THREE GREAT LAFF STARS!… MORE GAGS AND GALS… MORE SONGS AND DANCE!
I’m finding it hard to get this confirmed, but there’s a funny story behind Groucho Marx’s name in this classic comedy. The original idea was to name him Dr. Quackenbush, which sounded funny and was meant as a pun. But MGM’s legal department discovered that there were several actual doctors in America called Quackenbush and considered the name too much of a risk; they didn’t want to get sued. Groucho wasn’t a fan of changing the name, but grew to like Hackenbush; after all, it was as much of a pun. This story is so silly it could have been part of the film.
A sanitarium in danger of closing
Judy Standish (Maureen O’Sullivan) is running a sanitarium, but it’s not going well. Unless a financier pops up, she may have to close. There is a candidate in the shape of Mrs. Upjohn (Margaret Dumont), a wealthy lady who believes that she suffers from all kinds of strange ailments. Mrs. Upjohn insists on being treated only by dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho Marx), who is actually a veterinarian. After learning that Mrs. Upjohn might agree to bankroll the sanitarium, Judy hires Hackenbush as the sanitarium’s chief of staff.
At the same time, Judy’s boyfriend Gil (Allan Jones) has bought a race horse with his life savings, hoping to win enough cash to save the sanitarium.
Almost equally believed
The collaboration between producer Irving Thalberg and the Marx brothers resulted in their greatest movie together, A Night at the Opera (1935), and this one is almost equally beloved. Fans who didn’t appreciate how the brothers made their comedy fit a more extended formula that also involved a lot of music and a romance had plenty to complain about here as well. No one has ever cared about the romance between O’Sullivan and Jones (who had the same kind of thankless role in Night at the Opera) and the thin story feels protracted, especially in the last half hour that focuses on events at the racetrack.
Still, there is so much brilliance elsewhere. The brothers share several ingenious sequences, such as the one where Chico is trying to sell ”tutsi-frutsi” icecream and Groucho is scammed into buying books. The one where Groucho is trying to examine Harpo in his office is hilariously silly, and develops into pure hysteria later on in the film where Hackenbush is forced by Sig Ruman’s stern, skeptical character (another doctor) to prove exactly what’s wrong with Mrs. Upjohn. The scenes have a lot in common with the one where Groucho’s attempt to seduce a young lady (Esther Muir) is frequently interrupted by Chico and Harpo – the agenda is sort of a controlled chaos, or comedic ballet. Anything goes here, from puns and slapstick to weird interjections that are hit or miss. But the brothers and their ace collaborators, especially Dumont and Ruman, make it work beautifully. Then there’s the music. Whenever Jones sings is an excuse for a toilet break, but Chico and Harpo have several outstanding scenes that put their musical talents on display.
There’s also a very engaging sequence that shows off professional lindy hop, the dance that originated in Harlem in the 1920s, as well as jazz singer Ivie Anderson. The scene was nominated for an Oscar in a little-known category that existed for only three years, called Best Dance Direction.
This was the last great Marx brothers comedy. Thalberg died of pneumonia while making it. This is not to take anything away from the Marx brothers who were masterful before meeting Thalberg, but it sure didn’t hurt to have the attention of a special producer like him.
A Day at the Races 1937-U.S. 111 min. B/W. Produced by Irving Thalberg, Lawrence Weingarten, Sam Wood. Directed by Sam Wood. Screenplay: Robert Pirosh, George Seaton, George Oppenheimer. Cast: Groucho Marx (Hugo Z. Hackenbush), Harpo Marx (Stuffy), Chico Marx (Tony), Allan Jones, Maureen O’Sullivan, Esther Muir… Margaret Dumont, Sig Ruman, Dorothy Dandridge.
Quote: “Emily, I have a confession to make. I really am a horse doctor. But marry me, and I’ll never look at another horse.” (Groucho Marx to Dumont)
Last word: “[Dumont] was a great actress, but was completely devoid of any sense of humor. She was a good example of a tin can tied to the dog’s tail that I told you about. She added so much to Groucho’s scenes with her, and we would have trouble trying to keep from breaking up. She would stop and ask us what we were laughing at. She missed a lot of fun.” (Muir, “The Sound of Silence”)