Sunday, May 15, 2011

Send in the Clowns: "At the Circus" (1939)

The Marx Brothers return, a little worse for wear and long in the tooth, in a very slight comedy.

First, the silly plot. Young Jeff (Kenny Baker) runs a circus. He has made enough money to pay back the villainous Carter, who used to own the circus. Now Jeff can marry sweet Julie (Florence Rice), who has a pretty weird little horse act. Chico Marx is Tony, an Italian who helps out with the circus. Punchy (Harpo Marx) also kind of hangs around the circus with little more to do than make the film's viewer laugh.

The money is stolen from Jeff by the strongman Goliath and the midget Professor. Tony calls in a lawyer, J. Cheever Loophole, played to the hilt by Groucho Marx. Jeff is disinherited by his rich aunt Susanna Dukesbury (Margaret Dumont), so he cannot count on her for the missing money.

As Jeff and Julie slaughter a few weak songs, the Marx Brothers proceed with their investigations of the robbery. The film ends at a society concert at Dukesbury's mansion going horribly wrong as the circus parks in the front yard.

The plot is flimsy, and the songs are extra flimsy. There is one tune called "Two Blind Loves" that is sung to "Three Blind Mice." It was deemed so good, Jeff and Julie wring it out twice. Harpo Marx has a great scene playing the harp. Unfortunately, it happens during the excruciating "Swingali," where dozens of black children follow him around a circus tent, occasionally breaking into the chorus of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot."

The film is not a complete loss. The brothers are at the top of their form, if not looking a little older. There is a great scene in the midget's room, when the boys try to retrieve one of his cigars to compare to one found at the crime scene. Another classic scene involves Punchy and Tony trying to search Goliath's bed for the money, with Goliath sound asleep. Finally, Loophole's loud entry into Dukesbury's mansion is hilarious all the way through. The silly, unbelievable finale is pure slapstick, and works.

The direction, script, and songs are standard, but the cast lifts this above the norm. "At the Circus" is silly, but not the best Marx comedy out there. (* * *) out of five stars.