The following is my contribution to the At the Circus Blogathon, being hosted Nov. 11-13, 2016 at the blogs Critica Retro and Serendipitous Anachronisms. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ take on a wide range of circus-themed movies!
(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
Everything that’s wrong with At the Circus is encapsulated in its first ten minutes. Before two whole Marx Brothers are together on-screen at the same time, we’ve had:
* Margaret Dumont being fourth-billed in the supporting-cast credits;
* MGM’s fancy idea of a small-time circus, complete with neon lighting;
* two musical numbers from The Couple Nobody Cares About; and
* Kenny Baker as part of that couple — easily the simpiest romantic lead in a Marx movie (and that’s saying something).
And when two Marxes finally do get together, it’s no cause for celebration. The movie’s premise is that all that’s standing in the way of would-be circus owner Jeff Wilson (Baker) and his true love Julie Randall (Florence Rice) is the $10,000 that the circus’ owner stole from Jeff so that he couldn’t pay off his circus bill. So Jeff’s cohort Tony (Chico) brings in his “best friend in the world” J. Cheever Loophole (Groucho) to solve the case.
With best friends like Chico, Groucho doesn’t need enemies. Tony, the very man who called for Loophole’s help in the first place, keeps pushing Loophole out into the rain because he doesn’t have the proper badge to get on the train. Once he finally gets on the train (and the movie never shows how he gets on — he just is on), Loophole tries to extract a cigar from a midget suspect (Jerry Maren, a quarter-century before he strew confetti on “The Gong Show”) to match some of the crime scene’s evidence — only Tony keeps offering Loophole his own cigars instead, at the same time complaining that Loophole isn’t getting any evidence. These, sadly, are the movie’s first attempts at Marx Bros. comedy scenes.
Also, villainess Peerless Pauline is played by Eve Arden. Although she was only 28 years old at the time of filming, and her circus costume certainly shows her long legs off nicely, her character is such a priss as to make Our Miss Brooks come off as a siren. Margaret Dumont exudes more sex appeal than Arden does in this movie.
The one who comes off best, at least for a while, is Harpo, who keeps making silent but wacko commentary on the sidelines and is funnier than the main performers. But then MGM has to drag that “Svengali” stuff from A Day at the Races into the movie, apparently trying to prove again that the only hope for the future of African-Americans is Harpo Marx.
When Loophole finally gets the bright idea of hitting up Jeff’s rich aunt (Margaret Dumont) for the missing money, the movie turns into the comedy it was supposed to have been an hour before that. Groucho’s usual wooing of dame Dumont, Harpo and Chico’s subsequent burglary of the strong-man/suspect’s den, and most of the movie’s climax are quite hilarious.
Even the climax, filled as it is with cheap slide-whistle sound effects and obvious back projection, is so frenetic that it comes as a relief after the movie’s dirge-like beginning. It’s a case of the Marx Brothers rising above the movie’s intended comedy instead of causing it. But in the Marxes’ latter MGM days, that almost counts as a triumph.
Here’s a definite highlight of the movie, from the same songwriters who brought you the score for The Wizard of Oz: