Rixflix A to Z: At the Circus (1939)

Director: Edward Buzzell // MGM; 1:27; b/w
Crew Notables: Franz Waxman (incidental music/musical director), Cedric Gibbons (art direction), Buster Keaton (gag consultant)
Cast Notables: Groucho Marx (J. Cheever Loophole), Chico Marx (Antonio Pirelli), Harpo Marx (Punchy), Kenny Baker (Jeff Wilson), Florence Rice (Julie Randall), Eve Arden (Peerless Pauline), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Suzanna Dukesbury), Nat Pendleton (Goliath the Strongman), Fritz Feld (Jardinet), James Burke, Jerry Maren (Little Prof. Atom), Willie Best
Cinema 4 Rating: 6

I have always given short shrift -- that would be shrift that is a tad bit impatient in character -- to the later films of the Marx Brothers. Weened on Animal Crackers and Duck Soup, raised on Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, and graduated via the pair of Thalberg MGMs, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races (not just the Queen albums of the same names), by the time I encountered their later films post-Thalberg (which would be Room Service on down), I had little regard for those later, lessened antics. Too desperate, those films seemed, and perhaps they were. But even reduced to scrambling for a repeat of their earlier success, and mired by the notions of others as to how best to display their talents (even in shallowly conceived reconfigurations of their earlier classic routines), the Marx boys still shine in numerous moments in these films, even if the films themselves are several notches below the collective efforts of their heyday.

Tonight, under the Big Top, I present At the Circus, a Marx Brothers film that almost comes off like the ones of old. It misses the net at which it is fired, but it tries. Sometimes it doesn't try all that hard, sometimes it tries a little too hard, but it tries, all right. The film makes you wait a full twelve minutes for Groucho to show up, after two mind-dulling musical numbers right out of the gate, which cause you to start rechecking the cast list to make sure he is in the damn thing at all. When he does arrive, he is his usual snappy barb-zinging self, but something seems slightly off. The same goes for Chico and Harpo, who are just fine by themselves, but like their younger mustachioed brother, seems to rub shoulders uneasily with the remainder of the cast. And I don't mean in the normal way that the Marxes rub shoulders uneasily with the other characters. I mean that they don't quite seem to match up with the actors. There are moments
, especially through the first half of the film, where it seems as if a generic studio circus musical melodrama had found itself missing three actors, and then the Marxes wandered in to fill the roles on a whim.

That first half almost caves the big top in on itself. Groucho gets it worst with an awkward ceiling-walking scene with a young Eve Arden, whom I usually adore in comedies in even her smallest roles, that strives hard to pay off in laughs but is merely... well... there. And while Groucho singing Lydia the Tattooed Lady is a favorite song of mine, the musical trappings that surround his rendition here are staggeringly poorly staged and filmed, and not in the fun mocking way like the musical sequences in Duck Soup. Better to watch him as an old man on stage croaking the song out in the 70's -- and I do mean "better". Even worse is the "Swingali" number, which has decided it wants to repeat the "Gabriel Blow Your Horn" piece from A Day at the Races, surrounding Harpo Pied Piper-like with scores of smiling, singing black kids. At least that number had a catchy chorus; this one has no real logical momentum to it, and it is a blessed relief when Harpo reaches for his favorite instrument and shuts everyone else the hell up.

And then, something magical happens. The Marxes are finally allowed to do what they do best --- rip the joint apart. This occurs literally as Chico and Harpo dissemble a train compartment looking for $10,000 while a sleeping strongman (played almost anonymously by a disguised Nat Pendleton) is covered in feathers and has to endure Harpo crawling underneath through his mattress. While the scene seems to be trying to remind us of their famous stateroom scene of yore, it is far milder, but has many good moments between the brothers. Groucho finally truly comes alive when he at last meets up with his longtime nemesis/mock paramour Ms. Dumont, and is given the opportunity to plot the downfall of yet another high-hatting society snoozefest, this time set to feature a snotty French conductor. If Groucho's barbs regarding Dumont's ample carriage don't quite have the zip of old, it is still most refreshing to see them on screen together regardless, especially given what has come before. Once the finale has been crashed through with the usual Marx disregard for propriety, one has the brief -- very brief -- feeling that one has seen a pretty good outing for the boys.

Which it really isn't. But then, while watching a pair of Wheeler and Woolsey oldies the other day on Turner, I was struck with the notion that it really is a subjective thing. While I enjoy watching Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey (and, naturally, the third member of the team, the winsome Dorothy Lee) in their series of low-budget 30s gagfests -- and consider a couple of their films, especially Diplomaniacs, to be highly underrated -- at best, W&W's stuff is not just miles below the anarchic genius that the Marxes bestowed upon us in their first, let's say, seven films (in itself, that type of quality run is already pretty remarkable for a comedy team, especially in such a short period), but not even as funny as the boys in this film and the ones that followed. My problem with the later Marx films isn't really the films -- though they are lesser in overall talent and quality, especially the writing -- it's the fact that they followed sheer comic perfection. The Marxes are still the Marxes, and even if no one after Thalberg knew what to do with them, the kids were still alright. And still better than most of what the world had to offer, even in a lessened arena like At the Circus.

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