(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
A Day at the Races is a bit of a comedown after A Night at the Opera, but then most things are.
Happily, the sense of worsening decay that marred the Marx Brothers’ final M-G-M films is not wholly present here, but there are some bad omens. The movie has two monstrosities that, if they’d been removed, would have lessened Races‘ load considerably.
One is the Water Carnival, an outrageously lavish production number that looks as though Broadway would be too small to hold it. The second, even more horrifying scene is when Harpo trundles through a black community containing every African-American stereotype known to man, and all of the blacks seize upon Harpo as “Gabriel.” This is only worsened when all three Marxes don blackface (!) as a supposed tribute to their black comrades. (Even when the Gabriel bit was reprised in At the Circus, it at least wasn’t the jaw-dropper it is here.)
That’s a great pity, because the comedy here is as great as anything the Marxes ever delivered. The premise is that sanitarium owner Judy (Maureen O’Sullivan) has 30 days to fend off the advances of Morgan (Douglass Dumbrille), who wants to foreclose on the sanitarium and turn it into a casino to complement his nearby race track. Judy’s fortune hinges on the huge fortune of Mrs. Upjohn (Margaret Dumont), who (shades of Duck Soup) will help Judy only if she will install her quack doctor, Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho), as the sanitarium head.
Races might well be Groucho Marx’s finest hour with the Marx Brothers. Chico and Harpo are hardly lacking for laughs (the charade scene and their interruption of Groucho’s hot date are both superb), but Groucho is the star attraction here — wheeling, dealing, dancing (see below), and basically proving himself to be as much of a phony as the villains believe him to be. He never operated at such full steam again in a movie, with or without his brothers.
Actually, producer Irving Thalberg’s choice of a sanitarium as a setting seems a bit bizarre, or at least dated. People can still relate to operatic pretensions being smashed, but let’s face it, do we really care whether or not the sanitarium gets saved? But as a clothesline on which to hang some great scenes and gags, it serves its purpose — whatever that is.
As well-documented elsewhere, A Day at the Races was the Marxes’ last hurrah before settling into ’40s formula. So enjoy it — water carnival and all.
(Less than six degrees of Marx separation: Nearly 50 years after A Day at the Races, Maureen O’Sullivan played a supporting role in Woody Allen’s glorious Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), where Woody’s climactic scene shows him watching Duck Soup as an affirmation of the good things in life.)