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I love the Marx Brothers, but that doesn't mean all their films are
gems. By the end of the 1930s, their best pictures were all behind
them. Although still entertaining, they slipped a bit in quality. This
is one example, except I would still rate it as "decent" (hence, the
One thing for sure: the comedy was a lot better than the music, although that was usually the case in most of their movies....but more so here. Even though I got my share of laughs, most the gags in this movie come in 5-10-minute "bits" and many of them go on too long. I still Chico provides the best humor among the boys. Except for "Lydia, The Tattooed Lady," the songs in here are weak and there are too many of them.
Silly, but still fun to watch, generally-speaking. I just skip through most of the songs.
This was my third time watching AT THE CIRCUS and, the
characteristically anaemic leads (who somehow always seem to be able to
carry a tune) notwithstanding, I've always been kind of partial to this
one (even if the end result is, decidedly, a notch or two below their
finest work). Plot and setting provide several opportunities for the
Marxes to shine, both as a team and individually: Groucho (as always)
is the film's trump card, however, especially in his rendition of
'Lydia, the Tattooed Lady' and the separate scenes he shares with
befuddled aristocrat Margaret Dumont and scheming circus performer Eve
Arden; other highlights include Groucho and Chico's interrogation of
the suspicious-looking dwarf, Chico and Harpo's frenzied search for
stolen money in the strong-man's room (while the latter is asleep!),
and the typically busy climax in which Dumont receives the ultimate
AT THE CIRCUS is the Marxes' third best MGM picture (demonstrating a steady decline for them from picture to picture) but it's still inferior to the later A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA (1946), in my opinion or any of their early Paramount films, for that matter.
I wrote this right after I saw it, without having read other comments on it. I have to say I'm appalled by the critical injustices done to this film. No joke flops in this Marx Brothers masterpiece. All three of the remaining brothers, Groucho, Harpo, and Chico, have a plethora of great scenes. Groucho has possibly his best line of his entire career. I won't ruin it for you. Chico's best moments are as Chiccolini in Duck Soup, but he is nearly as funny here. The scene in the midget's room is as funny a set piece as ever existed. Chico also has a great piano scene. Harpo is hilarious as well, playing a card game with a seal, and he delivers his best harp number. Usually they're awful, but the one here is great. He plays ambassador to the races again in this film, as he did in A Day at the Races. He dances around with a group of black people who show up out of nowhere. These scenes might be dated, but they're excellent in their context. I'd call them both scenes of great beauty, showing harmony between the races. Margaret Dumont, the fifth Marx Brother - well, maybe we out to call her the fourth; she's in more of them than Zeppo is! - is as funny as usual. The only let down is the romantic subplot, but you probably come to expect that from Marx Brothers' films. Perhaps the one here will be funny to you. The guy is one of the biggest dorks in history. His girl isn't too bad though. She has a great musical number with a horse. But even the two together have a decent scene where they sing to each other while they are desperately trying to lose a waiter who's intently watching their courtship. At the Circus contains maybe the best climactic sequence of their career, with the three brothers, Dumont, the villain, and a gorilla swing around on the trapeze swings. The final shot is a doozy, as well. 10/10.
No, this isn't the Cecil B. De Mille big top opus, it's the Marx Brothers one. The boys were slowing down a bit when they made it, and as it came out in 1939, it kind of got buried under all the other movies of that remarkable film year, and is now somewhat neglected. This is a pity, for while it isn't their best movie, it's far from their worst. The plot isn't worth going into,--does anyone really want a synopsis of a Marx Brothers film?--and grande dame Margaret Dumont is on hand as the woman of Groucho's nightmares come to life. Kenny Baker and Florence Rice are the leads, and I've seen far worse. This isn't a belly laugh movie but it's very amusing. The production values are excellent, and the circus itself is fun, and so is the gorilla. Every comedian should encounter a gorilla at least once in his career. At the Circus is Groucho's chance, and it provides the movie with its funniest moment. This isn't a great comedy, but it's a very good movie.
Groucho, Chico and Harpo are at their very best or even better-if that's possible-in this 1939 hit comedy At the Circus.Groucho's looking for loopholes as the eccentric lawyer called Loophole.Every line he delivers is something funny.And he also sings the great song Lydia the Tattooed Lady, which was heard also by Robin Williams in the movie The Fisher King many years later.Margaret Dumont, the haughty straight lady in the Marx movies, shines as Mrs. Suzanna Dukesbury.Kenny Baker and Florence Rice are terrific as the romantic, soon-to-be-married-couple.Eve Arden takes her act to the ceiling and also acts very well.Nat Pendleton as Goliath the Strongman gives a very strong performance.There are many scenes that are just fantastic and mostly awfully hilarious.There's also one beautiful scene, the one where Harpo Marx plays the harp with all those black women, children and men singing and listening.This is a perfect ten movie, something they don't make these days.Someone should bring the Marx brothers back.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Perhaps in over all quality At the Circus is considered in the lower
half of Marx Brothers screen efforts. But any film that introduces one
of Groucho Marx's famous patter songs, Lydia the Tattooed Lady can
hardly be considered all that bad.
Probably Lydia is the song most identified with Groucho with the possible exception of his theme Hooray for Captain Spalding. In fact the captain along with the wreck of the Hesperus, Andrew Jackson, and the good woman's Social Security number all make their way into those highly educational lyrics. You can learn a lot from Lydia.
The rest of the score that Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg wrote is not as good though. The songs are sung quite nicely by Kenny Baker and a dubbed Florence Rice. Baker was the singer on the Jack Benny radio program at the time and was at the height of his popularity. The year before he had introduced his two big hits and the last two big hits of the career of George Gershwin with Our Love is Here to Stay and Love Walked In. Baker went to Broadway later on and co-starred with Mary Martin in One Touch of Venus.
Of course Margaret Dumont as a grande dame and in this case the rich aunt of circus owner Kenny Baker makes her obligatory appearance to be conned unmercifully by Groucho. But Groucho himself gets conned but good by circus trapeze performer Eve Arden. Other than Chico with that Tootsie Frootsie Ice Cream bit in A Day at the Races, this is the only time I remember someone getting the better of Groucho.
In fact the trapeze figures prominently in the mad finale involving the three Marxes, Eve Arden, villain James Burke, Margaret Dumont and a very phony gorilla.
That last shot of Fritz Feld conducting a symphony orchestra on a floating bandstand sailing out to sea without a clue is something else. Do you think anyone ever rescued them?
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.
Middle-of-the-road Marxes, with some good scenes and laughs unevenly
weighted down by those ever-intrusive and out-of-place musical numbers
that so often plagued these movies. No, I'm not referring to Groucho's
spirited rendition of 'Lydia the Tattooed Lady'; I'm talking about
hearing those two useless lead lovers crooning their sappy romantic
tunes to each other ('Two Blind Loves', which is sung over and over at
intervals throughout the picture, is especially grating on the nerves).
There is also a song and dance sequence that comes out of left field
later in the film that really feels out of place and gets in the way of
There are certainly some witty Groucho zingers, as well as vintage Harpo madness, to be found here. It's just that there's not enough consistency and too much of the fluff. It's a pity the filmmakers just didn't realize that it's the Marx Brothers we're here to see; not Kenny Baker and Florence Rice.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Future viewers of "At The Circus" be warned - "Lydia, Oh Lydia (The
Tattooed Lady)" is one of those tunes that stays with you long after
the movie is over. It happened the first time I watched this film, and
it's happening right now as I write this review. That's not necessarily
a bad thing, provided you don't drive your family crazy with the lyrics
over and over again.
That's one of the bright spots of this Marx Brothers escapade, in a film that spotlights a ten thousand dollar circus heist, an inverted ceiling walker/aerial trapeze artist (Eve Arden), and a club wielding gorilla named Gibraltar. Put all those elements together and you have an amusing and entertaining little number, though not generally credited as one of the Marx Brothers finest.
Perennial wealthy Groucho patron Margaret Dumont makes her appearance rather late in this movie, befuddled as usual about attorney J. Cheever Loophole's intentions, which are actually commendable - he's attempting to negotiate a ten thousand dollar payday to save the Wilson Wonder Circus from the clutches of evil financier Carter (James Burke). Earlier, owner Jeff Wilson (Kenny Baker) fell victim to Carter's strong arm and henchman Goliath (an unrecognizable Nat Pendleton), who in concert with circus midget Little Professor Atom (Jerry Maren), stole the money that would have given Wilson clear ownership. The clichéd theme is rounded out by Wilson's romantic interest Julie Randall (Florence Rice), who probably should have been given more to do than just look pretty.
The movie boasts a rather involved musical number featuring Harpo and a large, young black cast before settling into a standard harp routine. In an amusing sketch, Chico's character Antonio Perelli continually frustrates Groucho's attempt to interrogate the little professor about the stolen money. Later, Chico and Harpo team up to wreak havoc in Goliath's stateroom; the feathers fly (literally) as they try to find the missing stash. Goliath by the way, bears such a striking resemblance to Harpo, that more could probably have been done to capitalize on the similarity.
As in "The Big Store", the movie spirals out of control with a rousing trapeze number featuring the boys, Peerless Pauline and Gibraltar the gorilla. It's vintage Marx Brothers, so swing your way to a good time!
This is one of the most hilarious comedies I've ever seen. Sure, as others have said, the romantic stuff isn't so great, but the stuff with the Marx Brothers, especially Groucho, is genius. One of my favorite scenes was the one where Groucho walks on the ceiling with that highly attractive circus perfomer. Plus, the ending, with the gorilla and the whacky final fate of the orchestra, is awe inspiring, as far as comedy goes. (Which is damn far!) Anyway, a great film.
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