The funniest family in comedy, the legendary Marx Brothers return for their seventh feature in 1937’s A Day at the Races. Perhaps not their best film but Groucho, Chico, and Harpo bring plenty of hilarity as a band of misfits trying to save a sanitarium via horse race with their usual foil Margaret Dumont along for the ride. Thanks to the Warner Archive Collection, this classic musical comedy lights up Blu-ray with an exceptional transfer, terrific audio, and a nice assortment of extra features to enjoy after the show. Highly Recommended
If there’s one thing the Marx Brothers were great at was comedy and music. Brothers Groucho, Chico, and Harpo (and Zeppo before he left to invent cool stuff and start a talent agency) could sling jokes, do bits, upstage any actor, and deliver one hell of a zany film. Story? Plot? They’re not so important when everything else is working. Those elements are but the thinnest frameworks for the boys to deliver their next bit of absurdity and musical entertainment. And for their seventh feature, A Day at the Races, the boys are caught chasing the wildly successful (and my personal favorite) A Night at the Opera - a tall task but they give it their best effort.
In this film we find Chico and Harpo working for young beautiful and earnest Judy Standish (Maureen O’Sullivan) and the Standish Sanitarium. The Sanitarium has seen better days with patients few and far between and now a local racetrack owner aimes to buy the property out from under Judy. Her perpetually poor beau Gil (Allan Jones) has a dream of saving the day with a wild, untamed racehorse, but the horse can't run until the track fees are paid. The sanitarium’s patient in permanent residence, the rich socialite Mrs. Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont), is willing to pay the debt if Judy can somehow get famed Doctor Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho) to come to care for her.
As I said, pretty thin stuff when it comes to plot and story necessities. In terms of film frameworks, the plot beats sever little more purpose than to segue the Marx Brothers. from one comedic bit to the next, from one musical number to the next. And that’s fine because A Day at the Races is hilarious! It’s no A Night a the Opera, but that’s perfectly okay. Even with the help of Allan Jones returning to deliver the classy musical number (Cosi-Cosa is fun but it's no Alone with Kitty Carlisle), the film is more intent on letting Groucho, Harpo, and Chico do what they do best. It’s in this era of Marx Bros. films that you need to just let it all go and give in to absolute the absurdity on the screen.
And this is an absurd film! But I don’t think people sign up for a Marx Bros. film expecting earnest drama and heartfelt sincerity. Between Groucho trying to woo the beautiful Esther Muir (Thank Keyeah!) while avoiding Margaret Dumont and Harpo destroying the piano, the film is a hoot. Their best films were made during the Great Depression as true escapist pieces. People out of work or down on their luck needed a little fantasy, a little romance, and plenty of laughs, and those first several films delivered. While I wouldn’t personally stack A Day at the Races as their biggest or best effort (it’s probably fifth in my book), Chico’s “Tootsie Frootsie” ice cream sketch remains one of my favorite true belly laughs. Sadly, it was after this film the brothers’ film prospects started to diminish.
After their first five films for Paramount, Irving Thalberg played the pivotal role of bringing them over to MGM. Mere weeks into shooting A Day at the Races, Thalberg died leaving them without a championing advocate to keep the pictures rolling their way marking the last time their efforts truly felt their own without a heavy studio hand. Afterward, they were passed to RKO, back to MGM, retirement, unretirement, and then capping off their cinematic careers with two rounds at United Artists. There were funny films to follow in those years, but nothing matched their peak years (even if I am quite partial to the silliness of At the Circus) or even managed to match A Day at the Races.
A Day at the Races is a daffy screwball musical comedy featuring three of the funniest men in show business history. The story is thin, the songs might not be as punchy, but Groucho, Chico, and Harpo proved again they had the raw talent to make it in pictures. It had been a few years since I last watched this one so this viewing proved to be a long overdue delight.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
A Day at the Races takes a big bet on Blu-ray thanks to Warner Archive. A single-disc release, the film is pressed on a BD-50 disc and housed in a standard sturdy case. The disc loads to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
Reportedly sourced from a 4K scan of preservation elements, A Day at the Races absolutely shines on Blu-ray. Another incredible restoration effort that matches (if not possibly exceeds the effort for A Night at the Opera), the film simply looks stunning. Fine details in facial features or the incredibly intricate work that went into the costuming are all on display. Film grain has a natural cinematic appeal without appearing too noisy or intrusive. The film’s grayscale is terrific with deep blacks, crisp clean whites, and the full range of shading in between. Image depth is another area where I really felt the film pick up some visual chutzpah - especially for some of the big music numbers where you have dozens of dancers and singers rolling in and around the scene. The climactic race sequence is also a big winner. With so many sight gags it's great to finally be able to fully appreciate all of them. The only real “problem” (if you can even call it that) is some slight occasional softness that pops up for a few seconds here and there. These are likely where some archival elements were sourced that weren’t quite up to snuff, but they’re hardly distracting or bothersome.
On the audio front, the film rolls with an excellent DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track. Dialog is crisp and clear without issue. Sound effects are lively and expansive without sounding faked or canned. Musical numbers are lovely with terrific clarity. This track largely avoids some of the tinny or shrill issues that affected higher registers other Marx Bros. films. Allan Jones has quite the vibrato and that was something I found distracting for A Night at the Opera’s music numbers but didn’t feel the same issue here. Some very slight hiss remains, but free of any serious pops, cracks, or dropouts, this is a great audio mix.
On the bonus features front this disc comes in with a nice assortment. We get to enjoy what came in with the previous DVD from about 20 years ago with a couple of new extras to round out the bunch. The audio commentary with Glenn Mitchell is still a highlight for a very interesting and entertaining track. There’s a retrospective documentary, a couple of fun shorts, some cartoons, and some audio-only extras all worth digging into.
Not their greatest, not their worst, A Day at the Races is just another film in a line of damned funny Marx Bros. appearances. What does plot or story matter when you’ve got Groucho, Chico, and Harpo doing what they do best? With Allan Jones, Margaret Dumont, and Maureen O’Sullivan rounding out the cast, the film briskly moves from one catchy musical number to the next with an almost painful array of laughs in between. Warner Archive Collection does another magnificent job restoring this film for Blu-ray. An absolutely splendid video transfer, excellent audio, and a great selection of extra features - no Marx Bros. collection is complete without it. Highly Recommended