Like the travelling circus it follows, the 1939 Marx Brothers effort At the Circus is all over the map. Though it's ultimately less than the sum of its parts, some of the parts are quite good and, even off their game, the Marx Brothers usually deliver the goods. At the Circus takes quite a while to hit a stride (and even then finds it broken by the stultifying romantic leads), but it's worth a look.
The simplistic plot rehashes, to diminishing effect, the Thalberg formula: callow leading man and leading lady must find a way, with the brothers' help, to save the family business and secure their future wedded bliss. Here, the business threatened by thieving do-badders is the Wilson Wonder Circus, "home" to Chico's Tony and Harpo's Punchy, who hangs out with a trained seal. Chico summons lawyer J. Cheever Loophole (Groucho) to work some shyster magic.
Among the bad guys, femme fatale Peerless Pauline (who does an upside-down "human fly" act) makes the most significant impression, and she has an amusing extended flirtation with Groucho. When she stuffs the stolen money down the front of her costume, the camera zooms in on Groucho, who opines, "There must be some way of getting that money without getting in trouble with the Hays Office" (the movie-censorship bureau of the day).
For better or worse, the action explodes in the third act, which takes place at a high-society party thrown by wealthy dowager Mrs. Dukesbury (Marx veteran Margaret Dumont). Groucho conspires to ruin her plans by replacing her entertainment—French orchestra leader Jardinet—with his, the Wilson Wonder Circus. Naturally, all hell breaks loose, culminating in a gorilla rampage. The rejected symphony intriguingly counterpoints with circus music in this socialite-meets-carny climax.
At the Circus is essentially a musical, with musical direction by Franz Waxman (The Philadelphia Story and Sunset Boulevard, among hundreds of others) and songs by E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen (a little something called The Wizard of Oz). That's fine for the enduring novelty song "Lydia the Tatooed Lady" (a staple of Groucho's later stage performances), but what's to be said of "Two Blind Loves," Jeff and Julie's love song? With leaden lyrics like "Don't know from appetite/Don't know fish from steak/Don't know if it's a dougnut/Or a wedding cake," it's a toss-up what's worse: Baker's annoying vocal stylings or the song itself.
Chico plinks out a winking piano solo with pretty "birds" perched around his piano, and Harpo's production number—a medley of "Swingali" and, on the harp, "Blue Moon"—recalls in its happy ensemble of African-American labor the "Who's That Man" sequence from A Day at the Races.
The most unnerving element of At the Circus is Groucho's uncharacteristically uneven performance. Flop-sweating under a lousy toupee, his image goes "off-model," and he overplays the early scenes in one overinsistent tone. By the time he's playing off of Dumont, he seems more at ease, and he fires off plenty of good one-liners. The good gags come fewer and further between the clunkers in the later Marx movies, but an interrogation scene in a "midget" train compartment and another of Chico and Harpo searching the strongman's room as he sleeps make enjoyable funny business.
Comedy comes in threes, they say, and this three-ring Circus has visual novelty, the late-arriving presence of Dumont, and "Lydia the Tatooed Lady" to earn a reserved recommendation. Oh, and the movie has another threesome in its favor: the incomparable Groucho, Chico, and Harpo.
At the Circus—available exclusively in The Marx Brothers Collection on a double-feature disc with Room Service—gets a fine transfer accompanied by a three-minute theatrical trailer and two vintage short subjects. Unfortunately, the disc offers no other historical context for the film, and makes no mention of the shot and cut sequence which originally introduced J. Cheever Loophole (at least, production photos and script pages still exist...why not include them as extras?).
The 1939 short "Dog Daze"—in typically circuitous "Our Gang" fashion— finds the kids rounding up lost animals to earn rewards to pay back a loan and avoid Butch's wrath: eleven irresistably cute minutes. For nine loud minutes, check out Milt Gross's Count Screwloose and J.R. the Wonder Dog in 1939's "Jitterbug Follies"; the animated short boasts some whimsical visual humor and a Mel Blanc vocal for Screwloose. All in all, a fine disc with Room Service (and more extras) on the flip side.
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