TV Cream

Films: D is for...

Day at the Races, A

The Marx Brothers’ second MGM outing, this, very much in the mould of Opera format-wise, and subsequently talked down as its inferior by many, though there’s plenty of prime Marx amid the endless expository sequences and big time musical numbers (though rather sadly they chose to cut the excellent Dr Hackenbush’s Song – “For ailments abdominal/My charges are nominal”). The genesis for this one was as long and painful as Opera’s. The traditional 14 initial script treatments and six full screenplay drafts by various old hands moved the film from being a medical satire set in a sanitorium to a tale of a horse doctor getting the once-over at a racetrack. Groucho’s character changed from brazen fraud Syrus P Turntable to masquerading vet Hugo Z Hackenbush (although he was for a long time Dr Quackenbush, until, brilliantly, MGM received a number of litigation threats from genuine Dr Quackenbushes). Harpo went from a tree surgeon to a jockey, and Chico from a piano-playing law student to a shady tipster. Then, when studio head Irving Thalberg finally approved the script, it went on tour, for timing changes, word-by-word rewrites (one use of the word ‘nauseating’ was only arrived at after a dozen or more less funny alternatives were tried in its place – we hate to carp on, but again, imagine the Broken News team putting in that much care). Then, back in the studio, there were even more rewrites of the bits that hadn’t been performed on the tour, and indeed the bits that had. Then, tragically, the astoundingly hardworking Thalberg kicked the bucket at the age of thirty-seven, putting the mockers on the project for a while. Eventually, however, filming finally began, under the stern aegis of Sam ‘Twenty takes of everything’ Wood. Complete with on-the-fly rewrites. Much chicken soup has been spilt over the supposed conflict between MGM’s highly polished, plot-driven approach to comedy and the Marxes’ freeform free-for-all mania, but it works fine in Opera (when no-one’s singing) and, largely, it manages just swell here, too. Standout routines include the initial Groucho-Chico meeting, with Hack swapping a dead cert tip for endless codebooks with which to understand it, the top flight game of charades between Chico and Harpo (“Buffalo Bill goes ice skating!”), a chaotic wallpapering bit, an examination of Harpo (“He’s what we doctors designate as the crummy, moronic type”) and best of all, the three-way medical shenanigans towards the end, conducted to the tune of Down By the Old Mill Stream (“Sterilisation!”) That’s five more classic scenes than a Jerry Lewis film usually contains (and about a dozen more than a Ritz Brothers picture), and whatever your position on the merits of the whole (and we won’t rehearse the debates about the usefulness and/or appropriateness of the Buzby Berkeley-style water carnival scene, or the infamous “All God’s Chillun Got Swing” number) it’s still head and shoulders above anything else about at the time (Wheeler and Woolsey, anyone?) and in a different league to the MGM stuff they’d turn out subsequently (which will no doubt crop up on here within due course). So make an appointment. “Don’t drink that poison! It’s four dollars an ounce!”

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