20 May 2006

Marx (1937)

1937 - A Day at the Races - Maybe I'm nuts, but I found this to be the most enjoyable film from the Bros. so far. Everything works like a well-oiled machine, from Groucho and Dumont's love-hate relationship, to the lavish MGM musical numbers, to Chico and Harpo's game of charades.

What about the big jazz number in the middle? Isn't that more "thirties-style racism," as I noticed in Duck Soup? Some people certainly see it that way. A commenter on another blog calls it "That embarassing happy darkies musical number." Another commenter on yet another blog describes it as (3/4 down the page, 18th paragraph) "the kind of scene that makes modern day audiences cringe like crazy, what with all the goggle-eyed smiling blacks who sing and wave their hands in their air and drink moonshine, and whatnot" and declares the scene "INCREDIBLY offensive." What I find incredibly offensive are those descriptions by these supposedly enlightened individuals. "Goggle-eyed"? Jesus.

I see that scene more as a statement on the Bros.' class allegiance. The Bros. stand for the little guy. Harpo and Chico always play lower class characters and all three Bros. use their wits to tear at the upper class establishment. This is illustrated as well as it ever is in the musical number prior to the jazz scene. There, the Bros. raise hell at a stuffy theater populated by tuxedo-clad elites. Harpo, in particular, demonstrates his contempt by playing the piano so furiously it disintegrates. In marked contrast, the jazz scene has Harpo leading an ever-growing crowd of revelers. White, black -- it doesn’t matter -- all are working class folks that share a love of music and are in need of cheering up. Another indicator of the Bros.' intentions for this scene is the fact that they knew it would be cut out of the film for Southern audiences, but shot it anyway (as noted at the end of the 6th paragraph in the film's Wikipedia article). Yes, the scene ends with the Bros. in blackface, but I think Harpo makes a positive statement by only painting half of his face.

I dunno. It's pretty complicated stuff. As the blog link in my Duck Soup review said "race relations during the 1930s were considerably less simplistic than most people realize--and certainly no less murky than they are today."

Supposedly this is the last good Marx Bros. film. Hopefully the rest aren't too bad, as I still have six more to watch. (8/10)

d. Sam Wood

[watched at Brother-in-Law's house using an Xbox 360]