Saturday, January 10, 2015

A Day at the Races

Directed by Sam Wood and written by George Oppenheimer, Robert Pirosh, and George Seaton, A Day at the Races is the story of a group of men who are asked to save a woman’s sanitarium by betting on a race horse for a big race. The film is a comedy where it involves betting and all sorts of things as the three men are played by the Marx Brothers in Groucho, Harpo, and Chico. Also starring Allan Jones, Maureen O’Sullivan, and Margaret Dumont. A Day at the Races is an uproarious and funny film from Sam Wood and the Marx Brothers.

When a woman’s sanitarium is to be foreclosed by the bank, a veterinarian comes in to woo a rich woman who is staying there while conspiring with two other men to bet on a horse for a big race so that the money could save the sanitarium. It’s a story that is very simple as it involves a group of men trying to help a woman while they’re friends with a singer who is in love with that woman as he spent his money on a race horse he hopes would win a big race. Along the way, these three men create havoc in their surroundings as they contend with a sheriff, a bank manager, and the sanitarium’s manager as it has elements of suspense as well as terror as it’s all presented in a very humorous manner. Especially as the story plays into these three men doing something noble for a woman as she has been handed the sanitarium from her family and wants to keep it.

Sam Wood’s direction is very lively not just in the elaborate gags that are created but also in the fact that it serves purpose to the story. Notably in Wood’s approach to framing and compositions where he allows some unique wide shots to play into the gags such as a chaotic sequence involving Dr. Hackenbush (Groucho Marx), a sanitarium worker named Tony (Chico Marx), and a jockey named Stuffy (Harpo Marx) as they pretend to examine a woman to prove that Dr. Hackenbush isn’t a quack. There’s also these very funny moments at a party where Dr. Hackenbush sees a beautiful woman as he would dance with her and the woman he is accompanying while Tony and Stuffy create their own brand of chaos. The usage of medium shots and wide shots are very unique in how Wood would slow things down to set up some sequences including some musical numbers such as the party where there’s ballet and singing plus an extended music piece by Tony and Stuffy.

One notable sequence that would top all of that is in the third act where the main characters encounter a group of African-Americans in a poor town as it leads to this extravagant music sequence led by Ivie Anderson and the Crinoline Choir. It’s among one of the finest pieces of singing and dancing that is captured with such energy through Wood’s direction as it would lead to the climatic race where it’s all about the gags at their most ambitious and what it would lead to in this race. Even as Dr. Hackenbush and Tony would create chaos at its most insane to the point that it would annoy many of the film’s antagonists to great delight. Overall, Wood creates a very sprawling yet exhilarating film about a doctor and his two buddies trying to save a sanitarium from some bad guys.

Cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg does excellent work with the film‘s black-and-white photography for some of the film‘s elaborate sequences with its approach to lighting for some of the scenes at night which adds to a unique sense of style. Editor Frank E. Hull does superb work with the editing as it plays to the rhythm of the humor as well as use fade-outs to help structure the story from one scene to another. Art director Cedric Gibson does brilliant work with the look of the sanitarium as well as the lavish party that Dr. Hackenbush attends. Sound recordist Douglas Shearer does nice work with the sound to help create the sense of chaos that Dr. Hackenbush and his gang ensue. The film’s music by Walter Jerman, Bronislau Kaper, and Franz Waxman is fantastic for its mixture of classical and jazz music as it plays into the comedy along with original songs that help tell the story.

The film’s remarkable cast include some notable small roles from Vivien Fay as the ballet dancer, Ivie Anderson as the singer in the dance-and-song number in African-American farm sequence, Esther Muir as the beautiful blonde Dr. Hackenbush tries to woo, Sig Ruman as a renowned doctor Dr. Hackenbush mocks in order to not be revealed to be a quack, and Robert Middlemass as the local sheriff who wants to go after the three men and kill their horse. Leonard Creeley is terrific as the scheming sanitarium manager Whitmore who wants to expose Dr. Hackenbush and help in the sale of the sanitarium. Douglass Dumbrille is superb as the evil J.D. Morgan as a bank manager who wants to buy the sanitarium and turn it into a casino in the hopes to legalize gambling in Florida. Margaret Dumont is wonderful as Mrs. Upjohn as a rich woman living at the sanitarium who wants to be treated by Dr. Hackenbush as she is often the brunt of many jokes yet to great use as the straight woman.

Allan Jones is excellent as the singer Gil Stewart who buys the horse to help out Judy Standish as he gets help from Tony and Stuffy while making some major realizations into his purchase. Maureen O’Sullivan is fantastic as the sanitarium owner Judy Standish who copes with trying to save the place as well as deal with what Gil is trying to do unaware of the truth of what Dr. Hackenbush really is. Finally, there’s the Marx Brothers in phenomenal performances with Chico bringing a lot of energy as well as wit and sensitivity to Tony as someone who wants to help Judy as well as create chaos on the schemes of Morgan and Whitmore. Harpo is the funniest as his mute yet animated performance displays that sense of innocence and adventure as he just constantly brings in the laughs for his role as Stuffy. Finally, there’s Groucho in a brilliant performance as Dr. Hackenbush with his witty commentary on things while being a man who isn’t afraid to flirt with anyone while being a complete agent of chaos.

A Day at the Races is a marvelous film from Sam Wood and the Marx Brothers. With its sense of anarchy and willingness to create a story where the good guys try to wreak havoc on the bad guys. It’s a film that is truly entertaining as well as play into something that feels lively in its gags and musical numbers. In the end, A Day at the Races is a sensational film from Sam Wood and the Marx Brothers.

Marx Brothers Films: (Humor Risk) - (I’ll Say She Is) - (The Cocoanuts (1925)) - (Animal Crackers (1928 film)) - (The Cocoanuts (1929 film)) - (Animal Crackers (1930 film)) - (The House That Shadows Built) - (Monkey Business) - Horse Feathers - Duck Soup - A Night at the Opera - Room Service - At the Circus - Go West - (The Big Store) - (A Night in Casablanca) - (Love Happy) - (The Story of Mankind)

© thevoid99 2015


Anonymous said...

Yet another film I really need to see. I just need to have a Marx brothers movie night.

ruth said...

I can always count on you to educate me on all kinds of genres and filmmakers, Steven. I don't think I've seen anything by the Marx Brothers, but this one sounds like a hoot.

thevoid99 said...

@Fisti-I managed to DVR some of the films they were showing on New Year's Day on TCM so that is the source of my mini-marathon.

@ruth-This is definitely one of their funniest yet the one to see is Duck Soup which was one of my Blind Spots from last year.