With Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Margaret Dumont, Allan Jones, Maureen O'Sullivan, Esther Muir, Douglass Dumbrille
Directed by Sam Wood
Black and White
Reviewed by JL and JB

     The last great Marx Brothers film has several problems, but its comedy scenes are among the best they ever did.  Scenes such as Groucho and Chico's "tutsi-frutsi" encounter, Groucho dancing and dining with Esther Muir, Mr. Whitmore's "Florida call," and the medical examinations of Harpo and Margaret Dumont are perhaps even funnier than anything they did in their previous and more-heralded film A NIGHT AT THE OPERA.  But RACES is where the soon-to-be-predictable Marx Brothers Formula took firm hold as the brothers competed for screen time with the romantic leads, musical numbers, and horses.  On Laurel and Hardy Central, we often talk about the "Day at the Races Syndrome" in filmmaking... and this is the film that suffers from it most of all. 4 - JL

     Producer Irving Thalberg forced rewrite after rewrite of A DAY AT THE RACES, and with each new script, the project became less wacky, less satirical and more conventional.  RACES follows Thalberg's rules for A NIGHT AT THE OPERA slavishly, but this time, instead of the love story and musical scenes being mini-breathers in between the Marx Brothers madcap routines, the comedy scenes are vaudeville turns performed to break up the plethora of plot scenes and musical productions.  Luckily, some of those vaudeville turns are among the funniest the Marxes ever performed, so in the end, most, of not all, is forgiven.  Thalberg died before the completion of the film, leaving fans to wonder if RACES wouldn't have turned better.

     It certainly could have.  A few years back I was making a tape for a friend of mine, and had about an hour left to fill.  So I made an abbreviated version of A DAY AT THE RACES, cutting out all the music and half the plot scenes.  The thing flew by like DUCK SOUP on wheels.  It could have ranked as one of their greatest movies instead of one of their most bloated.  

     On a musical note, "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" and "Tomorrow is Another Day" are two damn fine songs, but unfortunately they appear so late in this overlong extravaganza, it is hard to care any more.  It has been said that "Alone" is the only hit song to emerge from a Marx Brothers film, but if numerous jazz renditions count for anything, "All God's Chillun" will live on forever. 4 - JB 

The Marx Brothers     The Age of Comedy


"I want you to hold me! Hold me closer! Closer! Closer!"
"If I hold you any closer, I'll be in back of you."


    For the films A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, Irving Thalberg and the Marx Brothers decided to pre-test the comedy scenes by presenting them on stage in front of live audiences in extensive tours.  This allowed them to hone the material and even clock the length of laughter after each gag, thus helping the editors later on to add appropriate reaction shots that would cover the laughter.  Here is a photograph from the live version of A Day at the Races, a classic moment when Groucho takes Harpo's pulse and comes to the learned medical conclusion "Either he's dead or my watch has stopped."  Notice Harpo's darker wig, which was probably red, which showed up better in front of a live audience, rather than blonde or light red/pink, which photographed better on black and white film.

     Testing material on tour was not a common practice for movie comedies, but the Marx Brothers had remembered their days on Broadway with The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, and how playing the scenes night after night showed them which jokes and gags worked and which ones didn't.  After Irving Thalberg's death, the idea of touring was dropped for their third MGM film, At the Circus, but for Go West and their later A Night in Casablanca, the Brothers embarked on shorter tours before filming.

Notes by John V. "Jay" Brennan


Harpo's Solo: "On Blue Venetian Waters" (Bronislau Kaper, Walter Jurmann, music; Gus Kahn, lyrics).  Before this, Harpo plays a bit of Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Prelude in C-Sharp Minor" on the piano, before destroying said piano.

Chico's Solo: "On the Beach at Bali Bali" (Al Sherman, Abner Silver and Jack Meskill).  A fairly contemporary song, having been written in 1935.  Covered by several artists including Jimmie Lunceford and Tommy Dorsey before it wound up in A DAY AT THE RACES.  One of my favorite Chico solos, even if it took me years to find out the actual name of the tune.


"Oh, heavenly day!  A Day at the Races is being advertised.  When it comes we will abandon all work and visitors and spend the week at the movies.  I can hardly wait..." - Marx Brothers fan Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With The Wind.  Once, when asked who she thought should play Rhett Butler in the film, she reportedly replied "Groucho Marx".


The first script for A Day at the Races was a wacky, Parmountish tale called Peace and Quiet.  It was rejected by Irving Thalberg.

Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby wrote a song, "Dr. Hackenbush", as Groucho's introductory number, but it was never filmed.  Groucho later recorded it for commercial release.

Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush was Groucho's favorite character role.  Later in life, he would often sign off letters with "Hackenbush".