MGM producer Irving Thalberg promised the Marx Brothers that he could make a film that would have half of the laughs of their Paramount films, but would have bigger box office returns. They were reluctant, but trusted the boy wonder. The gambled paid off, and the result, A Night at the Opera, was their highest-grossing film ever.
The decision was made to follow it up with another film made from the same template. The script of A Day at the Races would again center on troubled young lovers who the Brothers help to bring together, with Allan Jones playing a similar role as in the previous film, and Maureen O’Sullivan stepping in for Kitty Carlise. Margaret Dumont is back, playing a high-strung (and rich) patient in a sanitarium where she has Groucho’s Dr. Hackenbush instated as the head, unaware that he is actually a vet. Dumount’s roles in Marx Brothers films always revolved around her seeming to be her characters, a naïve money-bags willing to believe that Groucho is an African explorer, and ideal presidential candidate or a skilled doctor. Her best role is perhaps her turn as Mrs. Upjohn, a patient who believes that Groucho is the only doctor qualified to treat her. “Dr. Hackenbush tells me I am the only case in history” she screeches. “I have high blood pressure on right side and low blood pressure on my left side.” Tall, blonde Esther Muir serves as a replacement for poor Thelma Todd, who died in 1935. Sig Ruman returns as an outraged doctor. Only the venue seems to have been changed, from an opera house to a sanitarium, and a neighboring race track. Once again, the Brothers took scene from the script on the road to try them out before a live audience. When huckster Chico tries to sell Groucho a horse betting guide book with the promise “one dollar and you will remember me all your life,” Groucho replies “that is the most nauseating proposition I have ever heard.” “Nauseating” was settled upon as it got the biggest laugh after trying out “despicable,” “disgusting,” “revolting” and a half dozen other adjectives.
A few weeks into filming, however, Thalberg suddenly died of pneumonia, mostly likely antagonized by his relentless work schedule, and the production was brought to a halt. Groucho later wrote that “when Thalberg died, my heart went out of making motion pictures,” although he did continue making them. Indeed, the quality of Marx Brothers films was soon drop off. Although the producer did not live to see the finished film, his imprint can be clearly seen throughout, as A Day at the Races follows the new direction Thalberg conceived for the Marx Brothers during the pre-production of A Night at the Opera. One scene on which Thalberg was posthumously overruled has Harpo frantically miming to Chico that Dr. Hackenbush is in trouble. Thalberg felt this changed Harpo from a character who couldn’t be bother to speak, to one who couldn’t speak. Nevertheless, the scene stayed in, and would be repeated in their later films.
The Brothers prove they still have a bit of the old anarchy in them as they perform a medical examination on Margaret Dumont’s Mrs. Upjohn, endlessly washing their hands, spinning her gurney around the room, while Harpo climbs on top of her and lathers her face with shaving cream. But this is perhaps the last great hurrah in for the Marxes. There are flashes of brilliance in the later At the Circus and A Night in Casablanca, but even the most ardent fans have to admit that A Day at the Races was the Marx Brother’s last great film, although Groucho at least was destined to become a great start on television. Predating Gone with the Wind by two years, A Day at the Races ends with the line “tomorrow is another day.” Indeed.