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1939: Hollywood's Golden Year
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At the Circus

At the Circus

Friday July, 26 2019 at 06:30 PM
Tuesday October, 22 2019 at 12:00 PM

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At the Circus (1939) was the Marx Brothers' ninth film and their third for MGM. By that time, the Marxes thought they'd done enough. Most of them were already past the age of fifty and were finally settling into comfortable family lives. With producer Irving Thalberg gone, they no longer felt a burning need to make movies. But it turned out to be Chico's substantial gambling debts that sparked them into action and gave the world more wonderful Marx madness. There was some debate about whether the Marxes should go to the World's Fair or the circus with the latter winning. Each brother received $250K for At the Circus but Groucho and Harpo made sure Chico invested at least half of his.

Like most Marx Brothers films the plot is incidental to their wild shenanigans. In the film, the Marxes try to retrieve stolen money and save a circus owned by Kenny Baker, a popular singer of the time that MGM was trying to turn into a movie star (and who had earlier appeared in The King and the Chorus Girl (1937), a film Groucho co-wrote but didn't appear in). Filling out the cast are Nat Pendleton, Eve Arden, Florence Rice and of course the perennial, good-natured target of Groucho's quips - Margaret Dumont. A few songs round out the movie, most notably the unforgettable "Lydia the Tattooed Lady,'' performed by Groucho.

Director Mervyn LeRoy (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) served as producer on the project and he turned to Irving Brecher for a script. Brecher was the first solo writer on a Marx Brothers film but he had an appropriate background as one of radio's best gagmen complete with a sense of humor that earned him Groucho's respect. (There's a story that Brecher got his first radio job by placing an ad in Variety saying he supplied "Jokes so bad even Milton Berle wouldn't steal them" which prompted Berle to hire the newcomer.) This was also Brecher's first screenplay though he did a bit of uncredited work on The Wizard of Oz (1939). MGM decided against allowing the Marxes to test any of the material out on live audiences, something they'd done on both previous MGM films and most of their earlier ones. MGM also employed Buster Keaton as a gag writer on the film. Unfortunately, the jokes he devised for Harpo were ideal for "The Great Stone Face" but didn't really fit the Harpo character. The rest of his contributions failed to amuse Groucho and apparently none of Keaton's material ended up in the completed film. Some sources say Ben Hecht contributed uncredited material as well.

To direct, MGM brought in Edward Buzzell, another New York vaudeville veteran like the Marxes. He began his career directing comedy shorts before moving on to low-budget features starring the likes of Burns & Allen, Ann Sothern and Lew Ayres. Buzzell had his own style that sometimes created friction with the Marxes. One legendary exchange has him saying, "Now, let's really act this scene." This prompted Groucho to reply, "The Marx Brothers will do anything but act. If you want dramatics, use our stand-ins."

The busy production of At the Circus was a round-the-clock operation; when Buzzell and the Marxes left the set, another crew would come in and film extra material late into the night. Naturally, there were some obstacles encountered along the way but one in particular stood out. The script called for a gorilla for one scene but it turned out that trained gorillas have to be booked months and months in advance. Their alternate plan was to simply hire a man in an ape costume but this soon created other difficulties when the performer couldn't breathe inside the hair suit and passed out. After he punched some breathing holes in it, the costume owner showed up and angrily confiscated it, prompting both a replacement gorilla costume and performer. In another incident, Harpo was required to fill his mouth full of feathers for a scene. But he accidentally swallowed them when Chico hit him on the back. Well, nobody ever said life with the Marx Brothers would be dull.

Producer: Mervyn LeRoy
Director: Edward Buzzell
Screenplay: Irving Brecher, Ben Hecht (undredited)
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Cinematography: Leonard Smith
Costume Design: Dolly Tree, Valles
Film Editing: William H. Terhune
Original Music: Harold Arlen, 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).
BW-87m. Closed captioning.

by Lang Thompson



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