It was 1937 and the Marx Brothers were back with their seventh motion picture A Day at the Races. A Day at the Races was the follow-up to the boys' biggest and most popular film, their previous effort, 1935's A Night at the Opera.
A Day at the Races was their second film for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It was also their second film post-Zeppo, the youngest Marx Brother, their wooden straight man, having retired as an actor after 1933's Duck Soup.
Trying to duplicate the successful formula of A Night at the Opera, before beginning filming, Groucho, Chico and Harpo took a live version of A Day at the Races on the road. Before live crowds, jokes and gags were gauged and either kept or discarded.
Most of the A Day at the Races screenplay and gags were written by Al Boasberg, who was also a major contributor to A Night at the Opera. But Boasberg demanded full credit as the film's screenwriter, a request MGM was not willing to grant, thus a furious Boasberg requested his name be erased from the film's credits altogether. Final writing credits went to Robert Pirosh and George Seaton.
A Night at the Opera director Sam Wood returned to the helm. Irving Thalberg, MGM's "boy genius," was the film's producer, but sadly, he died unexpectedly of pneumonia just two weeks into production. Groucho was later to claim he "lost all interest" in film-making after the death of Thalberg.
Thalberg loved the Marx Brothers and being the head of MGM, he made sure they were protected and their films were kept at a grade A level. After his passing, the production, writing, and general caring and interest level of Marx Brothers movies took a massive drop, never to return to the A Day at the Races high level again.
Groucho was originally set to play a horse doctor named Dr. Quackenbush, a seemingly-safe sounding name, but it was soon discovered that over a dozen real doctors in America actually had that surname, and the threat of potential lawsuits demanded a switch. Thus, Groucho was re-named Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush. Groucho was to always say Dr. Hackenbush was his all-time favorite role. He would sometimes sign his letters using that name and according to his son Arthur, he would even refer to himself as "Hackenbush" occasionally in real life.
The ever-popular "eternal dowager" Margaret Dumont was back for her fifth stint as Groucho's straight woman and foil. In another attempt to re-create every possible A Night at the Operaa factor, Allan Jones was back as the male lead (and occasional straight man).
Maureen O'Sullivan, on hiatus from playing Jane in the MGM Tarzan movies, came on board as the film's female lead. (Greer Garson was originally offered the role, but refused to participate in a film where she didn't have the starring role.)
Groucho was later to admit to having a huge crush on Maureen all through filming. Maureen recalled that Groucho would come up to her every morning, like a lovesick schoolboy, and tell her a joke. Then he would say, "Do you think that's funny?" Groucho's entire mood was effected by his lady love's reply.
If she said yes, Groucho would be ecstatic, but if she told him his joke was not amusing, he would skulk off in a dour mood. Like so many crushes, both on movie sets and in real life, Groucho's love was unrequited. Unlike his notorious ladies man brother Chico, who would inevitably get lucky with any woman on a Marx Brothers film set (with the exception of Margaret Dumont), Groucho, according to all sources, was never unfaithful to Ruth, his wife of over a decade.
Interestingly, and touchingly, in Groucho's scenes in the film with O'Sullivan, he often had a softness and gentleness in both his voice and manner, something he never displayed in any other film he appeared in, with or without his brothers.
Esther Muir was cast as a vamp who tries to frame Groucho and Doulass Dumbrille (who hires floozie Esther) was the film's heavy.
A Day at the Races clocked in at 111 minutes, making it the longest of any Marx Brothers picture. This was due, in part, to the excessive amount of musical numbers. Three full musical numbers were included, plus brief clips of a few others, not to mention the obligatory harp and piano solos by Harpo and Chico, respectively.
A wonderfully catchy number by Groucho called "Doctor Hackenbush" was, for some odd reason, filmed, but edited out of the final cut. Groucho was to always love this number and often sang it at parties for the rest of his life.
Interestingly, A Day at the Races was to be the only Marx Brothers movie to ever garner an Academy Award nomination. Dave Gould was nominated for Best Dance Direction for the number "All God's Chillun' Got Rhythm." Gould was to lose the Oscar to Hermes Pan at the 1938 Academy Awards for "A Damsel in Distress." The category was dropped by the Academy after this, never to return.
The "All God's Chillun' Got Rhythm" number, while spirited and highly entertaining, can play as slightly cringe-worthy to contemporary viewers. In it, the Marx Brothers dance with an African-American troupe of dancers (the Crinoline Choir), while they themselves appear, for the first and only time, in blackface.
It was during the film's climactic "steeplechase scene" that chronic gambler Chico surprised everyone on the set, except himself. Before filming the big final horse race scene, Groucho noticed his older brother making a bet on a losing horse in the scene. "Are you crazy?" Groucho asked in amazement, "That horse is going to lose. It's in the script that another horse is going to win in the scene!"
"I couldn't help it," explained Chico, "The odds were twenty-to-one."
In some versions of this anecdote, the scene was actually filmed twice and Chico bet the sure-to-lose horse both times. It almost goes without saying that A Day at the Races, a film where he plays a race track tout and involves gamblers betting on the ponies, was always to be cited by Chico as his favorite Marx Brothers movie.
A Day at the Races premiered on June 11, 1937. The reviews were unanimously positive and it proved to be every bit the success A Night at the Opera was at the box office two years earlier. It remains a classic, although almost always regarded as slightly inferior to its predecessor.
It was the first film famed critic Roger Ebert ever saw. Paul McCartney was to name it as one of his all-time favorite movies. In 2000, A Day at the Races was named number 59 on the American Film Institute's list of Funniest Films of All-Time.
One last bit of trivia: The last line in A Day at the Races was "Tomorrow is another day," making it the only movie besides Gone With The Wind to end with this line. Now there's a good bar bet for you.