DT Moviehouse Review: At The Circus

Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. Today I take a look at The Marx Brothers in At The Circus.

(1939) Directed by Edward Buzzell

Written by Irving Brecher

Tagline: Keep The World Laughing!

What It’s About:

Circus owner Jeff Wilson (Kenny Baker – not related to the guy who plays R2D2) has mustered up $10,000 in cash to pay off his partner John Carter (James Burke, no relation to John Carter of Mars), but Carter pulls a double cross and hires strong man Goliath (Nat Pendleton) and cigar chomping dwarf Atom (Jerry Maren of the Lollipop Guild in Wizard of Oz – still kicking at 92 as of this posting) to steal the money so he can gain control of the circus. Roustabouts Antonio (Chico Marx) and Punchy (Harpo Marx) enlist the aide of shyster lawyer J. Cheever Loophole (Groucho Marx) to help get Jeff’s money back.

Why I Bought It:

I actually didn’t buy this one, it was a Christmas gift, part of a Marx Brothers DVD collection. This is not my favorite Brothers outing. Much of it is a little blah. Part of the reason is the reliance on sometimes overly complex (for the Marx Brothers anyway) physical comedy situations, a direct result of the studio’s hiring the legendary Buster Keaton to work for scale as a gag man. Keaton is a genius, but his style of comedy and the Brothers’ just doesn’t mix very well. The set ups should be very funny (Groucho walking on the ceiling in suction boots with the lovely Eve Adren, Goliath’s acrobat girlfriend), a guy in a gorilla suit, a high falootin’ orchestra getting cast adrift on a floating band shell, etc, but they don’t pan out somehow.

That said, there are a couple very funny scenes, including the Brothers knocking over Jerry Maren’s small-sized furniture and hitting their heads on his low ceiling (and Groucho’s repeated attempts to procure one of the dwarf’s cigars – ‘Say, do you happen to have a spare cigar?’ – only to be constantly undermined by Chico, who somehow always has a spare cigar in his coat), the usual excellent wooing banter between Groucho and the put upon but perennially loaded Margaret Dumont, and a hilarious bit where Harpo and Chico search the sleeping strongman’s room for the money and end up cutting the guy’s blanket to ribbons while Harpo is inadverdantly drugged. There are a couple of pretty funny lines (Chico hands a wrinkled telegram in to be sent and the clerk says ‘Is this a straight wire?’ Chico: ‘Nah, I think I bent it up a little.’), and a nice Harpo musical number sung with an all African American ensemble (including Dudley Dickerson, the eternally scared overweight guy that appeared later in several Three Stooges outings), Swingali, that’s worth mentioning because a of a beautiful rendition of Blue Moon he plays on the harp, to the apparent awe of one very photogenic little girl.

The love story is even more incidental than usual. I don’t even remember what happens to Jeff’s fiance, and I just watched this last night.

Best Dialogue:

Goliath’s girlfriend Peerless Pauline has been rebuffing Groucho’s advances until she decides she can throw him off her boyfriend’s case.

Pauline: You know, last night I decided something. You’re the man I’ve been dreaming of.

Groucho: What do you eat before you go to bed?!

Best Scene:

There is one scene that elevates At The Circus above its relative mediocrity, one of the classic scenes of all cinema. Funny enough, it’s a musical number, which is not something Marx Brothers comedies are generally known for.

But early in the movie Groucho sings Lydia The Tattooed Lady in a crowded dining car as his brothers caper about and swing from the chandelier. It’s just one of the most joyous and fun sequences ever committed to film. Great song (including a reference to Captain Spaulding, Groucho’s character from Animal Crackers), great rendition, great performance. Judge for yourself. But my two year old little girl stared singing ‘Lydia O Lydia’ while I watched this.

Would I Buy It Again? Tough call. I love Lydia, but I could probably watch it on Youtube. This has it’s moments, but I don’t think I would have purchased it myself. I’d save my money for Duck Soup.

Next Up In The Queue: Atlantis: The Lost Empire

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