Sunday, May 27, 2012

Horse Feathers

The immense outpouring of affection recently at the loss of Maurice Sendak filled me with joy and sadness—joy at the abiding legacy he left with so many people, and sadness because I was not one of them.  I never grew up with Where the Wild Things Are, or any of his other books.  I was probably in high school before I was even aware of who he was, and while that wasn’t too old to appreciate his genius, the opportunity his books had to tap into my childhood impulses of defiance, giving tacit approval to less decorous desires, was past.

Mine was a childhood of “Children should be seen and not heard”, of bedtime Bible stories and Little Golden Books.  Maurice Sendak, Judy Blume, were simply not on my radar at all.  The only element of subversive role modeling in my life, embracing anarchy and reveling in chaos, were the Marx Brothers.

To my parents, they were silly.  Cartoonish.  With cute musical numbers.  In short—harmless.

But while other classic comedians I was allowed to watch might fall into that characterization—Bob Hope or Danny Kaye, say—I knew the Marxes were different.  For they weren’t cowards.  They weren’t clowns.  They were jesters, fearless in the face of authority.  They were brazen with women, insulting toward tough guys, and irreverent towards anyone who told them what to do.  They were one-of-a-kind and hilarious.

And I loved them.  For they were a balm in a landscape of suburban propriety I had around me.  And the fact that my parents didn’t seem to get it—the satire, the innuendo (much of which went over my head, too), the blatant disrespect they represented—made them that much richer to me.  In a still water world, they were my din and tonic.

A Day at the Races (Wood, 1937) may be their last largely satisfying movie.  Once they moved to MGM, they began to gradually lose their fizz, but this was only their second film at the studio and their energy was still suitably manic and unrestrained, though some telltale warning signs (overly produced musical numbers, an increased sentimentality) are there, too.

While the Marxes would usually run rampant in the corridors of the elite (opera circles, ivory tower universities, luxury cruise liners), Races is unusual in that it straddles itself between a highly formal environment (the Shelton sanitarium) and the racetrack, where shysters, con men, and rascals like Groucho, Chico & Harpo are right at home.  

The horse in Races is High Hat, the final hope for the financially strapped hospital that has just recently acquired Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho) as its chief-of-staff, at dowager Margaret Dumont’s insistence (though no one knows he’s actually a horse doctor).  That the racetrack adjoins the sanitarium means the action can move back and forth, with jockey Harpo and co-conspirator Chico prepping the horse for the big race.  The less said about Allan Jones, colorless love interest to sanitarium owner Maureen O’Sullivan, the better.

There are some memorable comedic setpieces. The legendary Tootsie-Frootsie ice cream negotiation between Chico & Groucho is still fantastic, and Chico & Harpo’s game of charades is fun, as are the boys’ examination of Dumont & foiled seduction of floozy Esther Muir.  And the climactic race is in the boisterous spirit of the football game in Horse Feathers, which takes a lot of the conventions of the sport and turns them on their head (and unlike most horse racing films, this is a steeplechase, which is fundamental in a final twist).  

But the film really belongs to Groucho.  His phone conversation with Leonard Ceeley is a miniature masterpiece, and his rumba number alternating between Dumont & Muir has its own perverse grace.  None of the other Marx boys could hold the screen on their own, for Chico perpetually needs a partner and Harpo risks becoming too precious left to his devices alone.  But give Groucho a dance floor or an empty hotel room and he’s master of the house. 

And speaking of dance numbers, Races is unique in Marx Brothers history as being the only one of their films nominated for an Oscar—Best Dance Direction for the genuinely bizarre “All God’s Children Got Rhythm”, which manages to combine terrific jitterbugging with unfortunate blackface in a bizarre tangent that has nothing to do with anything in the story (though the number is still a step up from another turgid Jones ballad).

The Marxes did end up getting an Oscar—an Honorary Achievement one in the early 1970s, when only Groucho was left alive.  One can only imagine the chaos they would’ve caused at a ceremony, worthy of Races’ gala or the climax of A Night at the Opera (still my favorite of their flicks).  But they had to become elder statesmen of comedy to finally get their due.

Which still, curiously, has not happened with the USPS yet.  For while Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, and W.C. Fields have gotten their stamp, the only mention they’ve gotten has been Groucho in the You Bet Your Life stamp (seen here as part of the Early TV Memories series, Scott #4414; coupled with horse racing, Scott #1528).  But their real impact as a group, making them still quite contemporary while the other artists I listed have dated some over the years, continues to go unrecognized.  Having a slate of stamps, with the mirror scene from Duck Soup, the stateroom scene from Opera, and the barrels in Monkey Business (to throw Zeppo a bone) would be perfect. And throw Tootsie-Frootsie in there, too.  For the Coconut in all of us.

For more entries in the Classic Movie Horse Blogathon


Caftan Woman said...

I absolutely loved your look at the Marx Brothers, what they mean to you, and "A Day at the Races". A perfect post that will be shared.

Page said...

You certainly have a gift for prose. (I had to get that out of the way!)

What a fantastic review of Horse Feathers that covered all of the high points of the film. So glad you mentioned Tootsie Footsie. And the studio change that did affect the Marx vehicles going forward. We often forget what an affect the studio system has on ones career. (Obviously a very talented comedy team here)

A truly stellar review of a great film that has stood the test of time. For me it's equal to Duck Soup in entertainment value.

Thanks for contributing to the Horseathon. I'm honored that you signed on and with such fine writing to boot.

Lastly, Swordfish, Swordfish!!!

whistlingypsy said...

Hi Sterling, may I begin by saying how nice it is to see you are part of the horseathon. May I also follow by complimenting you on your writing style: “In a still water world, they were my din and tonic.”, a line I wish I had written. I’m a huge fan of The Marx Brothers and I have seen “A Day at the Races”, as well as their other films, too many times to count. I couldn’t have imagined a horse race would make a good subject for a comedy, but The Marx Brothers proved any scenario is hilarious with their inspired anarchy. I came to admire the brothers later in life when I learned of their response to Irving Thalberg’s untimely death. The backstory on Thalberg and the brothers’ admiration for him is important in understanding their careers and touching insight into their lives. Thanks again for your excellent contribution.

silverscreenings said...

Well, I did not know this had been nominated for an Oscar. Can't wait to see it again!

Jeff Flugel said...

Really well-done post! I like how you brought up the fearlessness and anti-authoritarian stance that characterized the Marx Bros. That attitude is probably what makes their best films seem so fresh even today. I'm quite fond of the other great comedy teams like Abbott & Costello, etc., but the Marxes will always hold a special place in my heart.

Yvette said...

Enjoyed reading this especially since I haven't seen DAY AT THE RACES in years, so it kind of brought it back in a kind of hazy mist. I do remember the blackface number which has nothing to with nothing and the dancing Groucho number.

It's more than a shame that the brothers didn't get their award due while all were still alive.

I love A NIGHT AT THE OPERA best. But there are more than a few laughs in the early movies. Especially DUCK SOUP which is my second favorite.


Great, Filmatelist! I wrote about A Day at the Races for the horseathon, too.
It's nice how you have your background story with the Marx brothers and their humor. This was my first movie of theirs, and I agree that Groucho dominates. And they sure would do a mess in the Oscar!

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

There's a lot of fluff that could be whittled down in A Day at the Races, but the comedy set pieces are still among the Marx Brothers' finest. I did the poor man's Races over at my blog for the Horseathon, Crazy Over Horses...and they were still resorting to blackface maeterial in that as well.

My parents never understood my love for the Marx Brothers, either. I think I was adopted.