A Day at the Races: A Marx Brothers Retrospective

Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, and Groucho Marx in A Day at the Races. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

A Day at the Races is the second Marx Brothers vehicle after signing with MGM and the film is one of their five best films.

“If I hold you any closer, I’ll be in back of you.” – Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho Marx)

Groucho Marx is on record as saying that the Marx Brothers made their best films under Irving Thalberg. Thalberg’s 1936 death came while this film was under production. For better or worse, the film sticks to the same formula that worked for A Night at the Opera. It might work under Thalberg but formulas, as we know, grow stale and need to get changed up every once in a while. Regardless, the film is among the five best films that they produced between Paramount and MGM. Their other films were released by RKO Radio Pictures and United Artists. They would never be the same following Thalberg’s tragic death.

The Standish Sanitarium is not doing well financially. Tony (Chico Marx) offers to work for Judy Standish (Maureen O’Sullivan) for free until they’re able to bring in money. He even suggests turning to a patient, Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont), for raising the funds. The hope is that they could prevent J.D. Morgan (Douglass Dumbrille) from foreclosing on the Sanitarium so that he could build a casino. In typical fashion, their doctors tell Emily that she is healthy and she soon attempts to leave for treatment at another doctor. Tony lies by telling her that Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush will be running the place. Hackenbush is a horse doctor but this hasn’t stopped the Marx Brothers before–the first thing he does is insult business manager Mr. Whitmore (Leonard Ceely). Anyway, it’s enough for the patient to stay and pay the money.

Gil Stewart (Allan Jones), a singer and in a relationship with Judy, uses all of his money to purchase a racehorse from Morgan. The hope is for Hi-Hat to win a race and save the Sanitarium. All this is easier said than done because the horse has no love for Morgan. After spending money buying the horse, Gil has nothing to pay for the horse’s food so Gil, Tony, and Hi-Hat’s jockey, Stuffy (Harpo Marx), do what they can to get the Sheriff off their back, including scamming Hackenbush.

Whitmore does what he can to get Hackenbush run out of town. Unfortunately for him, the doctor intercepts the phone call. Since that didn’t work, he brings in a doctor from Vienna, Dr. Leopold X. Steinberg (Sig Ruman). Hackenbush realizes that he will not be lasting much longer and hides out in the stable. Ultimately, Whitmore exposes him as a horse doctor. Meanwhile, we get into one of the worst parts of the film in that it does not age well at all. The three Marx Brothers disguise themselves by wearing blackface. No matter what their intentions were, it was wrong then and it is still wrong today. A Day at the Races moves into its climax shortly thereafter with some trickery that would lead to expulsion from the likes of Churchill Downs or Keeneland.

Allan Jones once again stands in for Zeppo Marx. You can take Zeppo out of the films but someone still has to play the straight man and it’s not going to be Sig Ruman. Ruman, as usual, plays a comic foil to the brothers–this time, he portrays a doctor from Vienna.

Much like A Night at the Opera, the Marx Brothers would turn to the stage again as they work out material. It makes sense when one considers where they got their start. Everything ultimately works out in the end because the jokes work on screen. Except for the blackface but this just goes without saying. But anyway, this is their longest film with a 109-minute runtime. It’s so long that Allan Jones had a song cut. In all honesty, the film could use some trimming–a few minutes here and there.

A Day at the Races is one of the better films but it’s still missing some of the magic.

SCREENWRITERS: Robert Pirosh, George Seaton, and George Oppenheimer
CAST: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, with Allan Jones, Maureen O’Sullivan, and Margaret Dumont

MGM released A Day at the Races in theaters on June 11, 1937. Grade: 4/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.