Friday, January 20, 2012

A Day at the Races re-viewed

I've just watched the Marx Brothers in A Day at the Races for the first time since I was a child/teenager, I'd think.     I may have seen it again since then as some of the scenes seemed familiar - the thenk you that Groucho and his lady friend (Esther Muir, who did a lot of vamp-type roles) keep throwing at each other rang a distinct bell, as did the way in which the horse reacted to the baddie's voice during the big race.   But I'd forgotten much of the rest of it.

Compared to A Night at the Opera it's a considerable step-up.  For one thing, the direction and editing is much tighter and sharper, the cinematography much cleaner and clearer, and even the minor characters come across well - when they get a chance amongst the craziness.   The musical numbers are a mixed bag - as they often were in these movies.  Allan Jones does his best with a not-so-hot song, not helped by the Crinoline Chorus (one of whom never seems to be in the right place at the right time) and a totally irrelevant piece of ballet - though it has to be admitted Vivien Fay could spin in an extraordinary way.   The black singers and dancers are an improvement, and the jiving that the young people do is fantastic.   Those with their musical ears open will notice that at the beginning of the big race sequence at the end one of the tunes from A Night at the Opera turns up again: Cosi Cosa.   Since we're told in the earlier movie that the phrase can mean anything, it seems entirely appropriate that it should get a second chance here.

Examination scene: Dumont in the chair,
Ruman & Ceeley with the brothers.
The film has several big set pieces, some of them no doubt survivors from the original touring version of the show.  There's the increasingly frantic phone call between Groucho and the little-known Leonard Ceeley (he's Whitmore, one of the baddies).  It must have been a tough call doing several takes of this scene.   Or the scene in which poor old Margaret Dumont (who's also much better in this) is supposed to be examined by Groucho as Dr Hackenbush (a horse doctor) and by Sig Ruman (who's a real doctor).   Chaos is built up from almost nothing, with Chico and Harpo getting in on the act, and an increasingly furious Whitmore standing there stammering and shouting.  A horse arrives as the sprinkler system is set off.  

Muir about to have her powder compact
blown up in her face
Or the scene mentioned before with Esther Muir - who's trying to seduce whom here?  Nobody, of course, because in a Marx Brothers movie such a thing will never happen, in spite of Groucho's best intentions (and because the Hays Code was breathing down their necks at the time).  Chico and Harpo wreck things three times over until Muir is given short shrift at the end: with a piece of wallpaper slapped on her rear end for good measure.   Working with the Marx Brothers must have been accident-prone for the other actors - Ceeley goes for more than one slip, Muir is in constant danger of some flying object, and even Margaret Dumont stumbles across hazards.

Then there's the scene between Chico and Groucho - the equivalent of the contract tearing-up scene in Night at the Opera.  Here Groucho is intending to put a bet on a horse, but Chico, needing cash in hand, manages to sell him a bundle of books - one by one at first, and then in a heap - each one supposedly given the code to the previous one.  Like so much else in the movie it has lines that leap past before you realise they've quite surreal.

A friend said this film was his pick of the Marx movies: it looks as though he may have been right.


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