Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Marx Brothers' A Day at the Race: the Experiment

By Eilis Flynn

As part of our ongoing experiment in examining media classics and see if they stand up to time, we decided to check out the Marx Brothers movie A Day at the Races (1937). I hadn’t seen it, even though I’d heard plenty about it. So many of the quips, the style of joke telling, and acting that we know today come from that period, and Groucho, Harpo, and Chico were masters at the craft (not to mention the always delightful, always clueless, always picked upon Margaret Dumont). Not only that, this story’s sympathetic character, the one that the lunatic characters help (and there’s always one), is played by actress Maureen O’Sullivan, also known as Jane of Tarzan and Jane and the mother of Mia Farrow.

We enjoyed this still, even though it’s 77 years old (where DOES the time go?). Comedy is hard, I’ve heard tell, but the Marx brothers make it look easy. Groucho plays a veterinarian—although this being Groucho, who knows?—who’s mistaken for a physician and who gets involved in a scheme to allow O’Sullivan’s character to hold onto the failing sanitarium her family owns. The plot, which is a bit on the thin side, is bolstered by a few musical and dancing sequences, all of which go on long enough and made us wonder why in the world they were included in the first place. I guessed that they were inserted to stretch the running time (the container says 109 minutes). When we inquired of those who know these things (a music academic), we were told that the musical sequences were inserted to stretch the running time, as I surmised, and since they were for the most part with African-American entertainers, they were devised in such a way as to allow the producers and the local theaters in the South to delete them. So those moviegoers back then would never have seen or enjoyed those sequences.

So we had to ask the musical scholar about this, and he gave us what he told us was the short version of the story (of course, his version didn’t seem short, so it makes me wonder about the long version). Apparently, there were vaudeville and comedy circuits, performed mostly by Jewish entertainers, which came out of the minstrel show tradition, going back even farther. Apparently a lot of what the Marx Brothers did came from the minstrel shows, so inserting these musical sequences, but with African-American performers, was a natural decision because Hollywood actors and producers, who were fans of those performers, wanted to give their favorites some work.

And our musical scholar friend went on (and I’m synopsizing here; really, if this was the short version...but he teaches the subject, so it’s inevitable) to point out that a lot of what we saw in movies and even early TV came from that tradition. Jack Benny and his butler Rochester; Bogart and Dooley Wilson in Casablanca? Bojangles Robinson and Shirley Temple? All from that tradition that we saw a part of in A Day at the Races.

So that’s the thing about this comedy classic: the jokes are still fresh, but the music wasn’t universal, and it was even a bit political in a way that was at once overt and covert. Interesting to note, and something we wouldn’t necessary think of in our day and age. (Reminds me in some ways of Godzilla. Maybe soon in the series of examining media classics.)

Eilis Flynn can be found to argue with at Facebook, Twitter, or at her website at If you’re looking for an editor, you can find her at as Elizabeth Flynn. Either way, you’ll find her online somewhere!


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