wallop: Ivie Anderson and the Crinoline Choir perform "All God's Children Got Rhythm". It's one of the most influential lindy hop dance sequences ever filmed, danced by the Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, including Frankie Manning, Al Minns and Norma Miller. The scene has no clear association with the plot, in order to simplify editing the scene from the film for release in the southern American states under censorship laws.

Dr. Hackenbush: 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: (pointing to Stuffy's neck) 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 the looking glass turned around, you're looking at yourself.

This is the last of the Marx Brothers' classic films. While follow-ups like ROOM SERVICE (1938) have some wonderful moments, they lack the sparkle found in the Marx Brothers' best work. In RACES the pretension-busting Brothers are once again rebels on the side of the status quo. It could have been another OPERA, but instead it's the beginning of the end for the boys, the last "good" Marx Brothers movie, with enough great moments to make it an essential item for fans.

The cast also includes: Robert Middlemass (Sheriff), Vivien Fay (Speciality Dancer), Ivie Anderson (Specialty Singer), The Crinoline Choir (Musical Ensemble), Hooper Atchley (Race judge), King Baggot (Race Track Official Starter), Kenny Baker (Dance Extra), Vivian Barry (Telephone girl), Barbara Bedford (Secretary), Edna Bennett (Nurse), Troy Brown Jr. (Black singer), Ben Carter (Black singer), Jacqueline Clancy (child), Gino Corrado (Man Boarding Bus), DeForest Covan, George Cowl, Jack Daley, Dorothy Dandridge, Dudley Dickerson, Billy Dooley, Edward Earle, and many others. Walter Jurmann, Bronislau Kaper, and Franz Waxman composed the music. Robert Pirosh, George Seaton, and George Oppenheimer wrote the screenplay from a story by Pirosh and Seaton. Sam Wood directed.

Warner Brothers' DVD is from a sterling print that gives us a black and white image that's clean, clear, sharp, and well balanced. While the dynamic range of its DD 1.0 monaural audio is thin, the sound is as clear and clean as we could hope for, but with a slight hiss to it. The DVD comes with several extras, so you really get your money's worth, even if you aren't quite thrilled with all of the offerings. In a retrospective, "On Your Marx, Get Set, Go!" (27 minutes), Maureen O'Sullivan, Dom DeLuise, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Robert Osborne, and others talk about the Marxes and the film. The documentary is based on the same structure as on the DVD of A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, which means there's valuable trivia and knowledge from comedians, co-stars, and writers, and also Dom DeLuise talking about food. The commentary track is relatively good when author and Marx Brothers scholar Glenn Mitchell is actually speaking, but there's an unfortunate amount of dead air. Some of the trivia he mentions is interesting, but he has a habit of pointing out continuity errors and things that most viewers don't care about. Also included are three vintage MGM cartoons, which are quite clearly from a different age, and other extras such as Robert Benchley's 1937 short "A Night at the Movies" (10 minutes). An Audio Vault has a recently rediscovered recording session of Allan Jones singing "A Message from the Man in the Moon," which was cut from the film, and the "Leo is on the Air" Radio Promo that previewed A DAY AT THE THE RACES for radio audiences. The film's theatrical trailer is also included. This movie is available separately or as part of the "Marx Brothers Collection" DVD box set. Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.

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