(On Cable TV, January 2018) Marx Brothers vehicle A Day at the Races, second in their MGM line-up, does feel a lot like the previous A Night at the Opera—individual set pieces for the Brothers, matronly role for Margaret Dumont, romantic subplot for the non-comedians Maureen O’Sullivan and Allan Jones, large-scale conclusion in a very public setting … it’s a formula, but it works even when it’s not as effective. Once again, I’m far more partial to Groucho’s absurdist repartee than Harpo’s silent act, but the result is decently funny, with a few highlights along the way: The musical numbers are actually pretty good (including pulling a harp out of a destroyed piano), even if the blackface sequence is hard to enjoy now despite the good rhythm of the song. Most of the comedy bits drag on a touch too long (or definitely too long for the “ice cream” sequence) but the charm of the Brothers usually make up for it. A Day at the Races isn’t quite as good as some of the previous Marx films, but it’s still watchable enough today.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) I’ve been meaning to go back to the Marx Brothers comedies, decades after seeing and loving Duck Soup. Fortunately, these eighty-year-old movies are still holiday fixtures, so I’m back with the Marxes starting with A Night at the Opera, the first of their MGM movies after leaving Paramount and being led to a more audience-friendly format. Sadly, the connective material that MGM imposed remains the weakest part of the film—who cares about a romance between two dull secondary characters, other than it provides the backdrop against which the brothers run wild? Plots are necessary, but it’s the individual comic sketches that make A Night at the Opera so memorable. Whether we’re talking about Groucho’s verbal pyrotechnics, the famous stateroom scene, the anarchic finale set among a malfunctioning theatre stage … or even the surprisingly engaging bit of piano-playing, this is a film of scenes and sequences. It doesn’t all work (I’ve never been much of a Harpo fan) and often overstays its welcome, but much of A Night at the Opera is still very funny today.