The Marx Bros. “At the Circus”: Not the Greatest Show on earth

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I think many of us have an unfortunate tendency to lump At the Circus (1939) with Go West (1940) and The Big Store (1941) as “the three bad MGM Marx Brothers films”. But if you really stop to think about it (as I have), this is really just a factor of chronology. The last three films are separated from the team’s first two MGM pictures by the RKO flop Room Service. And Room Service is dreadful. So we make it all a piece, “the bad period”.

But it’s really not accurate. At the Circus (directed by Eddie Buzzell) is really closer in quality to A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. And now that I ponder it on this occasion, I think I may actually like At the Circus MORE than the latter film. I can think of several things to praise in At the Circus. 

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1. The most obvious is the inclusion of the song Lydia the Tattooed Lady, Groucho’s first crazy song to be included in a picture since Duck Soup. And such a good one. That gets high marks.

2. I like the climax of this movie a great deal, certainly much more than the horse race finish in A Day at the Races. The film starts to pick up once we get to Margaret Dumont’s Newport mansionMargaret Dumont gets shot out of a cannon! The entire cast swings precariously on trapezes (perhaps an inspiration for the climax of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. ) And the sight of the orchestra floating away on a raft – – this moment is certainly much more in the irreverent spirit of the Paramount pictures. (Contrast it with Tony Martin’s aspirations to start a music conservatory in The Big Store. Bleccchhh!)

3. This film contains one of the most surreal images in any Marx Brothers film, the sight of Harpo riding an ostrich!

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4. Hey! Nat Pendleton (of Horse Feathers) plays a strong man!

5. A mixed blessing: the film resurrects the idea of a “darkie” number from A Day at the Races. It has its racist aspects, insomuch as the performers don’t actually get to be characters. On the other hand (as in A Day at the Races) at least it is four minutes of solid entertainment, and that’s something, especially when there’s so much boredom to be had.

So, what’s not so good?

The film takes us even farther down the road begun in their previous two MGM pictures in which the Marx Brothers’ characters are violated, defanged, undermined, and made subservient to a bunch of scarecrows and mannequins.

The first scene in At the Circus begins with some boring character actor telling one of the Marx brothers to shut up — and he actually does it! Chico waits patiently for his turn to talk to some boring-ass turkey, whom apparently has all the status in this universe. Starting around A Day at the Races, Chico’s main job in their movies is to carry luggage for the young stars and drive them from place to place in a car. Give me the tramp and burglar from the first two Paramount films any day.

The hugest fall, of course, belongs to Groucho, and the sins committed against him in this film are really its blackest marks. Some take the tack that a circus is an inappropriate place for the Marx Brothers to be precisely because they DO belong there. But I love the idea of the Marx Brothers in a circus. The problem is that anyone with half a brain knows that for that premise to work, Groucho needs to be the ringmaster and impresario (ala W.C. Fields’ Larsen E. Whipsnade from You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man). Here he is just a fly-by-night shyster lawyer hired to get the young circus owner “Jeff” (Kenny Baker from The Jack Benny Show) out of a financial jam.

"I sure hope we can help this nonentity solve his business problems!"
“I sure hope we can help this nonentity solve his business problems!”

I find it hilarious that nearly every single circus movie (there are enough of them to make it a mini-genre) tends to be about the least interesting aspect of circus life: business woes. Only the executives who finance motion pictures would ever think such a story would ever interest anybody else. At the Circus is all about retrieving or acquiring the money to save young Jeff’s organization. Gee, I sure hope everything turns out all right!  So, the plot is exceedingly uninteresting. The irony is, the more time the film-makers spend on that manure, the more mind-numbing it is so we don’t listen to it and it becomes more incomprehensible than ever. You find yourself periodically going, “What is supposed to be happening, again?”

Our introduction to Groucho in this film is the worst conceivable, the polar opposite of his glorious entrances in the Paramount years. Instead of fanfare, he is refused admittance on the circus train by the very guy who invited him there: Chico. This is apparently supposed to be some reprise of the Tutsi Frutsi Ice Cream scene from A Day at the Races. Since I don’t like that scene anyway, I REALLY can’t stand this one. Chico later frustrates Groucho yet again, in another scene that people seem to like and does nothing for me, when (for reasons too obscure to explain) Chico keeps screwing up his efforts to borrow a cigar from a midget. (That sounds better than it is). This scene feels more like a retread of the auction in The Cocoanuts. 

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If the film contains one of the Marx Brothers’s best songs in Lydia, it also contains one of their worst, the cringe-inducing duet “Two Blind Loves”.

Still as I said above, At the Circus has numerous good parts. Sadly, in their next two pictures, the studio would imitate only the bad ones.

For more on comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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