July 23, 2005
Irving Thalberg, the legendary MGM wunderkind, took the Marx Brothers under his wing in the mid 1930's, and their resulting collaboration, A Night at the Opera, was an enormous success; it is also a comedy classic and arguably the Brothers' best picture. It was quickly followed up with A Day at the Races, which set to follow the formula that worked so well.
Unfortunately, Thalberg died during production, leaving us with a movie that is both very entertaining and very flawed. This was the last great success for the Brothers; in the following years, their pictures at MGM would be saddled with formulaic plots, poor scripting, and a general sense of malayse (of their later pictures, only A Night in Casablanca is really any good). When Thalberg died, something in the Marx Brothers seemed to die with him.
For my money, the best Marx Brothers films came from the Paramount era - Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup, the greatest of them all. These pictures were short - barely over an hour each - but possessed with a a sense of anarchy. There was no need for anything more than the barest of plots; the comedy and only the manic comedy remained. You don't need an elaborate set-up in a Marx Brothers movie anymore than you need a detailed plot for a Bugs Bunny cartoon. You just hit the ground running and make people laugh.
Thalberg changed all this, and saddled the Brothers with elaborate stories and romantic subplots. With A Night at the Opera, this managed to work, largely because the comedy was perfectly integrated with the story. There were as many lines as in Duck Soup, time for a couple musical numbers, and a number of routines that became instant-comedy classics.
By comparison, A Day at the Races feels overweight, bloated. A running time of two hours? This is absolutely inexcusable in a Marx Brothers movie. If you cut half an hour out, it would still feel too long.
Another key problem is that the comedy isn't as integrated into the plot as it could be. You feel as if Groucho, Chico, and Harpo have become bit players in their own movie, and appear every now and then for a great comedy routine, before being shuffled off-screen to make way for another song-and-dance number.
The Marx Brothers should never be chained onto a conventional romantic comedy. In Night at the Opera, the Brothers help two young lovers become Opera stars, and that had some pull, some emotional strength. In A Day at the Races, the Brothers try to save a sanitarium from failing. Not exactly something to make you swoon.
Who in their right mind goes to a Marx Brothers comedy for the romantic leads? It's like watching The Muppet Show without any muppets. Even poor Allan Jones, who never could fill Zeppo's shoes, lacks much of his boyish charm he demonstrated in the previous film.
I cannot say for certain if Irving Thalberg would have trimmed the fat had he lived, but I'd like to think so. His instincts have never failed him before, and the Brothers (Groucho especcially) trusted him wholeheartedly. I'd like to believe he'd cut one or two of the extraneous dance numbers (they're very fine for MGM, but, again, what's the point?).
Now, despite all this, A Day at the Races is very good when the Marx Brothers are allowed to work their chaos. Margaret Dumont is again present as Groucho's romantic foil, essential as ever. And Sig Ruman demonstrates why he's perfect for playing comic villains; he reminds me a lot of Harvey Korman in Blazing Saddles.
For fans and comedy lovers, there is genuine classic routine: Chico's Tootsy-Fruitsy Ice Cream hustle against poor Groucho. It's wonderfully silly and ranks among their best; I don't think there's a comedy skit in any of their later movies that compares to it.
Later on, there are antics with a racehorse, Chico and Harpo playing charades, and the laughably chaotic "inspection" of Margaret Dumont Dumont by all three Brothers. There are a couple great Groucho gags here and there, but for me, that's about it. The rest of this movie can go jump in a lake.
Perhaps it takes a certain kind of dedicated Marx Brothers fan to be so harsh, and still think somewhat favorably, of a movie like this. You have to battle the disappointment at the missed opportunities with the sadness that this is really the beginning of the end. Then you tell yourself to snap out of it and enjoy the good moments as they come. Just be sure to keep your trigger finger on the remote control.