With the enormous success of Sam Wood’s A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935) under their belts, the Marx Brothers trio of Groucho, Chico and Harpo proved they were a box office hit post-Paramount and ready for their next MGM hit, continuing on without brother Zeppo. Directed again by Sam Wood, A DAY AT THE RACES (1937) brought the hilarious Marx Brothers threesome and a talented cast together for a another smash hit. To capitalize on the popularity of the MGM and Marx Brothers partnership, the Metro Goldwyn Mayer team made the following substitute for their typical lion… (Originally created to introduce A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935) but used only in the trailer instead.)
Thanks to the guidance of the Irving Thalberg production playbook, a new formula was set in place for the MGM version of Groucho, Chico and Harpo, here for a second time. Producer Thalberg designed a grand plan for changes in the Marx films that was guaranteed to ensure mass appeal: promote the zany comedy skits that propel the plot and follows logically so it’s actually a true story and makes sense, a romantic leading couple where their relationship is pulled apart temporarily then brought together happily in love in the end, setting up Groucho as the lovable fraud where the ‘bad guys’ challenge his authenticity (in this case a vet whose supposed to be a MD), Margaret Dumont as the gullible straight to play against Groucho, and a Chico and Harpo partnership as sidekicks to give Groucho a hard time but the bad guys an even harder time. Thalberg also knew big musical/dance production numbers along with Chico and Harpo musical interlude scenes helped balance the comedy skits when placed in appropriate plot transitions. His formula clearly worked well because A DAY AT THE RACES (1937) struck gold as another huge hit for MGM and the Marx trio.
For this story, we are introduced to the struggling Standish Sanitarium, which sweet Judy (Maureen O’Sullivan) has inherited as the sole heir to this family business. She knows that wealthy widow Mrs. Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont) may be her only hope, as long as they can keep her happy. Upset that the doctors deem her to be perfectly healthy, this happily hypochondriac refers to Dr. Hugo Hackenbush* (Groucho Marx) as the only physician she can trust with her care. [Quakenbush was originally picked as the perfect non-offensive, silly name for Groucho’s character but MGM discovered there were several real-life Dr. Quakenbush’s already in practice so they changed to Hackenbush.] The sanitarium’s jack-of-all-trades employee Tony (Chico Marx) says that Dr. Hackenbush is on his way to take on the role as Chief Medical Director. Then he rushes off a telegram, sending for Dr. Hackenbush’s arrival. Unbeknownst to anyone but Hugo himself, he is actually a veterinarian. We don’t know the details of Upjohn’s and Hackenbush’s prior connections but she is so entranced with him she never bothered to assume he was anything but a medical doctor. Chico, as Tony: “If she want a hack-in-de-puss, she gonna get a hack-in-de-puss.”
Meanwhile, we are also introduced to Judy’s love interest and aspiring singer, Gil (Allan Jones) who wants to help Judy save the sanitarium but his solution is far less than pleasing to her. With his horse racing hobby, he invests all of his money in a racing horse, “Hi Hat” to be ridden by jockey Stuffy (Harpo Marx) thinking he’ll win the purse to pay off the debts. Problem is, Hi Hat’s racing times are less than trophy worthy and the sheriff threatens to repossess the horse because they’ve run out credit for feed money. To make matters even more complicated, Judy’s slimy business manager Whitmore (Leonard Ceeley) is conspiring with the neighboring businessman, greedy Mr. Morgan (Douglass Dumbrille) to pressure Judy to sell her business immediately, not wait for a miracle fix.
Chico and Harpo (as Tony and Stuffy) forge an instant partnership to trick and allude anyone who comes in the way of fulfilling the scheme to win the race and save the sanitarium. We first see this when they confront the sheriff. It’s a hilarious scene where Chico hands him the same five dollar bill repeatedly, as Harpo secretly sneaks it from the sheriff’s pocket and back again to Chico. Additionally at the stables we see that Hi Hat the horse hates Morgan so much that whenever he sees or hears him, he goes ballistic. In another bit, Chico finds a sucker in Groucho (Hackenbush) via a “Fruitsie Tootsie” ice cream cart filled with text books, as he milks money from him by persuading him to buy books that will provide him a proven, scientific method to picking a winning horse. As a result, Hackenbush is delayed so he never even places a bet. But now Tony has enough money to place a winning bet- on the horse Hackenbush thought was the winner all along.
Dr. Hackenbush dodges the ongoing suspicions to his authenticity as a real medical doctor (by everyone but Mrs. Upjohn) with some hi jinx of his own. In example, there’s a fast-paced funny skit over the phone where Hackenbush avoids all the direct questions, pretending to be the Florida Medical Board. He also tempts fate by flirting with another woman (Esther Muir) who is planted by Morgan in hopes to have Upjohn catch him in an uncompromising position. The Marx boys Chico and Harpo, as Tony and Stuffy, catch wind and swoop in to save the day.
But eventually, Dr. Hackenbush is forced to reveal his lack of ‘human’ medical knowledge. In one skit we see Harpo show all of his zany brilliance as a less than ideal patient. All three Marx Brothers play off one another equally well in this bit. In another scene, the mayhem reaches a looney level in the operating room, ending with an escape on horse back. The Marx trio seek refuge in the barn as they lament how time has just about run up for saving the sanitarium. They devise a plan to ‘sneak into the race’ and after several close calls (which brings Judy and Gil closer together), they are successful by interjecting Morgan’s picture and voice, which frightens Hi Hat to bolt and jump all the way to first place across the finish line.
“On Blue Venetian Waters”– this major dance/musical production showcased Allan Jones singing with a backdrop of a large set filled with larges cast of dancers. The water fountain backdrop was originally supposed to be color tinted in blue which would have made more of an impact than its current version.
“Tomorrow is Another Day”– the film ends with this line. It’s one of two Marx Brothers’ films to end with this line. It’s also a very sweetly romantic song sung again by Allan Jones’ Gil as he woos Maureen O’Sullivan’s character.
“Who Dat Man?”/ “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen”/”All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” – this musical/dance production incorporated these three songs and even circles back briefly to “Tomorrow Is Another Day” for a number that in total lasts for over seven minutes. “Who Dat Man” is a minstrel which features Harpo playing piccolo (they claim him to be ‘Gabriel’ for the song’s purpose) and a large all Black cast of some of the best singers, dancers and musicians at that time. This segment features a lindy hop dance sequence for the “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm”song, including Ivie Anderson (Vocalist for the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the time), the Crinoline Choir and Lindy Hoppers. The dance sequence was nominated for the short-lived Oscar award category of Best Dance Direction. Transitioning from song to song, this showcase is one of my favorite scenes because it’s so terrifically entertaining.
Chico’s and Harpo’s Piano and Harp Performances -One of my absolutely favorite parts of any Marx Brothers films is when Chico and Harpo show off their musical mega talent. Chico shows off his unique and charming finger-pointing stylings on the piano then Harpo takes over on the piano before he proceeds to completely destroy it. With the instrument in total shambles, he grabs the frame of wires and starts to play it like a harp- genius!
*”I’ve Got A Message From The Man In The Moon” and “Dr. Hackenbush”-these songs were filmed yet edited out. We hear reflections of the “Message From The Man In The Moon” in a couple of scenes in the finalized cut. In the “Dr. Hackenbush” song, he answers questions about his doctor credentials with “no matter what I treat them for, they die from something else.”
MY FAVORITE LINES:
Dr. Hackenbush, taking a pulse: “Either he’s dead or my watch has stopped.”
Tony: “She’s in with Whitmore. She’s trying to frame you.”
Flo: “Why, I’ve never been so insulted in my life!”
Dr. Hackenbush, looking at his watch: “Well, it’s early yet.”
Dr. Hackenbush, embracing Flo as she implores him to hold her closer: “If I hold you any closer, I’ll be in back of you.”
Gil: “Are you a man or a mouse?”
Dr. Hackenbush: “You put a piece of cheese down there and you’ll find out.”
Judy: “And do be nice to Mrs. Upjohn, won’t you?”
Dr. Hackenbush: “Well, she’s not exactly my type, but for you I’d make love to a crocodile!”
Sadly, unhealthy Irving Thalberg died at the young age of 37 in September of 1936 (married to Norma Shearer 1927-1936), before this film was released June 11, 1937. He was truly the advocate for the Marx Brothers at MGM and his formula worked well in the two films he produced at MGM, starring the hilarious sibling trio. When Thalberg died, so did the Marx Brothers’ enthusiasm for making films and with Thalberg no longer in the picture, MGM felt the same. Along with direction from Sam Wood and creative guidance from Thalberg, the uber talented Marx Brothers’ years at MGM was like capturing ‘lightening in a bottle’. To this day, we all continue to benefit from their brilliance.