Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1939)

9. At the Circus

Following their one-year sideline at RKO, the Marx Brothers were back at MGM. The screenplay for “At the Circus,” their ninth feature, would by partially written by Buster Keaton. That may sound like a classic comedy dream team but don't get too excited. Keaton strictly took the gig because he needed the money. The Brothers did not think their styles blended well with Keaton's set piece-heavy humor. Keaton agreed and said he was just doing what he was paid to do. Though “At the Circus” is not especially well regarded by Marx fans, I found myself having a good time with it.

The plot concerns the Wilson Wonder Circus. Bad guy Carter hopes to buy the circus and has employed strongman Goliath and dwarf Professor Atom in stealing it away. Julie, the horse trainer, is in love with Jeff, the circus' partial owner. Goliath steals ten thousand dollars from jeff. In order to get it back, Julie employs a lawyer named Loophole. Some of the other circus works, like the silent Pinky and the verbal Tony, soon join him on this adventure. The story begins at the circus, winds through a train, and concludes by the coast.

The Marx Brothers have formally been on a boat, gone to college, gone to war, gone to the opera,  and gone to the race tracks. Their ninth feature is obviously about the Marx Brothers going to the circus. So there's lot of big top antics here. Harpo rides an ostrich and throws one of its eggs. A giraffe puts in a surprise appearance. Elephants are referenced repeatedly. Lions and gorillas and more appear. Trapeze artist and strong men drive the plot. There's certainly some novelty to this setting, especially since the circus has increasingly become a rare species in recent years. I feel like the circus setting was a common one in films at the time and it was only naturally for the Marxes to put their own spin on it.

Yet “At the Circus” is also the Marx Brothers' take on the mystery genre. After being hired, Loophole and his buddies become detectives of sorts. They go about interrogating Professor Atom and Goliath. They snoop around rooms and attempt to dig up clues. In fact, Chico spends a lot of time talking about clues. A large portion of the film is even set on a train, which can't help but bring other famous train-set mysteries to mind. So that makes 'At the Circus” an odd genre mash-up: A big comedy with a romantic subplot and musical numbers, set at the circus that is also a mystery.

After taking a break from song-and-dance numbers in “Room Service,” the songs make a big comeback in “At the Circus.”  To the film's determent. Kenny Baker and Florence Rice have several lengthy songs, including two separate renditions of “Two Blind Loves,” their romantic themes. Both performances go on for far too long. “A Day at the Races” built a musical number around a embarrassingly stereotypical black performers. This, disappointingly, also makes a comeback here. “Swingali” features Harpo playing with some dark-skinned singers and dancers, whose treatment has not aged very well. Despite most of the musical numbers being either too long or racially insensitive, there's at least one classic here. Groucho performs “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” in a crowded train car. Its complex, witty, and slightly ribald lyrics combine with a catchy melody and Groucho's spirited delivery. No wonder it would become one of his trademark songs.

While the songs aren't always a welcome return, I'm happy to see Margaret Dumont working with the Marxes again. Once again, she's in the role of a rich widow that Groucho is trying to con out of her fortune. (If a scene where he appears wearing a bathrobe is any indication, it's seems his attempted seduction was more successful than usual.) Her late film entrance into the film signals another genre shift. At that point, “At the Circus” becomes another Marxian comedy about contrasting the rambunctious brothers with high society type. This is most apparent in an aghast orchestra leader being set out to sea.

Groucho, oddly, doesn't enter into the film until about ten minutes. Once he does, he's cracking jokes as usual. One of the film's best running jokes has Groucho wearing a jacket that formally belonged to a magician. So he's repeatedly pulling magic tricks out of nowhere, with scarves, a bouquet of flowers, and a pigeon. On his quest to uncover the stolen check, Groucho ends up interrogating the trapeze artist. What follows is the film's most ribald sequence. At one point, Groucho even breaks the forth wall and addresses the Hays Office directly. There's also good lines about lodges, monkeys, Esperanto, and an inspired performance of “Oh Susannah.”

Harpo gets to work alongside several animals in “At the Circus.” This works well, giving the child-like character his own animal sidekicks. He begins the film by joking around with a lion. Later, he puts out an umbrella for a seal as he boards a train. That seal also helps Harpo play checkers, which is a delightful gag. He naps with a sheep and hides his head in the sand with an ostrich. Not all his best bits are animal based. A scene where Chico and Harpo sneak into the sleeping Goliath's room provides some solid laughs. Such as Harpo ending up inside a hanging jacket or dressing up like Santa Claus.

Chico, as always, works best when playing off other. He appears walking through the circus, saying hi to everyone and immediately following up by saying he doesn't have time to talk. There's a strong skit where Chico, as the ticket-checker on a train, refuses to let Groucho board without a badge. Absolutely the funniest scene in the film also features the two brothers. While attempting to investigate the dwarf, suspected of helping steal the money, Chico continues messes up Groucho's plan. The way he repeatedly pulls out a new cigar or bumps his head on the low ceiling just gets funnier and funnier each time its repeated.

It's not uncommon for the Marx Brothers' movies to peter out during the excessively zany last acts. This is very much the case for “At the Circus.” A gorilla – a man in a suit, naturally – escapes his pin and goes running through the big top. The great ape ends up helping save the day, the boys running across the ape's outstretched arms at one point. Aside from being the closest the Marxes ever got to doing a monster movie mash-up, it's otherwise a joke that simply tries too hard. The same climax has Margaret Dumont launched out of a cannon and every main character swinging wildly on the trapeze.

“At the Circus” was one of the few Marx Brothers films I hadn't seen before starting this retrospective. Considering the overall low opinion of their later MGM films, I went in with low expectations. Maybe that helped because I found “At the Circus” to be a lot of fun. Yes, the romantic subplot and musical numbers are a drag, like always. No, the chaotic energy of their earlier films will never be replicated. But this one is still a lot of fun, with several classic gags and a generally strong sense of fun. [Grade: B]

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