Original release: October 20th, rx 1939
Running time: 87 minutes
Director: Edward Buzzell
Writer: Irving Brecher
Cast: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Eve Arden, Kenny Baker
The Marx Brothers’ film career began back when they signed a contract with Paramount, producing their first feature in 1929, The Cocoanuts. The four brothers (Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo) stayed on with Paramount until 1933 when they left the company over creative differences. After this, Zeppo left the act to become an agent with his brother Gummo, so the other three ended up signing with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Towards the end of their tenure at MGM, they made At The Circus.
There’s actually something of an interesting history behind the conception of At The Circus, which is attached to what would some would regard as something of an injustice within the ranks of Universal Pictures in the mid-30s. Carl Laemmle was one of the founders of Universal, and acted as executive and producer in the company, bringing his son Carl Laemmle Jr. on as head of production in 1928. Under the guidance of the Laemmles, Universal enjoyed quite a bit of success. One of their projects from 1929 was a partial-talkie adaptation of the novel Show Boat, though Laemmle Snr. was never satisfied with that version, so the pair embarked on a project to make an all new, all sound version, adapting from both the novel and the musical written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II.
Looking for money for the project, a financier by the name of J. Cheever Cowdin, representing a group of investors, loaned the Laemmles $750,000 towards the production. However, after the film was completed but before it was released, the investors demanded their money to be repaid in full, which the Laemmles couldn’t do yet. Due to their inability to repay the money, Cowdin was able to force the Laemmles out of their position and assume control of Universal, which he did and remained in charge until 1946. Had the loan not been recalled until after the film’s release, there would have been the money to repay it without any such takeovers. As it is, both Laemmle Snr. and Jr. left the business and never worked in film again. Sadly, Hollywood is actually full of stories like these.
Such was the reality of what had happened at another studio only a few years before, and so it became a loose inspiration for At The Circus, with a financier trying to force an indebted circus owner into handing over control of his business because of a loan he couldn’t repay. However, it was somewhat restructured to have the good guys come out on top, thanks to the intervention of the three anarchic Marx Brothers, one of who bears a name similar to the real life transgressor, J. Cheever Loophole (Groucho always did love a ridiculous name). Given the nature of the true events, and the influence of MGM producer Irving Thalberg, the story is a well-structured piece. It does occasionally lapse, making concessions to the public’s expectations of a Marx Brothers film, but it is, for the most part, a nicely controlled work. If you actually took out the musical pieces, it would probably be a much cleaner ride.
However, to remove the musical pieces would be to remove one of Groucho’s great signature songs, Lydia, The Tattooed Lady. It’s still a great and funny song, sung well (for Groucho) and very well choreographed as a full song and dance number in a train car. One of the other good moments is Harpo’s big musical scene, Swingali. It comes completely out of nowhere, and has a touch of the ignorant racial attitudes of the period (again), but it has some superb energy to it. This then segues into Harpo’s required harp recital, which becomes something of a mash-up of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Blue Moon. Other songs are less enjoyable; occasionally even a bit grating, such the love theme Two Blind Loves. Still, there was always this kind of problem with movies of the time, not just Marx films. And besides, you don’t really watch a Marx film for the songs.
The comedy scenes are very well handled, certainly more so than Animal Crackers. Not long after that film, they had found their filmic style, and been given directors more suited to their comedy, so by the time At The Circus came along, their work was much firmer. Director Edward Buzzell, clearly having learned the best way to work with the Marx Brothers by watching their earlier work, spaces out the comedy pieces well, giving a more balanced play overall. Buzzell also keeps the pace and energy up very well, so it rarely feels slow or plodding. He’s also managed to get some great images and camera movements in there, like in the Swingali number, or the banquet scene, or the big finish at the circus. It’s always great to see the director actively engage with the world they create, moving through it with confidence.
Groucho continues his subversive streak here, again addressing the audience directly, but adding an extra twist. When trying to retrieve the stolen money from one of the bad circus stars, Peerless Pauline (Eve Arden), Groucho sees that she has slipped it down her top. Seeing this, Groucho turns to the camera and says, “There must be some way of getting that money back without offending the Hays Office.” There’s also the great Margaret Dumont later in the film, and both she and Groucho continue to bounce off each other beautifully. That Dumont doesn’t arrive until about two-thirds into the film gives things an extra jolt, as you know it will lead to the joy only those two can provide onscreen.
Scenes between Chico and Harpo are also just gold. After Wilson is attacked for his money, Antonio and Punchy try to figure out what happened. Unsurprisingly, this leads to Punchy repeatedly attacking Antonio. When Antonio tries to explain that they’re just pretending, “you know, like in-a da movies,” Punchy shows that he understands by laying a series of over-exaggerated kisses up Antonio’s arm before picking him up throwing him down in some hay before being thrown off by Antonio. God, that’s funny, and it’s the sheer speed at which it happens that just makes it funnier.
Another scene of comedy gold comes when the three brothers are together, trying to interrogate the circus midget, Little Professor Atom, about the whereabouts of the missing money. Professor Atom is played really very well by a little boy with a moustache drawn on his upper lip and chomping a cigar (yes, the kid actually smokes it) and the whole scene takes place in Professor Atom’s little private house, which is too small for the Brothers to stand up in. The physical dimensions are ridiculous and the dialogue is hilarious, with Groucho occasionally dropping character and just trying to make the kid laugh. The fact the kid doesn’t corpse constantly just shows how professional he is. This scene also holds the one and only time in any of their films where you, sort of, get to hear actual sound come from Harpo when he sneezes. He sneezes so hard that he literally blows the furniture, and everyone else in the room, over completely.
Whilst it’s certainly not the best work of the Marx Brothers, At The Circus is still a great one. The script is well-written, the direction assured and dynamic, and the cast are on top form. There’s a great energy throughout, and the Brothers have some superb moments, particularly Harpo’s bizarre physical gags, which director Buzzell knows well enough to not get lost in fray. After the feeling of despondency that I was left with by Animal Crackers, this was a most welcome and needed return for my love of the Marx movies. And all it took was a smoking child, some upside down walking and a giraffe licking a women’s neck… that’s right.
Paul Costello is a critic, blogger and former film editor with a degree in filmmaking from the University of the West of Scotland. He’s been watching movies for as long as he can remember, and began the process of writing about every movie he owns on his blog: acinephilesjourney.blogspot.co.uk. He’ll be at that for a while. He’s also the resident film writer at TheStreetSavvy.com.
You can follow him on Twitter @PaulCinephile.