Groucho Marx, Eve Arden, Chico Marx, and Harpo Marx in At the Circus (1939)


(director: Edward N. Buzzell; screenwriter: Irving Brecher; cinematographer: Leonard Smith; editor: William Terhune; music: Franz Waxman; cast: Groucho Marx (J. Cheever Loophole), Chico Marx (Antonio Pirelli), Harpo Marx (Punchy), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Dukesbury), Florence Rice (Julie Randall), Kenny Baker (Jeff Wilson), Eve Arden (Peerless Pauline), Nat Pendleton (Goliath), Fritz Feld (Jardinet), James Burke (John Carter), Jerry Marenghi ( Little Professor Atom, Midget); Runtime: 87; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Mervyn LeRoy; MGM; 1939)

“The beginning of the Marx Brothers slide from their peak comedies.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The beginning of the Marx Brothers slide from their peak comedies (Duck Soup and Animal Crackers), but it still has enough madcap comedy to be a decent representative of their zany slapstick. Too many dull musical interludes make it a tough watch, but there’s also Groucho’s wonderful dizzy rendition to savor of “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” (by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg).

Rich boy circus owner of Wilson’s Wonder Circus and lead baritone singer Jeff Wilson (Kenny Baker), who gave up his inheritance to be a carny, has mortgaged the circus and is about to lose it to his slimy business manager John Carter, unless he pays the loan shark $10,000. Jeff tells his sweetie pie and singing partner Julie Randall (Florence Rice) that the circus turned a profit and he can pay Carter off and therefore they can be married tomorrow. When the circus strongman Goliath and the midget, Little Professor Atom, conk Jeff on his head in the gorilla’s cage and steal the money, to the rescue come the Marx Brothers. Circus hanger-on Antonio Pirelli (Chico Marx) calls in shyster lawyer J. Cheever Loophole (Groucho Marx) to hop on the circus train and help get the money back. Punchy (Harpo Marx), the assistant to Goliath, also is enlisted to help.

After unsuccessfully questioning the strongman and the midget (the film’s funniest routine over cigars in the midget’s tiny room), Groucho turns his attention to the circus aerialist Peerless Pauline (Eve Arden), the girlfriend of the crooked Carter. Groucho tries unsuccessfully to get the money back from her, which she has hidden in her bra, as they walk on the ceiling in their suction shoes.

A frustrated Chico asks “How are you going to get back Jeff’s $10,000?” Groucho responds “Easy. Offer a reward of $15,000.

But when Groucho learns that Jeff’s aunt, Suzannah Dukesbury (Margaret Dumont), is the richest widow in America, he goes to her Newport mansion and finagles her into unknowingly substituting Jeff’s circus act for the Paris symphony orchestra. She is paying him $10,000 to arrange for the entertainment at her private society dinner party. The circus act goes on after Chico hijacks haughty conductor Jardinet and his orchestra on a barge, and cuts the rope as they float out to sea while playing Beethoven.

The overall effect is too familiar to cause any furor, but there were many worthy comic moments such as the routine between Groucho and Chico about badges, Harpo playing tic-tac-toe on a giraffe and riding an ostrich, and the insulting repartee with the always dependable Margaret Dumont.