Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

Our "Bullshit!" team has unearthed spectacular new evidence, which suggests, that Jack the Ripper was, in fact, the Loch Ness Monster.

Amazon Women on the Moon (1987) Cheeseburger Film Sandwich . Apparently, that’s what the French call Amazon Women on the Moon . Except that it probably sounds a little more elegant, since they’d be saying it in French (I hope so, anyway). Given the title, it should be no surprise that it is regarded as a sequel to Kentucky Fried Movie . Which, in some respects, it is. John Landis originally planned to direct the whole of Amazon Women himself, but brought in other directors due to scheduling issues. The finished film is as much of a mess as Kentucky Fried Movie , arrayed with more miss sketches than hit ones, although it’s decidedly less crude and haphazard than the earlier picture. Some have attempted to reclaim Amazon Women as a dazzling satire on TV’s takeover of our lives, but that’s stretching it. There is a fair bit of satire in there, but the filmmakers were just trying to be funny; there’s no polemic or express commentary. But even on such moderate t

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

Wow. Asteroids are made of farts. Okay. I got it.

Greenland (2020) (SPOILERS) Global terror porn for overpopulation adherents as Gerard Butler and his family do their darnedest to reach the safety of a bunker in the titular country in the face of an imminent comet impact. Basically, what if 2012 were played straight? These things come to test cinemas in cycles, of course. Sean Connery struggled with a duff rug and a stack of mud in Meteor , while Deep Impact plumbed for another dread comet and Armageddon an asteroid. The former, owing to the combined forces of Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, was a – relatively – more meditative fare. The latter was directed by Michael Bay. And then there’s Roland Emmerich, who having hoisted a big freeze on us in The Day After Tomorrow then wreaked a relatively original source of devastation in the form of 2012 ’s overheating Earth’s core. Greenland , meanwhile, is pretty much what you’d expect from the director of Angel Has Fallen .

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

Careful how much boat you’re eating.

Onward (2020) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s Bright , or thereabouts. The interesting thing – perhaps the only interesting thing – about Onward is that it’s almost indiscernible from a DreamWorks Animation effort, where once they cocked a snook at such cheap-seats fare, seeing themselves as better class of animation house altogether. Just about everything in Onward is shamelessly derivative, from the Harry Potter /fantasy genre cash-in to the use of the standard Pixar formula whereby any scenario remotely eccentric or exotic is buried beneath the banal signifiers of modern society: because anything you can imagine must be dragged down to tangible everyday reference points or kids won’t be able to assimilate it. And then there’s the choice of lead voices, in-Disney star-slaves Chris Pratt and Tom Holland.

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

Well, I’ll be damned. It’s the gentleman guppy.

Waterworld (1995) (SPOILERS) The production and budgetary woes of “ Kevin’s Gate ” will forever overshadow the movie’s content (and while it may have been the most expensive movie ever to that point – adjusted for inflation, it seems only Cleopatra came close – it has since turned a profit). However, should you somehow manage to avoid the distraction of those legendary problems, the real qualitative concerns are sure to come sailing over the cognitive horizon eventually; Waterworld is just so damned derivative. It’s a seafaring Mad Max. Peter Rader, who first came up with the idea in 1986, admitted as much. David Twohy, who later came aboard, also cited Mad Max 2 ; that kind of rip-off aspect – Jaws birthing Piranha – makes it unsurprising Waterworld was once under consideration by Roger Corman (he couldn’t cost it cheaply enough). Ultimately, there’s never a sufficient sense the movie has managed to become its own thing. Which is a bummer, because it’s frequently quite good fun.