A DAY AT THE RACES (1937), the Marx Brothers seventh film and their second at MGM, does one thing exceedingly well. It makes me realize how absolutely drop dead brilliant DUCK SOUP (1933), which the brothers made at Paramount, is in comparison to the films they made at MGM. Oh sure, the MGM films had bigger budgets and better production values. They had that MGM gloss. They also were extremely profitable for the studio.
A DAY AT THE RACES does some things right. There's no Zeppo or Gummo but there is the unofficial fourth Marx brother (or is that sister?), Margaret Dumont (Margo?). There's a very funny scene between Groucho and Chico in which Chico sells Groucho a succession of books needed to bet on the horses. There's an action packed horse race at the end of the film and a good measure of laughs throughout the rest of the film.
It's not a bad movie. I've watched it several times and I always get some chuckles from it. I watched it again the other night and I'm glad I had it recorded so I could skip the worst parts of the movie. And if you're a Marx Brothers fan, you know what those are.
Elaborate musical numbers were used in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and, while they slow down the narrative momentum, they at least make sense in a film with an opera setting. In A DAY AT THE RACES, the musical numbers (here even bigger and longer in duration) are shoehorned into the plot and bring everything to a screeching halt. We get to hear Allan Jones sing, see a water ballet, listen to Chico play the piano and Harpo strum the harp and it's all incredibly boring. I fast forwarded through this part of the film, something audiences in a movie theater obviously cannot do. Here's a tip: if you see this film in a theater, as soon as the musical number segment starts, take a bathroom break and go get some popcorn and soda. You won't miss anything that's important to the story. I guarantee it.
Oh, and skip the second musical number too. It's the one staged in a barn with an ensemble of black singers, musicians and dancers. It's all slightly racist, comes out of nowhere, does nothing for the story and ends shamefully with Groucho, Chico and Harpo in black face. Ugh.
If you're a Marx Brothers fan, you know all about these shortcomings of their MGM films. If you're new to the Marx Brothers, A DAY AT THE RACES is a film you must see at some point. It's worth seeing but keep your finger on that fast forward button if you're watching a recorded version of the film.