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A Day at the Races

A Day at the Races (1937)


     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


The Thin Man

The Thin Man (1934)


     I first noticed The Thin Man movies when I was working at a retail movie store in college. We had a box set of the collection valued at something like $100. The box itself did not make the movies look like much — some old, boring black-and-white flicks, I figured. On one occasion I had a group of middle-aged folk come in and ask if we had any of the films. I offered them the box set as our only copies and thought there was no chance they would drop the full $100 to get the set, but boy was I surprised. After that sale my interest was certainly peaked, but it was not until more than two years ago when I spotted the first one airing on TCM. I rewatched it last night with Ryan in an attempt to entice him to watch the full series, which I now own in box-set form.

     The Thin Man is the first in a series of films with similar titles but the only one I’ve watched so far for which the title actually makes sense. “The thin man” is not the lead character of William Powell‘s Nick Charles, but of a suspect hunted throughout the entire film and to which is referred as a “thin man” only once, I believe. I’m sure the series continued with the name merely to connect all the films back to the first, which, once you see it, you’ll understand must have been a tremendous hit.

     The Thin Man has the advantage of being a murder-mystery, action, drama and comedy, which as I mentioned on Charade is pretty much my favorite combination. Powell’s retired detective character spends about half the movie trying not to be brought in on the case of a missing man/murder … times three. The mystery is very complex and is impossible for the viewer to disseminate on his own, which is why we rely on Powell to lay the whole story down at the end of the movie.

     The crowning jewel to The Thin Man movies is the Charles family. Myrna Loy plays the wife, Nora, and the comedic chemistry between the two actors truly comes to light. The pair did several other movies with each other, but they are probably at their best in The Thin Man. Nora is a woman “with hair on her chest” who can joke just as thoroughly as her husband. In one instance, to save Nora from being shot, Nick socks her in the jaw before tackling the gunman. Upon revival, the woman says:

Did you have to knock me out? I knew you could take him, but I wanted to see you do it.”

Joining the family is their dog, Asta, a character that adds to the comedy and helps solve the mystery, of course.

     The Thin Man is the perfect picture for anyone’s preference in movies. It works as a family film because it’s as clean as most movies from that era, and it has the excitement and humor for any discerning taste. I must warn, however, that once you see the first, you’re likely to look for the next and might end up buying a box set, as was my fate.

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