Movie Review: AT THE CIRCUS, 1939

Movie Reviews

Directed by Edward Buzzell
Starring: The Marx Brothers
Review by Steven Painter


Jeff Wilson, the owner of a small circus, owes his partner Carter $10000. Before Jeff can pay, Carter lets his accomplices steal the money, so he can take over the circus. Antonio Pirelli and Punchy, who work at the circus, together with lawyer Loophole try to find the thief and get the money back.


Besides comedy, the Marx Brothers are known for music. Harpo obviously loved playing the harp. Chico had a unique way of playing the piano. The two got solos in just about every Marx Brothers movie. But then there was Groucho, who would sing and play the guitar occasionally. Unlike his Brothers, Groucho would have original songs written for him to sing. The most famous is probably “Hello, I Must Be Going/Hooray For Captain Spaulding,” because it became his TV theme song. The second most famous would be “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” The song was sung during the Marx Brothers’ return to MGM in 1939 for At the Circus.

Groucho plays a lawyer named Loophole who has been called onto the case to find $10,000 that is missing. One of the theater owners has had the money stolen by the strong man, Goliath, of the circus. Chico plays an employee of the circus who calls Loophole in to solve the mystery because lawyers seem to know everything. Harpo tags along because he is a Marx Brother. He also happens to be associated with Chico’s character in some way, but that doesn’t really matter.

Groucho arrives and tells, or actually sings, of his previous circus experience with Lydia. Now this would be a good time to point out that one of the reasons why this movie does not work is because the Marx Brothers belong in a circus. They do not belong in an opera house or a college or as rulers of a country, this is why those movies were so funny. It is also a reason why this one is not so good.

Anyway, Groucho conducts his investigation. He tracks down Goliath, but will not approach because he is afraid of Goliath’s strength. He has much better luck with the other accomplice, the circus midget. In the funniest scene of the movie, Groucho wants to see what brand of cigar the circus short man smokes because one was found at the scene of the crime. Unfortunately for him when Groucho asks for a cigar, Chico gives him one. He ends up giving Groucho plenty of cigars. This scene is also funny because it takes place in the miniature room of our midget. The two Marx Brothers struggle to move around in the small room. At the end of the scene Harpo comes in. Groucho and Chico have done a good job in messing up the little man’s home, but Harpo finishes it off with a sneeze that shakes everything up. The little man threatens to sue the intruders, to which Groucho hands the man his card and says he would be happy to represent him.
Stuck with dead ends, Groucho ends up finding out that the man who lost the money happens to have a rich aunt, who is played by Margaret Dumont. Groucho goes ahead of the circus and arrives at Dumont’s house just as she is preparing for a social gathering. Dumont mistakes Groucho for the promoter of French conductor Jardinet, who is supposed to play at the gathering. Groucho uses this mistake in identity to his advantage. He says the conductor wants $10,000 to play. Dumont agrees and Groucho telephones his friends to tell them to bring the circus to the social gathering.

There is some brief comedy as Groucho, Chico and Harpo try to coordinate the setting up of the circus with the arrival of Jardinet and company. Jardinet is told that he will perform near the ocean and once his symphony begins to play the guests will travel down to enjoy the music. This works and Jardinet and his symphony begin playing, but no one comes. Instead Chico and Harpo go down and cut the floating bandstand that the symphony is playing on. They go on through the night playing and floating in the ocean.

Irate at what has happened, the man who stole the $10,000 tries once more to sabotage the circus. He fails and a man in a gorilla or orangutan suit ensures that nothing happens to the circus. The gorilla suit was changed to an orangutan suit during the middle of production because the man inside the suit was getting too hot in the gorilla suit. This has led to an odd looking final result on screen.

This movie is notable for the rendition of “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” and silent star Buster Keaton being on the staff as one of Harpo’s gag writers. Although Keaton added very little, saying that the Marx Brothers did not need his help. Keaton was there because Louis B. Mayer, who despised the Marx Brothers, wanted the group to take on a more Keaton-ish tone in their comedy. What Mayer got was a bad comedy by Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton standards.

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