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Goodbye, Mr Chimps.

At the Circus
(1939)

(SPOILERS) This is where the brothers sink into their stretch of middling MGM movies, now absent the presence of their major supporter Irving Thalberg; it’s probably for the best this wasn’t called A Day at the Circus, as it would instantly have drawn unflattering comparisons with the earlier MGM pair that gave them their biggest hits. Nevertheless, there’s enough decent material to keep At the Circus fairly sprightly (rather than “fairly ponderous”, as Pauline Kael put it).

Pauline: They tell me you’re a great lawyer.
Loophole: Who do? Certainly not my clients. Certainly not the ones who were hung last week.
Irving Brecher earns the screenplay credit (he’d also pen the subsequent Go West), but a slumming-it Buster Keaton wrote many of the sight gags, gags that apparently didn’t sit too well with the brothers’ style. Much of the set up and back and forth are familiar, however, with the most instantly noticeable anomaly being Groucho’s choice of toupee; it’s as obviously fake as his tache. There’s the usual romantic couple who sporadically break into song, but on this occasion circus owner Jeff Wilson (Kenny Baker) is the nephew of Margaret Dumont (Mrs Susanna Dukesbury), his choice of career failing to meet with her high-society approval and thus leaving him threatened with disinheritance. Jeff’s smitten with Julia Randall (Florence Rice) – “She’s alright, but whoever heard of anyone singing with a horse act?” (not as entertaining as that sounds).

Loophole: You’re the prettiest millstone I’ve ever had around my neck.

Jeff’s inheritance isn’t the only thing under threat; his livelihood is being jeopardised by Carter (James Burke), who wants to take over the circus and so engineers the threat of the $10,000 Wilson owes him (having it stolen from Wilson before he can pay it back). Naturally, Punchy (Harpo, assistant to villainous Goliath the Strongman, played by Nat Pendleton) and Tony (Chico) are on hand to help out and hinder. It’s the latter who calls in Groucho’s attorney, one J Cheever Loophole.

Loophole: You’re not only thoroughly detestable, but you’re cute.

Chico’s brand of indolent idiocy is present and correct, usually in the face of Groucho. There’s a familiar routine in which he stresses the need for a badge if Groucho’s to board the circus train, tying the latter up in doublespeak to thwart him doing so. Later, when cross examining Little Professor Atom (Jerry Maren), who is in league with Goliath (“The midget? The small midget?”), Groucho attempts to persuade the performer to offer him a cigar as means to gathering damning evidence, but Chico continually manages to stifle this plan by producing his own (“I bet your father spent the first year of your life throwing rocks at the stork”). The scene features a very amusing moment of corpsing on Maren’s part when Groucho asks him “Do you realise if Jeff had been hit a little harder the charge would have been murder? Pronounced MURHERUAARRRR!

Pauline: I realised that you’re the man I’ve been dreaming of.
Loophole: What do you eat before you go to bed?

Before Dumont shows up (with half an hour to go), Groucho sings Lydia the Tattooed Lady, indulges in a spot of flirting – as is his custom – with the villainess, Peerless Pauline (Eve Arden), who has a neat line in walking on the ceiling (“You’re like a beautiful chandelier”). He manages to secure the $10,000, only to have her pick his pocket and secrete it down her top, eliciting a classic Groucho-to-camera “There must be some way of getting that money, without getting in trouble with the Hayes Office”.

Loophole: The night I drank champagne from your slipper. Two quarts. It would have been more, but you were wearing insoles.

When Groucho calls on Dumont, the expected round of insults masquerading as wooing are duly present and correct, Groucho getting in to see her by pretending to be Mr Dukesbury (claiming he had passed out, notpassed on – “just a typographical error”) and then claiming to represent the French conductor Jardinet (Fritz Feld), so persuading her to pay for the circus as entertainment at her dinner party. At the dinner, Dumont asks Groucho to sit on her right hand (“How will you eat? Through a tube?”). Her announcements are then interrupted by an elephant trumpeting (“You should cut out starches”). Naturally, the circus meets with everyone’s approval, including Dumont’s, albeit events take a turn when Carter releases a gorilla and – it isn’t quite clear how – Dumont ends up in a cannon, which is duly fired (“And there goes Seabiscuit!”) The gorilla ends up counting the money (“Is it all there?”)

Loophole: You know, the last time I stood on the ceiling was at a lodge meeting. The chairman had the floor.

Harpo is also provided with some quality business, larking around with a variety of animals. A sealion gives him (bad) draughts advice, the same one he earlier guided through the rain under an umbrella. He sends himself to sleep by counting (a) sheep (lamb), and rides an ostrich to the rescue when Carter and co attempt to burn down the circus. He also causes uproar in Professor Atom’s miniature room when he sneezes. Naturally, he also has to play the obligatory harp (following the “Swingali” number). Perhaps his best sustained scene sees Punchy and Tony searching Goliath’s room while the latter sleeps; Harpo first hangs off the door in a coat on a hook, then destroys a pillow, before offering up a quality Santa Claus impression.

Jardinet: I cross the ocean! I am called dope ring! I race on a train, when I get here, what do I find? Animals. Animals!
Mrs Dukesbury: Animals?
Loophole: Animals! Mrs Dukesbury’s friends are my friends!

The proceedings culminate in the usual knockabout antics, but there’s amusement to be found when Jardinet actually shows up (“You’re all upset. Why don’t you go back to Paris and lie down?”) and then when his floating performance platform is cast adrift. He’s last seen heading out to sea playing Wagner’s prelude to Act II of Lohengrin. So no, At the Circus isn’t as sustained as their earlier MGMs, but sporadically, it offers more than enough laughs to get by.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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