A Day at the Races
What parents need to know
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that this movie isn't nonstop comedy. It's got a plethora of musical numbers that bring the action to a halt (if you're lucky, a Marx Brother or two will join the instrumentalizing). Don't be surprised if kids lose interest, or just watch in between careful fast-forwards. One of the livelier musical numbers, with an overwhelmingly black cast of performers, has the reputation of pandering to negative racial stereotypes. The plot glorifies gambling and horse racing.
What's the story?
In A DAY AT THE RACES, Judy (Maureen O'Sullivan) has inherited a failing health-care sanitarium whose finances hinge on the lone patient, a wealthy hypochondriac Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont), who idolizes a shady Florida physician named Hugo Hackenbush (Groucho). Judy's friends Tony (Chico) and mute racetrack jockey Stuffy (Harpo) conspire to lure Dr. Hackenbush north to work at the sanitarium and continue Emily's patronage. The catch is that Dr. Hackenbush is actually an equine veterinarian, who just fakes qualifications as an M.D. for the money.
Is it any good?
You can pretty much forget the storyline. The commentary on the DVD version of A Day at the Races reveals that there were numerous scenes deleted, resulting in a narrative even more random and nonsensical (like the explanation for why Harpo keeps barfing up balloons) than it had to be. Great bits include Groucho getting conned repeatedly by Chico at the racetrack ("Get your tutsi-fruitsy ice creeeeeeam!"), and Groucho disastrously faking his way through conducting a medical exam. ("Don't point that beard at me; it might go off.") Lesser highlights are some large-scale musical numbers, including one in which a flute-playing Harpo inspires a whole community of black folks (dwelling adjacent to the horse stables, apparently) to break into joyous, acrobatic gospel/swing-dance. Because the sequence ends with the comics donning blackface disguise to escape police, some commentators tar the entire "All God's Children" sequence (with an unbilled Duke Ellington Orchestra) as racist, and indeed the Hollywood of the era indulged in some absolutely demeaning stereotypes. But by itself this sequence is innocent fun, and even historically important -- viewers can see in the dancing the roots of R&B and rock-and-roll that were to evolve over a few decades.
A Day at the Races was the most commercially successful of the Marx Brothers comedy features, coming after their classic A Night at the Opera. But it's not one of the troupe's best. There was a perception by the studio (confirmed by poor box-office receipts for Duck Soup, maybe the Marx Bros.' most anarchic movie) that audiences of the day need breathing room from the rapid-fire, surreal humor. Furthermore, it was felt that women didn't get the jokes and would only buy tickets to see simple-minded sentimental romance and musical numbers. The result: no viewer is completely satisfied -- and modern audiences will really notice the lull between brilliant bits of comedy. Impatient kid viewers will be hitting fast-forward more than a few times.
Families can talk about...
Families can talk about why the movie's laughs come in such halting fashion. Do you agree with the greatest brains of 1930s Hollywood that audiences -- specifically women -- couldn't keep up with the brilliant comedians, and needed singing and dancing interludes? Is it true that only males go for the Three Stooges as well? What about TV variety shows like Saturday Night Live that break up the satirical skits with (usually) non-funny musical interludes. Do you think the "Who Dat Man?" frenetic swing number here, with Harpo and an otherwise all-black cast, is racist?