If you can face the setting sun and say .... ... ...
The beginning of the end or merely the end of the beginning?
A Day at the Races is not a bad Marx Brothers movie, but it is surely the most over-rated.
It's also the longest, for reasons not to be found on screen. And it's also my wife's favourite, for reasons that are to be found on the screen, but which don't make a hell of a lot of sense to me. Suffice to say that when Thalberg patronisingly suggested that the emasculation of the Marxes would make them more popular with women, he could have had my beloved in mind.
Now back to the boys' stuff.
It's the film where the Thalberg deviations from the Paramount formula, which A Night at the Opera was inspired enough and hilarious enough to withstand, or circumnavigate, or even turn into advantages, finally come home to roost. All those corny ideas about it being funnier with fewer jokes and a better plot, and that comedy needs to be built around a plot and characters the audience care about, and that audiences need something to root for, and eruptions of anarchy only work if given explicable narrative justification... all that rubbish that Kaufman saw coming and sent packing in A Night at the Opera is lying in wait for A Day at the Races, and this time Thalberg wins.
And we see, or should see, that the fact that Opera was so good doesn't mean that Thalberg was right.
And this despite the fact that the film is the most painfully transparent imitation of Opera imaginable, with everything that was felt to have been successful in the first film repeated, only in almost every case just that little bit less effective, because misunderstood.
The characterisation is the first and most obvious casualty.
Opera had the boys helping out the hero and heroine, but it wasn't like they were helping them save up for an eye operation: it was all about opera singers being nasty to other opera singers, and the villains, so to speak, were just pompous arty types. These were exactly the kind of people the Marx Brothers had always enjoyed annoying, and for no more benevolent a reason than that they deserve it. And so the fact that the Brothers had been turned into helping hands didn't show up as strongly, or destructively, as it might have done in another context... a context like this, for instance.
Here the villains really are villains, and the task in hand is to help Maureen O'Sullivan, as pretty Judy Standish, save her struggling business from nasty Douglas Dumbrille.
Groucho is his usual conman, except this time he doesn't want to be found out, and he keeps trying to flee when things get difficult. When he does let the inner Groucho free, with predictably chaotic results, we fade to the next day and find him writhing with remorse at having let Maureen down.
He's pretending to be a doctor, but not in the way that he has pretended to be a head of state or a college professor or an explorer - that is to say, magically - he's a real veterinarian, and a down at heel veterinarian at that, posing as a doctor so as to deceive Margaret Dumont into thinking she is ill when she is not. (Why? We need a reason if we're going to take these people seriously, Mr Thalberg. To extort money from her? Some hero!)
There's no point in playing it semi-straight because it still makes no sense: the man that Judy thinks might be the one to turn around the fortunes of her ailing sanitarium may not be the Groucho of Duck Soup, but neither is he anyone's idea of a real doctor, and if she looks carefully she might notice that his moustache and eyebrows are painted on. Otis B. Driftwood was an opportunist and a conman, but he had no 'real' life; we knew nothing whatever about him, and most important of all he was having a good time. Hugo Z. Hackenbush is an unsuccessful vet, who can't afford his rent, and however hard he finds it to restrain his anarchic impulses, he plainly wants to. It's as if what we had always taken to be Groucho's conscious assault on propriety was in fact a kind of nervous compulsion, a sort of Tourette's syndrome.
I don't want to get too misty-eyed about this, but I reckon that the magic of the pure Marx Brothers, the characters those men perfected on stage, and that writers like Kaufman and directors like McLeod understood so well, lay in the fact that they were forces for good inadvertently, because they were first and solely forces of honesty.
They act with both complete freedom and complete incorruptibility, and their very irreverence casts them as guardians of integrity. When they attack pomposity, dishonesty and selfishness, the rightness of their attitudes has the incidental side effect of making life's journey just that little bit easier for the honest, good-natured, unpretentious and invariably hard done by people who would otherwise be entirely at the mercy of the Lasparris and the Trentinos.
All the Paramount films end with a wrong righted, but the Brothers themselves, though instrumental in bringing that end about, only serve the interests of rightness in the abstract; it's never explicitly their mission that Huxley win the game or that John Parker is recognised as a great artist. That sort of thing just happens, when you have Groucho, Chico, Harpo and sometimes Zeppo about the place.
This is a vital point: these films are saying that the world would be a better place with a few more Marx Brothers loose in it. And that simply isn't true of these Marx Brothers, of Hugo and Tony and Stuffy. They're just like the people they're trying to help: life's losers, not well off, not distinguished, always looking over their shoulders, up against it... they're just a bit zanier than the straight heroes, that's all.
At Paramount, an interesting hierarchical relationship was developed between the brothers. Groucho was the outsider on the inside, the man who could talk himself into positions of influence and responsibility he was clearly and openly unworthy of filling. But Chico and Harpo are complete outsiders, overtly if guilelessly criminal and true forces of nature, and without Groucho they would have no connection whatsoever with the worlds in which the films are set. Groucho is their gateway in to Rittenhouse society. Groucho is an intermediary, an interloper in the world from which they are excluded: he recognises their purity of spirit, their complete surrender to the impulses he must to some degree sublimate in the grander scheme of rising to genuine influence and attainment, the better to make fools of the really important people. So he co-opts his more instinctive siblings as natural allies.
All of this goes to the wall at MGM. People who say that Room Service constrains them with too much reality really ought to take another look at this one. Groucho is sentimentalised: his anarchy is directed, purposeful, all in a good cause, and we start to find out things we don't want to know about him: he becomes a real man.
Harpo survives the transition best, perhaps, but there are vulgar efforts to make him pathetic - the one thing the Paramount Harpo could least be described as - and A Day at the Races is the second film in a row that introduces us to him by showing him being beaten by a hiss and boo bully.
But it is Chico who is most ruinously reinvented. Chico, whose logic was once so obtuse, whose motivation so mysterious, whose instinct for disruption so unyielding, that he was even capable of reducing Groucho to frustration is now working contentedly, and presumably efficiently, for the Standish Sanitarium, and so devoted to Judy that he's willing to work without pay. Once he was unwilling to work, even, perhaps especially, for pay.
And he's resourceful. Getting Mrs Upjohn to bankroll the sanitarium? His idea. Sending for Dr Hackenbush to sweeten her up? His idea. Ravelli the musician, who charges more the less he plays, and most of all for not rehearsing, this plainly is not.
And he's not even given anything funny to do. The character is completely superfluous, pointless - it's a Zeppo role.
Nonsense, you yell!
Of course he's given something funny to do, I hear you screaming with fury.
What about the sacred Tootsie Fruitsie Ice Cream scene, you fool!
Well yes, I was coming to that.
A Day at the Races, despite its length, contains remarkably little comedy.
I don't mean what there is isn't funny. I just mean there's not much of it about. Let's look at the main comedy sequences now.
1. Tootsie Fruitsie Ice Cream
Yes, I do think this scene is mildly funny, in a straightforward kind of way. But it's a self-contained sketch that you could give to any comic and straight man and they'd get just as much fun out of it. (Indeed, it reads uncannily like an Abbott and Costello sketch.) Not only is it not tailored to Groucho and Chico, it actually violates the terms of their usual relationship.
Chico can sometimes get the better of Groucho in anti-logical argument, but this is a simple bit of sucker-fleecing, with Groucho cast uncomfortably as the dope and Chico as the wily huckster. In other words, Chico is behaving rationally and logically and cleverly, and Groucho's being taken for a ride. Funny this may be, but it's not the Marx Brothers, at least not the Marx Brothers I love best.
You can't have it both ways. I like the bit in At The Circus with the midget and Chico and the cigars, but every book on the movie dismisses the scene because it is 'out of character'. If you don't find it funny, fine, but if 'out of character' bothers you, then the Tootsie Fruitsie ice cream sketch should be a complete write-off.
Actually, I'm bending over backwards to be generous here. I'm not sure it's even all that funny, to be honest, once you get the idea. It doesn't really build to much of anything, and crucially it doesn't rise to any pitch of self-defeating madness, the way these things used to do at Paramount. Look at this exchange:
G: Is there a printing charge on this?
C: Just a two dollar delivery charge.
G: What do you mean, delivery charge? I'm standing right next to you.
C: Well, for such a short distance, I'll make it a dollar.
G: Couldn't I move it over here and make it fifty cents?
C: Yes, but I'd move over here and make it a dollar just the same.
G: Say, maybe I'd better open a charge account.
C: You got-a some references?
G: Well, the only one I know around here is you.
C: That's no good, you'll have to pay cash.
Now the obvious model for this is the contract scene from Opera; it has exactly the same rhythm. But compare the actual dialogue in the two scenes:
C: Now the next part I don't think you're going to like.
G: Well, your word's good enough for me. Is my word good enough for you?
C: I should say not.
G: Well that takes out two more clauses.
G: Just you put your name down there, and then the deal is legal.
C: I forgot to tell you, I can't write.
G: That's all right, there's no ink in the pen anyhow.
While Kaufman and Ryskind's writing in Opera has that beautiful contempt for logic that characterises their Groucho-Chico dialogues in Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, with virtually every line contradicting the one preceding, and setting off on some new comic direction, what we have in the Races script is jokes. They're not bad jokes, they're just ordinary jokes. Give the script to any other comedians and, while they may not do it as well, it wouldn't need rewriting first. Whereas the 'why a duck' or 'left-handed moth' routines might as well be written in a different language.
No, they are written in a different language.
2. The call to the Florida Medical Board
Much more like it! 26 minutes in, and for me the first really great scene in the film. And why? Because Groucho has stopped sneaking about and is having fun again. Look at the lead in.Typical Thalberg scene-setting: Whitmore is overheard putting a call in to the FMB; Groucho realises it's in an effort to discover the truth about his medical standing and rushes, panicked, into his office to avert disaster.
From then on, all this is forgotten. The Hugo Hackenbush that cringes into his office is the one that tries to stop Whitmore seeing that he's giving Mrs Upjohn a horse pill; the one who says, "They can throw a horse doctor in jail for not paying his rent, too!"; the one who tries to run away when it looks like he's going to be exposed.
But the one who actually puts in the call is the Groucho we've been praying for since his first scene. All he needs to do is tell Whitmore that Dr Hackenbush is the man he claims to be. Instead of that, he deliberately infuriates him, without allaying his suspicions in the smallest degree. The cost of his actions is to make Whitmore even more belligerent and probably even more suspicious, but he doesn't care. Baiting Whitmore is a pleasure, and a public service. Suddenly, Groucho's back in the ring.
3. Hackenbush examines Stuffy
Okay, not bad. And it's got that line you all love, something about his watch stopping. Can't quite think of it for a minute. This is all reasonably funny, without ever really catching fire.
4. The wallpaper routine
Yes, it's funny, and I'll bet it was a riot on the road-show try-outs. But it's a bit basic; it's not classic stuff. It's slapstick. It's not the Chevalier impersonations.
5. The Harpo-Chico whistling translation scene
The first example of what will become a staple of the later films, almost always including a bit where Harpo mimes the contours of a shapely woman's body and Chico thinks he means a snake. Quite funny, but more ground lost to MGM literalism. At Paramount, it may be that Harpo is simply choosing not to speak, because it is annoying. Here, we learn that he cannot speak, perhaps because of laryngeal disease or some form of mental abnormality. Not as funny, that's for sure.
6. Mrs Upjohn's examination
For my money, the film's one and only classic, fully sustained and imaginatively developed comedy sequence. Insults, absurdity, anarchy; the beautiful repetition of the hand-washing; the three Dr Steinbergs being introduced to each other; Harpo and Chico lathering Dumont for a shave; Harpo taking her pulse; Chico yelling, "X-ray! X-ray! All about the operation!"; Groucho asking, "How is it that a dame like that never gets sick?"
The trick is in first establishing a premise, then tweaking it, then undermining it, and then, and only then, going bananas with it. The result should be the kind of laughter that builds too aggressively, so that you end up choking and sweating, half-hoping that there will be a break for you to breathe and swallow before the next majestic assault upon reason, and half-hoping that there won't.
This is what the Marx Brothers do, and in this film, I suggest, they only do it here.
7. The racetrack finale
Actually, I'm stretching things a bit even including this among the comedy sequences. The race itself is played dead straight, and the only funny stuff is to be found beforehand, in the Brothers' efforts to postpone it. These moments, like so much else, are both a Rank Xerox imitation of A Night at the Opera and a vastly less effective one.
As for the race itself, what Halliwell calls a "spectacularly well integrated racecourse climax" is an almost total dead loss. Not Marx Brothers comedy; not any kind of comedy.
Yes, this is devil's advocacy, from a man who loves The Cocoanuts and Room Service, and tires of hearing that Duck Soup is their best film, and sometimes just gets a bit grumpy for no good reason at all. I have nothing against this film, truly.
It's pleasant viewing, it's nicely made, and the boys are for the most part in energetic form. But I just don't get its reputation as among the very finest. Where are all the funny bits? When you think how many laughs Horse Feathers crams into 67 minutes, surely there should be a few more in the 105 minutes we get of this?
The real mystery is how something this derivative could have taken so much effort. According to Louvish, it went through six screenplays, with fourteen incorporated outlines and treatments and the fruits of five touring vaudeville scripts, only to result in the most slavish copy of a previous success audiences had experienced prior to Ghostbusters 2.