At the Circus (1939)

At the Circus (1939)

“There must be some way of getting that money, without getting in trouble with the Hays Office!”

With the help of two dubious but well-meaning assistants (Chico and Harpo Marx), a lawyer (Groucho Marx) tries to secure enough evidence to indict the thieves (Nat Pendleton and Jerry Maren) who have stolen $10,000 from a struggling circus owner (Kenny Baker).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Amateur Sleuths
  • Carnivals and Circuses
  • Comedy
  • Eve Arden Films
  • Marx Brothers Films
  • Musicals

At the Circus was made during the tail end of the Marx Brothers’ successful run of collaboratively anarchic comedies, and is clearly one of their lesser efforts. It’s too bad the team were apparently denied the opportunity to preview their interactions before a live audience, since I suspect this would have given them the opportunity to fine-tune their schtick. As it is, the gags and dialogue throughout are pretty much hit-and-miss. I’m not at all a fan of the entire “midget scene”, for instance, which comes across as simply an un-P.C., one-note gag. However, Groucho is given numerous opportunities to shine, as he sings the iconic ditty “Lydia the Tattooed Lady”, interacts with the always-welcome Dumont (given a small but pivotal supporting role), and tries to get Eve Arden to drop a wallet of stolen money while walking upside down on the ceiling (a scenario which is, at the very least, novel). Harpo’s solo is lovely, but placed smack dab in the middle of a questionable musical revue involving African American stable hands. Meanwhile, all the supporting storyline scenes (between Baker and Florence Rice, playing his long-suffering fiancee) pretty much grind things to a halt.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Groucho singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady”
  • Groucho’s interactions with Dumont
  • Eve Arden demonstrating ceiling walking to Groucho

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for Marx Brothers fans.


One thought on “At the Circus (1939)

  1. First viewing. I feel about the same towards this film as I do about ‘Go West’ – which came out the following year, was also written by Irving Brecher, and also directed by Edward Buzzell: “it’s… more than pleasant – and an ideal diversion, esp. for younger ffs to watch with elder film fanatics.”

    There are a few slight differences between the two films – the main one being that the first 15 minutes of ‘ATC’ make for a slow pull in, as it’s here that the love interest is established and, as stated in the assessment, that aspect of the film threatens to “grind things to a halt”. Luckily, those scenes make for a much smaller percentage of the film.

    There’s less plot here and it’s thinner. But that doesn’t really matter as the various other elements of the film mix nicely.

    Overall, things are a bit wanting in the music department (the lovers get some of that and it’s on the less-memorable side). BUT ‘Lydia the Tattooed Lady’ is a real standout – as are the dependable turns of Chico on piano and Harpo on harp.

    It’s a little odd (though not unsatisfying) seeing Arden as a bad girl – has she been one anyplace else?! But seeing Dumont spar with Groucho again is again refreshing.

    Like ‘Go West’, this isn’t a comic masterpiece – but it is just as consistently amusing and (when the lovers aren’t front and center) the time passes rather easily.

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