Saturday, November 8, 2008

a day at the races, by sam wood

This week, we here at Film Club continue our examination of Early American Comedy. We're moving from the quasi-silent films embodied by the two Chaplin films we looked at, and moving instead firmly into the sound era: taking on 1937's A Day At the Races, a Marx Brothers film from their MGM era, directed by Sam Wood.

It should be obvious that one effect of the "unlocking" of sound is that the motion picture industry is immediately going to get drunk on the pleasures of speech, and certainly some of the appeal of the Marx Bros. is that they manifest this drunkenness so plainly. The average person on the street, asked to "name a Marx Brother," is likely to name this one:

...and, aside from the sheer iconicity of his appearance, the thing that most people remember about Groucho is his patter: the term incorporates both the dense mix of insults, one-liners, and blatant absurdities he delivers but also the unique (and endlessly imitated) manner in which he delivers them. Part of the reason Groucho is remembered so fondly is undoubtedly because he has so fully perfected patter only a decade after it becomes available as a filmic resource.

Chico is a little less well-remembered, but it's worth noting that his brand of comedy, too, is relentlessly centered around the delight we take in his quasi-ethnic verbal manglings.

It's a mistake, however, to recall the Marx Bros. as essentially a verbal act, as they're also extraordinarily gifted physical comics. Nowhere is this more evident than in the antics of the third brother, Harpo, who does his entire performance in this film (as well as their others) entirely in pantomime. In my opinion, he's a worthy rival to Chaplin: not only because of his amazingly kinetic body and in part because of his uncanny, weirdly expressive face, which is just funny to look at all by itself:

But the other brothers are no slouches in the physical comedy arena, either. Groucho in particular is prodigously gifted in this dimension, bringing an incredibly fluid grace to his signature silly walk:

And... well, screenshots can't really do it justice, but he's also actually a remarkably good dancer:

The physical and the verbal types of comedy on display here do have something in common, however: they both seem drawn from the tradition of the old-style vaudeville hall or variety show, a tradition which the Brothers themselves, indeed, emerge from. This sense is compounded by the narrative structure, which is essentially a series of comic skits: a manner of presentation which would have been familiar to vaudeville audiences. (There is a plot to this movie—something to do with a racehorse and a sanitarium on the verge of going broke—and it does function as a means of linking the skits into an actual story arc, allegedly at the urging of MGM producer Irving Thalberg. That said, one could enjoy the film just fine if they ignored the plot entirely and simply experienced the skits as discrete episodes.)

Film as a medium has always been one with something of a parasitic relationship to other media, and so it makes sense that once film acquires sound it would attempt (successfully, one might add) to devour the "form" of the vaudeville show. And once you start thinking of the film in these terms, the performance that the Bros. are putting on becomes all the more astonishing, because you realize that what you are watching is essentially a vaudeville show in which the Marx Bros. are doing all the parts. They do the witty repartee! They do the funny voices! They do the pantomime clowning! They do the slapstick-y physical comedy! They dance! Chico plays a killer comic tune on the piano!

Harpo actually plays the harp! (This is where his name, in fact, derives from.)

They do a bit in blackface!

Hmm, whoops, might want to overlook that one. Or, you might not—although to do a full read on the function of race in A Day At The Races would really require a full additional essay. In short, it's worth nothing that the blackface sequence is actually part of a much longer sequence in which the narrative is almost totally yielded to a group of African-American singers, musicians, and dancers (including both jazz singer Ivie Anderson and the Savoy Ballroom dance troupe known as Whitey's Lindy Hoppers). It's also clearly intended to be one of the most exuberant and life-affirming sequences in the film:

...and filmmaker Wood is clearly in awe of some of the spectacular acrobatics on display among the dancers:

Now, of course, none of this is free of the taint of mintrelsy, which often involves depicting African-Americans as joyous and musical... but the more negative aspects of minstrel stereotype, the depiction of blacks as ignorant and lazy, are absent (or at least downplayed). Also interestingly, the film attempts to draw lines of alignment between the Marx Bros. and this group of dirt-poor African-Americans. In the final scene, the film offers them an escape from poverty, by having them participate in the long-shot jackpot that the Brothers and friends orchestrate during the eponymous "day at the races." Here they are, waving cash as a part of the victory parade:

...but, on the other hand, it's not un-notable that they have to fill out the back ranks, with the front row assigned to the film's real [white] protagonists. Hmm.

This incomplete line of thinking made me lean towards wanting to revisit Spike Lee's assault on [contemporary] minstrelsy, Bamboozled, and as fun as that film would be to write about, I decided, in the end, to pass. I'm interested instead in continuing to round out my understanding of different types of 30s comedy, so next week we'll be doing one of the earliest "screwball" comedies, Frank Capra's It Happened One Night.

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