A Day at the Races
Classic Marx Brothers fare, this is the second film after the brothers went to MGM, a follow up to A Night at the Opera. The funny flies fast and furious here, though there are a few slow spots (most noticeably during the ballet number in the middle of the film). Has the classic “Toostie Frootsie” Ice Cream skit and the examination scene.
Chico plays Tony, who is at the train station trying to get clients for the sanitarium he works for, owned by Judy Standish (Maureen O’Sullivan). Judy is in debt, but Chico fails to get any patients. They decide that they might be able to borrow from rich patient Mrs. Emily Upjohn (good ol’ Margaret Dumont, playing Margaret Dumont). However, Mrs. Upjohn is leaving the sanitarium, because the doctor there claims she is well, and she insists that she is not. Mrs. Upjohn threatens to go to see Dr. Hackenbush, who always finds something wrong with her, Chico overhears, and tricks Mrs. Upjohn into thinking Dr. Hackenbush is coming there, which succeeds. Now all Chico has to do is find Dr. Hackenbush and convince him to take a position at the sanitarium. Judy’s fiancée Gil Stewart(Allan Jones from A Night at the Opera) arrives having just bought a horse to use to win money that Judy needs, but it angers Judy who wants him to focus on his singing career.
Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (GROUCHO!) is in fact an animal psychiatrist, but rushes right out to take the job. Mr. Morgan desires Judy’s Sanitarium, and demands it get signed over to him immediately to be turned into a casino, and Judy’s business manager Mr. Whitmore agrees, since he is in the pocket of Mr. Morgan. But Dr. Hackenbush arriving ruins Mr. Morgan’s plan. Morgan tries to interrogate him, but Hackenbush gives him the old Groucho runaround. There is a race track next door, and Hackenbush darts off as soon as he hears the bugle. At the races, jockey Stuffy (Harpo) just won his race, but his owner wanted him to lose. The owner? Mr. Morgan! Morgan tries to beat up Harpo, who hides in the stable where Gil is tending to his new horse High Hat. Morgan also owned High Hat before, and the horse goes berserk whenever he hears Morgan’s voice. The sheriff then arrives looking for money for High Hat’s feed, which Gil doesn’t have.
Chico has a tip on the next race, but needs money, and sets out to scam a sucker. And a sucker shows up, in the form of Hugo Hackenbush. And so begins the famous and deservedly so “Tootsie Frootsie Ice Cream” bit.
Tony: One dollar and you’ll remember me all your life.
Dr. Hackenbush: That’s the most nauseating proposition I ever had.
After Hackenbush gets conned into buying an entire library of codebooks and guides, Chico has enough money to place his bet, which was on the horse Hackenbush initially wanted to bet on!
Hackenbush Groucho’s his way out of a records check by suspicious doctors, and Chico brings in Harpo for an examination (another classic scene) “Hey, don’t drink that poison! That’s $4.00 an ounce!” Harpo and Chico find out that Hackenbush is a horse doctor and tell Gil, but they cannot do anything because the Sheriff has arrived to take High Hat, but Harpo and Chico run off with the horse. Then the movie moves on the the extravagant Ballet number, where Gil sings. Vivien Fay and her ballet dance on for a lengthy amount of time and have a pretty extravagant production. It would be worth it to see it live, but it sort of drags this movie’s pace down to a crawl. After the show, Gil and Judy make up, and Hackenbush dances with Mrs. Upjohn while alternately dancing with and putting the moves on a blonde lady (Esther Muir, who was in a movie called High Hat interestingly enough). The Sheriff shows up to deal with Chico and Harpo, but they get out of it by hiding in the band, and Chico does the required piano scene, then runs off as Harpo follows suit with his required Harp playing scene, where he produces the harp by smashing the piano and playing the strings. While hiding, Harpo overhears that the blonde lady is a stooge for Mr. Whitmore, and is trying to get Mrs. Upjohn to discover them together. Harpo and Chico must save Hackenbush!
After a few false starts they succeed, as the lady is buried underneath wallpaper while Mrs. Upjohn is brought in for the “confrontation” and Whitmore is scorned. Mr. Morgan isn’t beat yet, he brings in an Austrian Expert (Sig Ruman, also in A Night at the Opera and A Night in Casablanca) to examine Mrs. Upjohn right before she can sign papers that help Judy financially. Dr. Hackenbush is prepared to run, but is convinced by Gil, Harpo and Chico to stay on. And thus begins the examination sequence, complete with hand washing, nurse de-clothing, sprinklers, hand washing, and a horse.
After that incident, Our Heroes and Gil are living in the stable where High Hat is kept. This gives us time for Gil to sing another song to Judy. Harpo begins piping and prancing around, prompting the stereotypical poor blacks that live nearby to stop rolling dice long enough to sing “Who dat man?” and perform a long musical number. Ignoring our modern day sensitivities to racism, this is actually a pretty good song and is much better than the boring ballet sequence earlier. There is also a young Dorothy Dandridge running around. The Marx brothers even go as far as putting grease on their faces to blend end. Luckily they aren’t running around singing “Mammy” or some other terrible thing, this is more on par with Gene Wilder getting shoe polished in Silver Streak . But Our Heroes are spotted by the Sheriff (or “Da Sherruf!” as the black guy sez) and must run off. While escaping, Gil realized that High Hat is a steeplechase horse as he bounds away. Gil must enter him in the next day’s race. But the Sheriff and Mr. Morgan will try their best to stop him.
The Bad Guys find High Hat so Groucho, Chico, and Harpo must disrupt the race start until they can get High Hat back. This they do to great effect and is full of many wonderful gags that make up for much of the dragging earlier in the film. Gil is captured, and the Sheriff is taking him and High Hat away in an accident, when there is an accident up ahead and the Sheriff must take the horse out to fit in the injured person. But, wait! The injured person is Judy, who is faking so Gil can escape with the horse, and he does with Judy also and they head back to the racetrack. Harpo gets High Hat in the race just in time, but High Hat is only super fast and a good jumper when around Mr. Morgan, so Harpo shows a picture to the horse, which works fine until the picture is lost. Now Groucho and Chico must use the announcing equipment and get Mr. Morgan to yell, which they do via different means that all add up to funny. Harpo and the Evil Jockey are neck and neck, but both fall off their horses. As they head down the final stretch, the Bad Guys pull ahead and High Hat loses. It is a terrible loss and everyone goes to jail. No, wait, it’s a trick! High Hat really won, the Evil Jockey got back on the wrong horse and raced High Hat to victory! The Heroes win! And since they all bet money on High Hat, they all make lots of money! And all the poor black stereotypes also bet on High Hat, so they are now rich (even the kids)! And Hackenbush and Mrs. Upjohn agree to marry as Hackenbush says “Emily, I have a confession to make. I really am a horse doctor. But marry me, and I’ll never look at another horse.” And it ends.
Good film. Of the later films, I think this one is the second best (behind A Night at the Opera), though only because of the dragging musical number in the middle. I highly recommend this as well as all Marx Brothers films.
Piano scene: At Ballet
Harp Scene: At Ballet, made from smashed piano
Marx Brothers Films
The Cocoanuts – 1929
Animal Crackers – 1930
Monkey Business – 1931
Horse Feathers – 1932
Duck Soup – 1933