In many ways the beginning of the end of the Marx Brothers' screen
careers, AT THE CIRCUS is nevertheless the best of the last three films
the team made for MGM. When Irving Thalberg revived the
careers in 1935 by making them semi-heroic figures, he diluted some of
their trademark anarchy in doing so. Yet he was able to
enough of their old personas to keep most fans happy. After
Thalberg's death, MGM further diluted his dilution to the extent that
the romantic leads became just as important as the Marx Brothers, Chico
became a somewhat dimwitted kindly uncle-type who said things like "Aw,
shucks" a lot, and Groucho started wearing a wig. The last
of MGM films are so polished, so stiff and formal, you long for someone
to come along and add some anarchy to the proceedings.
like...oh, I dunno, the Marx Brothers, perhaps? Nevertheless,
THE CIRCUS contains about 20 minutes of great comedy, which is about 10
minutes more than their next film (GO WEST), and about 19 minutes
than the one after that (THE
BIG STORE). - JL
I sometimes wonder if Groucho just didn't care anymore by 1939. Up to this point in his distinguished career, he had immortalized some of the greatest jokes ever written, supplied to him by guys like George Kaufman and S. J. Perelman, to name just two of the Marx Brothers' favorite screenwriters. Now he seemed content to say Irving Brecher lines like "Why don't you trade your head for a bowling ball?" which would be a fine line for Moe Howard to say to Curly but certainly not fitting for the man who once shot an elephant in his pajamas and how the elephant got in his pajamas, he didn't know. Brecher, like many of the writers of the later Marx Brothers movies, seemed to assume that any joke of his would be funny coming out of the mouth of Groucho Marx, which is the exact wrong approach. You've got to tailor your jokes to Groucho's character, not his character to your jokes. Groucho seems uncertain of the jokes also, to such an extent that he often overemphasizes them with inflections and facial expressions when many of them - well, some of them - would sound funnier underplayed. To wit, one of the funniest lines in the picture is a casually tossed aside "He's going to get himself a clean shirt", said about Margaret Dumont's butler, which, even in context, is not actually a joke but is funny simply because Groucho proudly says it to Dumont as if it solves all her problems, even though it doesn't, she doesn't have any problems and it is Groucho who came to her to solve his problems in the first place!
So Brecher fails to capture the spirit of the Groucho, and his brothers, for much of the first half, leaving it up to songwriters E. Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen to provide Groucho with one shining moment, the novelty song "Lydia the Tattooed Lady", a ditty Groucho loved so much, he continued singing it for the rest of his life. Otherwise there is little to enjoy in the early going of AT THE CIRCUS, except watching Kenny Baker get socked on the head with a blackjack, which I could put on a loop and watch until God calls me home. Brecher seems to think it is hysterical to see Groucho alternately pushed around by Chico, intimidated by a strongman, held at bay by a midget and outwitted by Eve Arden. Reportedly the man was a big fan of the Marxes, but judging from the two films he wrote for then, he was probably thinking of the Ritz Brothers, Mills Brothers or Smith Brothers.
Harpo gets involved in a production number that wants to be "Who Dat Man?" and "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" from A DAY AT THE RACES but keeps changing into other songs every 16 bars. The love interests sing two below average ditties from the guys who wrote all those amazing songs for THE WIZARD OF OZ, and the main villain is so bland, I can never remember what he looks like until I watch the film again. After A NIGHT AT THE OPERA showed you could add a little plot to a Marx Brothers movie and still make it a Marx Brothers movie, nobody could ever seem to do it again. In just about every Marx film after OPERA, the plot is treated as being more important than the gags. In AT THE CIRCUS, everybody keeps talking about the ten thousand dollars that was stolen, and if they're not talking about it, they're looking for it, and if they're not looking for it, they're finding it and losing it again. Again and again they bring it up, to anyone within earshot, in just about every scene of the film. Even when Groucho finally meets Margaret Dumont, he has a few lines thrown in to remind us about the ten thousand dollars. I'm surprised they didn't ask Harburg and Arlen to write a song called "Ten Thousand Dollars Worth of Love" or something. You know what? I didn't care about it the ten thousand dollars when it was first brought up.
In the second half of the film, Brecher suddenly remembers that he is writing for The Marx Brothers, not Abbott and Costello or The Three Stooges, and the comedy scenes improve greatly. Chico has some fun scenes with Harpo (even in the first half) and Groucho is suddenly his old self when he storms into Margaret Dumont's mansion and starts badgering the butler (this scene was probably heavily rewritten - I imagine Brecher probably originally had the butler badgering Groucho). The film is still no MONKEY BUSINESS or A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, but there is enough fun stuff late in the film to make AT THE CIRCUS worth revisiting. But keep your finger poised on the fast-forward button. ½ - JBThe Marx Brothers The Age of Comedy
QUOTE AND MAKE IT A
"My name is Suzanna."
"Let's not quibble."
AT YOUR AGE!
Nat Pendleton had previously appeared with the Marx Brothers in HORSE FEATHERS. For reasons known only to God and the MGM costume department, he seems to be wearing one of Harpo's wig's throughout the whole film.
Songwriters Harold Arlen (music) and E. Y. "Yip" Harburg (lyrics), who composed several songs for AT THE CIRCUS, also wrote all the songs for THE WIZARD OF OZ the same year. Their novelty song, "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" became one of Groucho's favorite numbers, but the version Groucho sings here (and elsewhere for years onward) is missing this topical couplet which Groucho sung at least once on radio: "When she stands, the world gets littler/ when she sits, she sits on Hitler." Aside from "Lydia", however, Arlen and Harburg's contributions to AT THE CIRCUS are pretty dreary, perhaps the most instantly forgettable songs ever to be featured in a Marx Brothers movie. Seeing as how the movie's main love song, "Two Blind Loves", is based on "Three Blind Mice", I'm guessing Arlen and Harburg simply ran out of steam after working on OZ.
Margaret Dumont does not appear until AT THE CIRCUS is more
halfway over - not a good idea. Is it only coincidence that
she does arrive, the film suddenly feels like it is so much better than
it actually is?