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There is nothing, nothing in this world, sloppier than a Marx Brothers movie. The relationship of any given scene to the one before it or the one after it is tenuous at best. The lavish production numbers are unbelievably horrible. And as for acting--what acting?
Anyone who cares about the foregoing, of course, is out of his head. A Day at the Races, being a Marx Brothers film, is deficient in direction, acting, music, character development, dramatic structure, and just about anything else you care to mention. The performances of the romantic leads, (Allen Jones and Maureen O'Sullivan) in particular, border on the grotesque. But A Day at the Races, 25 years after its debut, remains one of the funniest, most entertaining films ever made.
Groucho, Harpo, and Chico romp through A Day at the Races full speed ahead, leaving behind a trail of devastated buildings, befuddled police officers, and shattered pianos. Groucho is cast as a horse doctor in disguise, Harpo as a jockey, and Chico as an ice cream vendor, but all this is merely an excuse for them to get together and start wrecking the place. It is a foregone conclusion that Harpo will ride the horse to victory and save the sanatorium of which Groucho has become chief of staff.
But there are some great lines en route to the denouement. A doctor asks Groucho, as the converted veterinarian is about to give a patient a suspiciously horse-sized capsule, "Isn't that a bit large for a pill?" Groucho answers, "Well, it was too small for a basketball, and I didn't know what else to do with it." A nurse asks Groucho to okay a document, and he responds, "I'm much too busy--I'll put the O on now, but you'll have to come back later for the K."
Among the classic scenes are one in which Harpo wrecks an entire grand piano, another in which the three brothers absolutely level Groucho's suite in the sanatorium, and the chaotic, climactic day at the races. You have to see them to believe them.
Perhaps the most memorable scene begins with Jones, the typical fink-hero of Thirties comedy, murdering a song, when out of nowhere and for no apparent reason comes a huge collection of the kind of Negroes you don't see any more in the movies. They are ragged, they roll their eyes, they shout "Who dat man?" with religious ecstasy, and they are full of rhythm. At the end of the film they reappear, marching down the racetrack behind the Marx boys, shouting, "All God's chillun got money."
Today, of course, you just can't do Negroes that way. In today's movies, the Negro is not only equal, he is the same as everybody else. But what a great, innocent, wonderful thing that old darky caricature was, and how sad it is that the enlightenment has erased it, probably forever.
The second feature at the Harvard Square is the 1945 version of Meet Me in St. Louis, with Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien, Leon Ames, Marjory Main, Chill Wills, and other greats. The color is bilious, the sentimentality sickening, and the acting, for the most part, godawful. But Meet Me in St. Louis is a slice of history. The young Judy Garland is every bit as wonderful as the mature version, and the portrayal of the St. Louis of the early 1900's is strangely touching. As a boy in St. Louis, I was brought up on such songs as "Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis," "The Trolley Song," and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." They were great songs then, just as this was a great movie; if we have changed so that we can no longer appreciate Meet Me in St. Louis and its music, it is we who have suffered from the effects of time.
These movies are undeniably entertaining, but the fact remains that $1.25 is one hell of a lot to pay for the privilege of seeing two 20-year-old-films--or even two six-month-old pictures, for that matter.
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