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MOVIE INFO

Director:
Sam Wood
Cast:
Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Allan Jones, Maureen O'Sullivan, Margaret Dumont, Leonard Ceeley, Douglass Dumbrille, Esther Muir
Writing Credits:
Robert Pirosh, George Seaton, George Oppenheimer

Tagline:
The Year's Big Laugh, Music And Girl Show!

Synopsis:
The Marxes skewer medicine and bring home a racetrack winner in the hilarious A Day At The Races. In his favorite role, Groucho is Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush-MD, PhD, RFD, MC, PDQ, BYOB and none of the above - dispensing horse pills and quips with equal glee. Chico, Harpo and favorite foil Margaret Dumont join the fun of this thoroughly thoroughbred comedy. Enjoy tootsie-frootsie ice cream, Dumont's medical exam, Harpo's pretty-girl pantomime sketch, wallpaper wackiness and wall-to-wall hilarity the Marx way.

Box Office:
Domestic Gross
$4.000 million.

MPAA:
Rated NR

DVD DETAILS
Presentation:
Fullscreen 1.33:1
Audio:
English Monaural
Subtitles:
English
French
Spanish
Closed-captioned

Runtime: 109 min.
Price: $19.97
Release Date: 5/4/2004

Bonus:
• Audio Commentary with Author Glenn Mitchell
• “On Your Marx, Get Set, Go” Documentary
• Four Vintage Shorts
• Musical Outtake
• Radio Promo
• Trailer


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EQUIPMENT
Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.

RELATED REVIEWS


A Day At The Races (1937)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 6, 2004)

1937’s A Day at the Races takes the Marx Brothers to the country. The movie introduces us to Judy Standish (Maureen O’Sullivan). She runs the Standish Sanitarium, but she enjoys few patients and much debt. Her assistant Tony (Chico Marx) tries to help when the Sanitarium’s wealthy patient Mrs. Upjohn (Margaret Dumont) plans to leave and go to the Florida base of Dr. Hackenbush (Groucho Marx). Tony intervenes and convinces Hackenbush – who turns out to be a veterinarian – to come up to work at Standish. This becomes especially important for Judy since she hopes to get financial assistance from Upjohn.

Judy dates Gil (Allan Jones) but she tells him off when Gil buys a race horse to try to make money for her. She thinks this is a waste of money and a big mistake, but the lovers eventually reconcile, so Gil continues to try to help her. Standish financial manager Whitmore (Leonard Ceeley) encourages Judy to sell the sanitarium to Morgan (Douglas Dumbrille) for $5000, but she declines as she thinks Hackenbush will lead to a resurgence. We learn that Morgan and Whitmore have some scheme, and it turns out they want to turn the sanitarium into a casino, which is why they push Judy for the sale.

Stuffy (Harpo Marx) works as a jockey at the nearby racetrack, and Tony plans to have Stuffy ride Gil’s horse High Hat. Tony also brings Stuffy into the sanitarium as a patient to use him as an inside man to follow Whitmore’s scheme. Various issues try to foil the good guys, including investigations of Hackenbush’s qualifications, and we watch the different parties fight to overcome the odds and save the sanitarium.

If you read my comments about 1933’s Duck Soup and 1935’s A Night at the Opera, one will find many similar sentiments about the movies of the Marx Brothers. I found it tough not to just cut and paste many of those comments for my review of A Day at the Races, as it presented a lot of the same highs and lows.

But even I’m not that lazy, so I’ll at least toss out some basic comments about the good and the bad of Races. On the negative side, it includes some of the same kind of interminable musical moments that marred the earlier flicks. Did Congress enact some law that every Marx film had to include a pretentious sequence in which we watch Harpo get serious and play his harp? Okay, I realize that his name includes the name of the instrument, but geez, do these moments play like death. They come across as self-consciously artistic and really kill any momentum. We usually find sequences with Chico at the piano as well, and these don’t play any better. Their inevitability makes them no more tolerable.

Races also tosses out the same musical production numbers that marred Opera. Again we find the dishwater dull Allan Jones as our leading straight man, and he continues to bore. He drags down any scene in which he appears, especially when we get stuck with his miserable songs. The romantic plot between Jones and O’Sullivan fails to go anywhere either. The movie even forces us to sit through a performance from a water ballet!

Why? As I surmised in an earlier review, I guess the movie bigwigs of the era thought audiences needed romance and music to go down with the comedy. This should make the films seem more inclusive and broad, but instead they come across as watered down and pandering. It’s like the filmmakers don’t trust the funny stuff to carry the day.

It could, though Races enjoys fewer laughs than its immediate predecessors. One problem stems from the nature of the Hackenbush character. The movie plays him as a sucker way too much of the time. Groucho works best as the manipulator and con man, not as the guy who gets stuck as the butt of jokes. Maybe Harpo and Chico got tired of being the dumb ones and insisted they received the chance to act as the clever ones, but it doesn’t work.

Inevitably, many of the gags work well, but the film’s somewhat excessive running time works against it. 109 minutes is long for a comedy today, but that was almost obscenely long for the era. Compare it with Opera, which ran 18 minutes shorter, and Duck Soup, which clocked in at less than 70 minutes, or about 40 minutes shorter than Races! Sure, some of the musical numbers fill a bit of that time, but much of the movie’s length stems from comedic pieces that run too long. It seems that all Marx movies suffer from gags that don’t want to end, but Races presents more of them than usual, and the comedic pacing generally seems somewhat slow.

Still, when Races succeeds, it lives up to the Marx Brothers’ reputation. It includes so many gags that inevitably some of them work very well. For example, the bit in which Hackenbush messes with Whitmore to prevent him from finding out the truth about his qualifications seems terrific, as does Hackenbush’s examination of Upjohn.

Interestingly, Races seems to feature all three Brothers onscreen together more often than usual. In the prior couple of flicks, they often worked solo or in pairs, but they spend a great deal of time together here. Their natural chemistry gives the movie a nice kick that makes those moments successful.

I don’t know if the Marx Brothers ever made a totally successful movie, and A Day at the Races demonstrates the standard mix of highs and lows. The flick could use some judicious editing as well as the loss of some tedious musical and romantic moments. Nonetheless, it offers enough fun moments to make it generally satisfying.


The DVD Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B-/ Bonus B-

A Day at the Races appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The movie demonstrated occasional issues but mainly looked pretty solid.

In general, sharpness seemed more than adequate. Occasionally the image became slightly ill defined in wider shots, but not to a terrible degree. Instead, the movie generally remained nicely detailed and concise. I saw no issues with jagged edges or shimmering, but a little light edge enhancement showed up throughout the film.

Black levels looked very solid. Contrast seemed smooth and distinctive, and dark tones were deep and firm. Low-light sequences also displayed nice definition and accuracy, with shadows that were appropriately detailed and clear.

Although Races will soon hit its 70th birthday, the movie came with few source flaws. Grain was apparent but remained well within natural levels. Otherwise, the occasional speck or mark popped up, but not with much frequency, as the majority of the movie looked quite clean and fresh. Ultimately, Races offered a very positive visual experience for a movie of its vintage.

While not as good as the picture, the monaural soundtrack of A Day at the Races seemed fine for a film of this era. Speech was slightly dense and thick, but the lines displayed no edginess or sibilance, and they remained easily intelligible at all times. Music seemed reasonably bright and dynamic given its age. The score and songs never excelled, but they came across with pretty fair definition.

Effects were a bit dull and flat, but they mostly seemed fairly clear and tight when I considered technological restrictions. At times, bass response appeared pretty positive, as both music and effects occasionally manifested surprising deep tones. Some background noise cropped up consistently through the movie, though it didn’t seem terribly distracting. In the end, the audio of Races came across as satisfying for an old flick like this.

When we move to the DVD’s extras, we open with an audio commentary from Glenn Mitchell, author of The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia. He offers a running, screen-specific chat. Although he presents some decent information, he speaks so infrequently that this becomes a frustrating piece. Mitchell gets into biographical information for some of the participants as well as the influence of producer Irving Thalberg over the film’s structure, some production issues,

The comments about Thalberg add some useful material, especially when we learn of his death during production and its impact. I also like the fact that Mitchell strongly slams one part of Races, as he declares the ballet sequence boring and urges us to skip it; we don’t often hear that kind of bluntness in this form. However, much of the information seems somewhat pedestrian, and a lot of the good bits already appeared on Leonard Maltin’s chat during A Night at the Opera, which makes it redundant if you’ve already heard that one. (Or vice versa, I suppose.) Ultimately, though, it’s all the dead air that makes this commentary fairly unsatisfying.

After this we get a new documentary entitled On Your Marx, Get Set, Go!. In this 27-minute and 35-second program, we see movie clips and archival materials and hear comments from actor Dom DeLuise, director Robert B. Weide, writer Irving Brecher, comedy writer Anne Beatts, writer/director/actor Carl Reiner, film historian Robert Osborne, writer Larry Gelbart and actor Maureen O’Sullivan. They discuss the Marx style, developing Races, the cast and personality elements of the Marx Brothers, the movie’s setting and characters, a dissection of some set pieces, the impact of Thalberg’s death, and some general anecdotes related to the film.

The program provides a fairly concise examination of the topics. Some redundancy occurs if you’ve listened to the commentary, but a fair amount of new information pops up here. It moves briskly and seems generally entertaining. It’s also cool to hear from O’Sullivan, as it’s nice to get the perspective and stories of someone actually involved in the production.

Up next we find a Robert Benchley short called A Night at the Movies. It lasts 10 minutes and provides some sporadically amusing material. It’s also interesting to watch to get a look at movie theaters of the era.

The Vintage Cartoons section includes three shorts: “Old Smokey” (seven minutes, 34 seconds), “Mama’s New Hat” (8:24), and “Gallopin’ Gals” (7:25). The first two come as part of the “Captain and the Kids” series, while the third’s from Hanna-Barbera. None of them seem particularly good, but they’re moderately entertaining. (By the way, they show up on this DVD because all of them involve horses.)

Within the Audio Vault we find two features. There’s an outtake from “A Message from the Man in the Moon” that lasts two and a half minutes. Glenn Mitchell introduces the piece with some background, and then we hear Allan Jones sing the tune. The “Vault” also includes a radio promo called “Leo Is on the Air”. This offers an extended ad that includes material from Races. The DVD concludes with the film’s theatrical trailer.

By the time they made A Day at the Races, the Marx Brothers had settled into a pretty formulaic system for their movies. That means Races presents a mix of negative traits moderately balanced by more than a few fine comedic moments. The DVD offers very positive picture along with relatively satisfying audio and an erratic but generally satisfactory set of supplements. Races doesn’t provide a consistently enjoyable movie, but it works well overall.

Note that A Day at the Races can be purchased on its own or as part of a five-DVD set called The Marx Brothers Collection. The latter also includes A Night in Casablanca, A Night at the Opera, Room Service, At the Circus, Go West and The Big Store. The last four movies come on two “double feature” discs and are exclusive to the boxed set; you’ll have to buy it to get them. Since the five-DVD package retails for the same price as Opera, Casablanca and Races combined, it becomes a great deal for fans who already want to own those three flicks; the two other discs essentially then come for free.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.1666 Stars Number of Votes: 6
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