When the Marx Bros. signed on with MGM in 1935, producer Irving Thalberg suggested a new formula designed to “fix” the disappointing box office results of their last Paramount comedy, Duck Soup, which had come out in 1933. Thalberg proposed softening the edginess of their comedy, and adding elements such as romantic sub-plots and musical numbers, to broaden their appeal, particularly with female moviegoers.
As perhaps the biggest of the major studios, MGM had a bad track record when it came to producing comedy. The studio managed to do fine with classy, romantic comedies like Dinner at Eight and The Thin Man, but really character-driven stuff, centered around the distinct persona of the leading comedian, seemed to be beyond them. The most notorious case of MGM neutering a really unique comedian occurred with Buster Keaton, who joined the studio in 1928. After turning out one genuinely great film for them (The Cameraman, which – not coincidentally – was the last silent feature over which he had a great degree of creative control), he was shoehorned into increasingly inappropriate vehicles that turned his screen character into a bit of a dimwit, peppered with excruciating one-liners rather than pratfalls, until finally he was teamed with Jimmy Durante, whose rambunctious screen persona overshadowed Keaton’s on-camera.
However, with the release of the Marx Bros.’ first MGM film, A Night at the Opera (1935), it was Thalberg who was vindicated by the box-office receipts. The film itself is really a masterpiece of construction – an expertly structured and well-written comedy that manages to balance its different elements very well. Their follow-up film for the studio, A Day at the Races (1937), continued much in the same tradition, albeit somewhat less successfully (critics of the film rightly cite the “Water Carnival” sequence as an over-produced distraction that brings the film to a halt).
While it’s easy in hindsight to criticize Thalberg’s decision to water-down the Marxes’ comedy to heighten their box office appeal as a crass commercial move, it must be said in his defense that he recognized the need for top-flight writers like George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, who had worked with the brothers on the stage and whose scripts had served as the foundation for their first two screen hits, The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930). Thalberg also recognized the benefit of sending the Marxes on stage tour, to test scenes that had been written for the film, in order to see how they played before a live audience. This was an incredibly wise decision on Thalberg’s part, and both A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races benefit from the expert timing and polish that the Marxes were used to developing through their work in vaudeville and subsequently on Broadway night after night.
Sadly, during production of A Day at the Races, Irving Thalberg passed away at a tragically young age. The Marx Bros. made one rather lackluster picture on loan-out to RKO, Room Service (1938), an adaptation of a Broadway show that lost much in its translation to the screen.
When the brothers returned to MGM in 1939, things had changed.
Without Thalberg, the Marx Bros. were effectively powerless to fight for top-notch writers and directors, not to mention the ability to test their material on the road before filming, all of which had been so crucial in the success of their first two films with the studio.
Between 1939 and 1941, they would star in their final three films for the studio. These films have been almost unanimously panned as artistic and comedic flops - overproduced, expensive vehicles lacking the wit and charm of the earlier Marx Bros. comedies. While the films certainly fall short of the highest standards of films like Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup, let alone their first two films at MGM, they nonetheless contains moments of comedy that are too good to ignore completely.
Their first picture upon returning to the studio was At the Circus (1939). While hardly one of their best efforts, the film isn’t without its charm, and it still maintains a certain energy that manages to carry it through its dull moments.
The film was directed by Edward Buzzell, a former musical comedy performer (his best-known performance today is probably the delightfully bizarre 1930 2-color Technicolor short, The Devil's Cabaret). The script was by Irving Brecher, who had previously written the vaudeville-flavored New Faces of 1937 starring Milton Berle and Joe Penner at RKO. The problem with Brecher's script isn't that it lacks decent comedy scenes, only that the plotting is too loose to really get invested in at any level (A Night at the Opera and to a lesser extent A Day at the Races at least presented a well-structured plot with just enough sense of conflict to hold interest in it). The other qualm with Brecher's writing style is that the jokes could really be performed by almost any group of comedians, so that there are fewer of the really characteristic moments that could be found in the first five films the Marxes made for Paramount. The film was produced by Mervyn LeRoy, who produced The Wizard of Oz for MGM the same year. On a side note, the film's main titles - featuring caricatures of the Marx Bros. - were drawn by noted cartoonist Al Hirschfeld.
The plot finds circus owner Jeff Wilson (played by popular singer Kenny Baker) struggling to save his company from impending bankruptcy, turning down persistent offers to be bought out by villainous businessman John Carter (James Burke), and trying to make good so that he can marry his sweetheart Julie Randall (Florance Rice). Groucho, as attorney J. Cheever Loophole, is brought in to protect Jeff while the whole circus is en route to via train to their next destination. Of course, Carter’s henchmen have infiltrated the troupe, Jeff Wilson gets knocked on the head and his $10,000 stolen, and Groucho is too busy cracking wise to do much of anything about any of it.
In order to save the circus, Groucho secures them a booking at a big society party given by Jeff’s aunt, Suzanna Dukesbury, without telling her exactly what kind of a show it is that she’s paying for. Things almost fall apart when the maestro, Jardinet (played by that great character actor, Fritz Feld), arrives to conduct the symphony orchestra that had originally been booked to entertain at the party. Groucho instructs Chico to give him a big send-off. He leads him to a giant floating bandstand, where Jardinet begins conducting his orchestra, while the bandstand promptly untied from the dock and set afloat!
The show must go on, and the curtain finally goes up on the circus, leading to a climax in which the villains try to disrupt the performance. This scene suffers from some fairly obvious uses of back projection and stunt doubles, which take away from the fun somewhat. It's really a kind of comic free-for-all, with even the circus gorilla (played by Charles Gemora, so memorable as Ethel in Laurel and Hardy's The Chimp) attempting to steal back the stolen money. Even as she watches her society party fall apart at the seams, one gets the impression that Margaret Dumont is having more fun than she lets on, particularly when she ends up getting shot out of a cannon!
The film’s big fade-out laugh comes with the unforgettable image of Jardinet set adrift on the floating bandstand, where he continues to furiously conduct the orchestra, totally oblivious to the fact that they are sailing off down the river.
While the film has some excellent gags such as this, it is also filled with moments that come very close to being solid comedy scenes, but never really reach their potential. Chico and Harpo sneaking in to the room of the circus strong man while on the train, Groucho, Harpo and Chico interrogating the midget circus performer in his tiny room, and the scene in which Groucho tries to get onto the circus train without his badge all have the basic ingredients that could have made for strong comedy, but they never quite come together. In short, the set-up is there, but the scenes lack the strong payoff of a really strong comedy sequence.
A scene was shot, but deleted, that introduced Groucho's character prior to the train sequence. The sequence took place in a courtroom, and while it might have slowed the pacing of the film's beginning down a bit, it's a shame the scene doesn't survive, as any courtroom scene with Groucho is guaranteed to be a laugh riot.
At the Circus is aided by a strong supporting cast – including Margaret Dumont as wealthy dowager Suzanna Dukesbury – that add a lot to the fun. Nat Pendleton is good as the circus strongman (probably a reference to his performance as Eugene Sandow in MGM’s The Great Ziegfeld). Eve Arden has a great turn as Peerless Pauline, whose act consists of walking on the ceiling with a pair of specially-made shoes. She and Groucho share a fun scene in which he tries to retrieve stolen money from her. After Groucho catches her stuffing the cash in her brassiere ("There must be some way I can get that money without getting in trouble with the Hays Office"), he suggests that she demonstrate for him how to walk on the ceiling. However, she talks Groucho in to donning a pair of the shoes as well, and ends up leaving him stranded, hanging upside-down from the ceiling!
This scene is reflective of a strong current of exasperation running throughout the comedy of At the Circus. Groucho is basically prevented from succeeding at any of his tasks because of he is constantly being one-upped or thwarted by another character. Groucho's entrance in the film is a scene in which he has been offered a job by his old friend Chico, traveling with the circus troupe to protect the owner. However, when Groucho arrives and attempts to board the train that is about to depart, Chico refuses to let him on since he doesn't have the requisite badge. Groucho is repeatedly pushed back out into the pouring rain. Another such instance is the interrogation scene, where all Groucho needs to secure a confession is to get the circus midget (Jerry Maren) to give him one of his cigars, so that he can match it to the one found at the scene of the crime. His efforts to get the necessary sample are repeatedly thwarted by Chico, who keeps pulling out cigars of his own to offer to Groucho. Then there is the already-mentioned scene with Peerless Pauline. These are the kinds of scenes that always made for the most memorable Groucho-Chico exchanges in earlier films. Here, though, it's as if the entire universe has it in for Groucho!
The film has at least one moment of unparalleled brilliance – the “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” musical number, performed by Groucho, and written by the team of Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, who would write “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” the same year. Along with “Hello, I Must Be Going”, it would become one of Groucho’s favorite songs to reprise over the years on his appearances on television talk shows. Aside from its brilliantly witty lyrics, the song is also a marvel of orchestration (when Groucho sings the lines about "She once swept an admiral clear off his feet/the ships on her hips made his heart skip a beat", the arrangers very carefully included the "Sailor's Hornpipe" within the orchestration). And even though it has been the target of many jibes over the years from fans of the Marxes, “Two Blind Loves” is actually an enjoyable little tune, made all the more charming by Kenny Baker (who is nowhere near as bad in this film as some critics have made him out to be). Chico is allowed an energetic piano solo, performing "Beer Barrel Polka" to the obvious delight of the train passengers (and the audience). Aside from Groucho’s “Lydia”, the best musical number in the film is Harpo’s jazzy and soulful rendition of “Blue Moon”, accompanied by a vocal chorus of black gospel singers. It is both beautiful and haunting.
If At the Circus was a generally amusing comedy punctuated with a few moments approaching greatness, then the Marx Bros.’ following film was an inversion of that – a generally dull picture that only occasionally provided solid laughs.