© 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

At the Circus (1939)

Yesterday I finally got around to seeing Room Service, the only Marx Brothers film I hadn’t seen, and was just as disappointed with it as I was afraid I would be. I wanted to watch a better film that would restore my faith in the Marxes and also continue watching them in sequence. Fortunately, the next film in the queue is At the Circus.

Many Marx Brothers fans rate At the Circus as one of their worst films, but it is one that I have always been found of. Sure, male lead duties are handled by Kenny Baker, a squeaky-voiced radio singer who gets rather annoying after a while, and female lead Florence Rice sings a rather bizarre duet with a circus horse, later reprising the song with the roles reversed. But on the other hand Groucho treats us to “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” one of the most memorable songs in the Marxian repertoire.  Fans who place At the Circus low on the list of Marx Brothers films often point to “Two Blind Loves” the sickening sweet duet sung by Kenny Baker and Florence Rice at a rail station lunch counter, during which he slides a donut unto her ring finger—but song in ‘30s musicals were meant to be corny, and this one is corniest by far.

Margaret Dumont, who was sorely missed in Room Service, returns, playing a society matron who is horrified with her nephew turns his back on the family fortune for the opportunity of running a circus. The verbal sparring between Groucho and Maggie had been an integral part of the Marx Brothers comedy going back to the stage version of The Cocoanuts in 1925. Their first scene together in At the Circus is one of their best. Groucho as Cheever Loophole, an inept lawyer, storms the Dukesbury mansion in the hopes of raising the $10,000 needed to save the circus. Loophole identifies himself as Mr. Dukesberry, stunning the butler who stammers “but I understand Mr. Dukesbury has passed away.” Grouch: “Just a typographical error. Passed out. What a party that was.” In short order he finds the lady of the house, who is left practically speechless by the intrusion.

Maggie: What in the world…What is the meaning of this?
Groucho: Keep your sheet on. I’m looking for Mrs. Dukesbury.
Maggie: I am Mrs. Dukesbury.
Groucho: Snookums!

There follows a quick cycle of Groucho delivering a barbed insult, Dumont quickly regaining her composure, only to be pricked again.

Groucho: The night I drank champagne from your slipper. Two quarts. It would have held more, but you were wearing innersoles.

And so on, until:

Maggie: You must leave my room. We must have regard for certain conventions.
Groucho: One guy isn’t enough. She’s got to have a convention.

We also have the pleasure of seeing the dowager shot from a circus canon, albeit through trick photography. Add to this Eve Arden in an entertainingly nasty circus entertainer who hides the stolen circus money, prompting Groucho to walk on the ceiling in boots fitted with suction cups. I have been trying, unsuccessfully, for years to figure out if Groucho was really upside-down, or just the camera was. I’m still not sure, but it doesn’t really matter as the scene—and the whole film for that matter—is delightfully silly Marxism.

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