At about fifteen minutes in, I could already tell what the problem with Edward Buzzell’s At the Circus was: it wasn’t a Marx Brothers’ film. Yes, the Marx Brothers are in it (well, the most famous three: Groucho, Chico and Harpo), and some of their classic wit and humour manages to come through, but the filmmakers so misunderstand the Marx Brother’s and their comedy styling’s that At the Circus is left a mostly lifeless affair, with the comedy trio only occasionally getting to flex their muscles.
The film follows the story of Jeff Wilson (Kenny Baker), a young circus owner who needs to pay off a debt to a man named Carter (James Burke), who is looking to take over the circus. All appears well for Wilson to payback the debt and finally marry his star attraction Julie Randall (Florence Rice) when Carter has two of his thugs rob Wilson. Hoping to help his boss and save the circus, Antonio (Chico Marx) brings in the lawyer J. Cheever Loophole (Groucho Marx) to investigate and find the money, with circus clown Punchy (Harpo Marx) helping (or hindering) along the way.
While At the Circus is hardly a horrible film, the entire setup of the film runs counter to the Marx Brothers’ unique comedy. The Marx Brothers are comic anarchy incarnate, savagely attacking the targets of their humour without mercy and bouncing from one bit of insanity to the next. This is why in their best films they are usually going after the “respectable” elements in society: the wealthy, the elite, etc. There are no real values that they uphold, and they are not really heroes in any sense of the word, as they are far too dangerous and usually selfish to make heroic decisions.
At the Circus almost completely fails to get anything about the Marx Brother’s right in the first half of the film. The controlled chaos of the circus gives the trio nothing to work with, as they all too easily blend into the world around them. Take Harpo for instance: as a silent comedian of physical gags and immense musical talent, Harpo fits right in with the circus rather than standing apart, as does Chico. Groucho as Loophole doesn’t fit in at the circus, but neither does anyone at the circus provide him with any real material to work with. Groucho Marx works best when he is tearing down those who have built themselves up or are too slow witted to realize he is insulting them. The members of the circus are far too bland for the Groucho to have anything to say about them.
This poor set up for the film results in having Groucho being the comic victim rather than victimizing others. Groucho is so powerful a screen presence that he often dominates the proceedings. When he shows up on screen, he owns it and everyone around him, controlling them and manipulating them from the minute they meet him. Yet in At the Circus, Groucho spends the first half of the film as the butt of the jokes. Compare how Groucho enters into the film Duck Soup to his introduction here, and the difference is night and day. In Duck Soup, Groucho arrives and takes swift charge, beginning his reign of comic terror with pure energy. In At the Circus, he simply arrives by car and is quickly undermined by Chico, which would have been fine if the next thirty minutes were not like that as well.
The film also suffers from its poor excuse for a story and “protagonists” that we are supposed to care about. While Kenny Baker and Florence Rice try and make due with the material they have, the simple fact is that Jeff and Julie are dull, cloying characters with absolutely nothing interesting about them. Why are we supposed to care about them? Well, apparently because they are nice, in love and young. Absolutely no effort is made to give any depth to these two, serving more as plot devices than anything else. Well, plot devices that sing poor excuses for love songs. After all, this is an MGM film.
Yet, once the film gets away from the circus and its performers and into the upper class world of Mrs. Susanna Dukesbury (the wonderful Margaret Dumont, once again the comic victim of Groucho), the film finds its footing and gets back into being a real Marx Brother’s film. Yet, by the time this happens, the film is already at its halfway point with very little laughs. Furthermore, the second half of the film still insists upon cutting back to the young lovers story that stopped mattering from the minute it was introduced, and kills any momentum that is built up by the real stars of the film.
There are moments in At the Circus that work, including a lovely musical number that gives Harpo a chance to really show off his harp playing abilities, a scene involving the worst ever interrogation of a possible criminal, and an excellent crack at the Hay’s office. Still, the whole thing feels like a miss for all involved. For those interested in the Marx Brothers’ films, it is worth checking out At the Circus, but keep your expectations low, and don’t watch after Duck Soup or Horse Feathers.