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Jeff Wilson, the owner of a small circus, owes his partner Carter $10000. Before Jeff can pay, Carter lets his accomplices steal the money, so he can take over the circus. Antonio Pirelli and Punchy, who work at the circus, together with lawyer Loophole try to find the thief and get the money back. Written by
Michael Zolk <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The decline of the Marx Brothers does not begin with ROOM SERVICE, which is hysterical at it's conclusion, but with AT THE CIRCUS. Groucho always insisted that had Irving Thalberg lived his care would have made the other films in the contract after A DAY AT THE RACES as good as that and A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. This meant that the film had to be taken on the road as a Vaudeville show, and the material tested carefully. But Thalberg was dead, and Louis B. Mayer was quite unsympathetic to these three clowns who were...well clowns, and who had gotten too good a sweetheart contract from Thalburg in terms of profits. Mayer thought of comedians as interchangeable, and could not care about allowing talented ones to test their material - you hand them a script and that was that: they are paid to make it funny. If they don't you fire them.
So it is traditional to blame AT THE CIRCUS, GO WEST, and THE BIG STORE on Mayer's hostility. That hostility played a major role (there is just no denying it), but in the case of AT THE CIRCUS there is another point that is frequently overlooked. In movies by comedians, it was rare for a circus comedy to be really funny. W.C.Fields, YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN was an exception - a truly funny circus comedy, but it's strength was the film record of Field's radio feud with ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy. Had it been set in a movie studio or a bank or a foreign country it would have been just as successful. But other comedians were not as lucky. Charlie Chaplin worked two years on THE CIRCUS, and while a good film it was not the great film he hoped to make. The atmosphere of a circus should have been inviting to comics - after all, here clowns were really clowns. But for some reason the special needs of movie funny-men were hard to translate into the atmosphere of the big top. Possibly the best use of the big top as a comic background was in Laurel & Hardy's short film THE CHIMP. The first quarter of the film shows how they wreck the circus (which was on it's last legs anyway). But the remaining three quarters of the film deal with the boys problems with a rooming house owned by a jealous Billy Gilbert, and the title "chimp" they hope to sell to a zoo.
With the Marxes the circus just does not absorb them too much. Groucho is there, hired as a lawyer to assist Kenny Baker and his pal Chico. Harpo, as Chico's brother, is a circus roustabout. But there is little example of their involvement in the circus life of the troop or of the animals (Harpo should have been involved with circus horses, anyway). Bits of the film are actually quite good - like Chico and Harpo trying to find papers in Nat Pendleton's (the circus strongman's) room. They manage to turn it into a Christmas nightmare for poor Pendleton. And Groucho certainly has two great moments: the business of trying to get on the circus train without knowing the password (even one of the animals knows the password), and his singing "Lydia The Tattooed Lady".
There were some cuts, apparently. Groucho had a sequence where his trial skills were shown in a court presided over by Edgar Kennedy. One wishes they had kept that in the film. The poor portions, mostly tied to the sickeningly sweet and naive Kenny Baker (fighting the crooked James Burke) are overwhelming. At least Groucho was able to have another session with Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Dukesberry (Baker's aunt), and poor Margaret gets shot out of a cannon in the end. But the drab spots outnumber the good ones. Not too bad, but still just mediocre as a result.
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