At the Circus (1939)

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  • directed by Edward Buzzell
  • starring Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx
  • The Marx Brothers try to help the owner of a circus recover stolen funds.

“You know what I say. Whenever you got business trouble, the best thing to do is to get a lawyer. Then you got more trouble, but at least you got a lawyer.”

This second-tier Marx Brothers effort is best viewed as a series of sketches than as one whole due to some overlong exposition, a convoluted plot, and some unwelcome scenes that are just not what you’d expect from the combination of the words Marx Brothers and circus. At the Circus arrived at the tail end of the group’s decade of hits going back to 1929, and it was around the time of this film, or maybe with Room Service the year before, that the Brothers transitioned into their later, less-successful era.

It’s not without its great moments, but even those scenes that work brilliantly are disconnected from each other and the primary plot. Groucho’s “Lydia, The Tattooed Lady” song was fantastic and probably the scene of the film that has best stood the test of time, but story wise it had nothing to do with anything. I also loved the scene in which we first meet his J. Cheever Loophole (yet another superb character name for Groucho) in the pouring rain outside the train. He hits the ground running, or swimming in this case, with more comebacks and zingers than drops of water on the ground. With the exception of “Lydia,” he’s never again as charismatic, as present, or as funny as he was in that introductory scene unfortunately. We also meet Punchy in this scene, played by Harpo, who put in the best performance overall for me. On top of many effective visual gags, we get to see Punchy break a midget performers household furniture by sneezing, hold an umbrella in the rain for a waddling seal, play tic-tac-toe on a giraffe’s ass, survive a rope climbing chase with a gorilla, and ride an ostrich. The biggest laugh for me was when he threw the ostrich egg and the cut to it exploding in a guy’s face like a pie.

Obviously the visual of watching the black children’s band emerge crawling from the African zoo exhibit stuck out like a sore thumb. There were a few sour racial notes throughout this entire sequence, but it did lead to a surprisingly poignant musical number, in which Harpo abruptly segues from clowning around as the conductor of the band to playing a humorless, emotional, and virtuosic harp rendition of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Blue Moon” with backing vocals.

Don’t watch this one for the clunky plot or for the flat and unnecessary Jeff and Julie side story. Instead, the musical performances, also including Chico’s great comedy piano routine, and the typically chaotic Marx finale, this time a high-flying acrobatic sequence with a gorilla, are what make this one worthwhile. They can’t all be Duck Soup.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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