Why is it that Marx Brothers movies are crafted in a way that they could nearly be classified as musicals? Although the men themselves offer no notable vocal talents, their movies often had supporting actors who might go off on a song or two. In A Day at the Races, we are subjected to a number of musical productions separate from the talents of Chico and Harpo, who typically found themselves showing off their respective instrumental skill.
Following one such song by our side male lead of Allan Jones as Gil, Chico takes to the piano for an uplifting ditty and to keep the law at bay. Harpo follows up by pounding the piano producing a not-so-bad tune but demolishing the instrument in the process. Thereafter, he play the “harp” by using the piano’s stringed insides. Harpo would also later play a wind instrument and spur a lively musical number featuring a large group of black stablehands. The fabulous song will remind astute ears of “I’ve Got Rhythm” and ”Blow Gabriel Blow” and features Ivie Anderson and members of Duke Ellington’s orchestra.
But musical numbers in Marx Brothers movies always seem a distraction from the actual plot and merely a device to fill up some play time. The story here has nothing to do with anyone’s musical talents, although Gil is mentioned as having a slight singing career, but he is more interested in horse racing. That is where the whole “Races” part of the title comes in. Gil buys a race horse Hi Hat in the hopes of winning some races and providing the financial support his girlfriend needs to keep her sanitarium running. The girlfriend, Judy (Maureen O’Sullivan), must produce some dough to keep the story’s villain Morgan (Douglas Dumbrille) from taking over the institution and transforming it into a casino. Morgan also happens to be the former owner of Hi Hat whose voice drives the horse wild, a detail that will come in handy later.
Because Gil’s money-raising efforts are failing, Judy hopes that a wealthy woman who thinks she is ill will help fund the sanitarium she calls home. This Mrs. Upjohn, played by Margaret Dumont, is particularly bewitched with Groucho‘s Dr. Hackenbush, whom Judy arranges to come work at her institution. Both women are unaware, however, that Hackenbush is a horse doctor. All sorts of absurdity ensue with Groucho as a fake doctor, Chico as the sanitarium bus driver, and Harpo as a jockey, all working to help Judy save her institution.
Ever the favorites of MGM Producer Irving Thalberg, the brothers were sent out at his behest to theaters around the country to try out new material they could use in this picture. These were some of the arbitrary games the men play in the picture that have little to do with the plot but are their trademark. Thalberg, however, died while A Day at the Race was in the works, upsetting the Marx boys and shuffling the production credits.
One of the gags utilized in A Day at the Races would reappear a few years later in Go West. This circulating money routine involves Chico paying a $5 bill to the sheriff to pay for the horse and when the recipient pockets the bill, Harpo retrieves it and passes behind the man’s back to Chico, who pays it again. This works until the Sheriff stuffs the money into his vest pocket rather than his pants and Harpo is left digging in the trousers and leaving with only the sheriff’s sock.
Possibly the best scam in A Day at the Races is perpetrated by Chico’s Tony, who also works selling “ice cream”, “tutsie frutsie” to be precise. Operating on a new-to-town Dr. Hackenbush, Tony persuades him not to put his money on one horse but instead buy a $1 tip from him for on whom to bet. The doctor agrees, but the tip is in code. Now he must buy from Tony’s ice cream cart a code book. That document is also not clear on the horse’s name and requires information about whether it is a filly, which requires the purchase of another set of documents. By the time Hackenbush discovers the horse’s name he is too late to place a bet and Tony has used his money to back the winning horse, which happens to be the one Hackenbush liked from the start.
Although I still maintain the pointless endeavors of the Marx Brothers in Horse Feathers as my favorite of their excapades, A Day at the Races had its moments. These largely involved getting the boys alone to go off on one routine or another and are as enjoyable as ever.
- A Day at the Races is set for 7:30 a.m. ET Oct. 16 and 10:30 a.m. Dec. 31 on TCM.
Source: Robert Osborne