Tuesday, March 27, 2018
Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1939)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.