The Marx Brothers made two pictures at MGM with director Sam Wood and wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg, whose tragic death at age 37 prematurely ended one of Hollywood’s most remarkable careers. The first and more famous of the two films is “A Night at the Opera” (1935), but the second one, “A Day at the Races” (1937), might actually hold up better for audiences today. The combined settings of the race track and the health sanitarium offer plenty of comedic opportunities for the brothers to exploit, and the additional charms of “Tarzan” star Maureen O’Sullivan help to keep the unifying romantic plot in motion.
Groucho plays veterinarian Dr. Hackenbush, who arrives at a struggling sanitarium at the insistence of a wealthy hypochondriac, Mrs. Upjohn (Margaret Dumont). Sanitarium owner Judy Standish (Maureen O’Sullivan) is under pressure to sell the place, and her boyfriend, Gil (Allan Jones), tries to raise cash to help her out by purchasing a race horse from the neighboring track. Groucho, Chico, and Harpo pitch in to save the sanitarium and unite the lovebirds through a series of wacky schemes that culminates in a very unorthodox steeplechase.
As he did in “A Night at the Opera,” Allan Jones takes the straight man role, although he does less singing in this second picture. Marx Brothers regular Margaret Dumont is back for more perversely romantic abuse from Groucho, and she really does come in for some rough treatment in the examining room scene. Highlights of the picture include the purely vaudevillian ice cream cart sketch, in which Chico plays Groucho for a sucker, and the great pantomime sequence where Harpo tries to explain to Chico that Groucho is being framed. Chico and Harpo both work in their usual musical solos, although Harpo’s bit is made more interesting by the way he slowly destroys a piano in order to get at the harp within. The horse provides a number of excellent gags, particularly at the expense of Douglass Dumbrille, who makes a perfectly unlikeable and humorless villain as the crooked J.D. Morgan.
Fans of the Marx Brothers generally pick either “Duck Soup” (1933) or “A Night at the Opera” (1935) as the gang’s best film, so try both of those for comparison. Of the later pictures, “A Night in Casablanca” (1946) is probably the most entertaining. For more of Maureen O’Sullivan, try the Tarzan movies, “The Thin Man” (1934), and “Pride and Prejudice” (1940). You’ll find Allan Jones in the 1936 version of “Showboat,” and Douglass Dumbrille turns up in “Baby Face” (1933), “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936), and “It’s a Joke, Son!” (1947). Director Sam Wood went on three Oscar nominations for Best Director for his work on “Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), “Kitty Foyle” (1940), and “Kings Row” (1942).