At the Circus: Review
At the Circus marked the ninth appearance of the Marx Brothers, Groucho, Chico and Harpo in a feature film. The internationally acclaimed trio of comedians is in standard form, clowning about with popular 1930s singer Kenny Baker and leading lady Florence Rice in a story of theft and double-dealings set under the big top, complete with a strong man, a little person and a trained gorilla.
Although At the Circus is considered to be a lesser work by the humorous siblings, the light hearted romp contains a few unparalleled moments of comic genius including Groucho’s (in)famous “Lydia” number, which requires repeat viewing to fully appreciate. Indeed, the film is greatly overshadowed by the brothers’ previous masterpiece, Duck Soup. However, it is not a lack of hilarity but an incredibly weak story line that is the real culprit here. Not that any Marx Bros. film is dependent on plot, but the scenario in Circus is so thin and clichéd (a large amount of money is due immediately or else the troupe will fold) one wonders why anyone even bothered with the pretense of having a story. It’s so painfully obvious that it doesn’t matter what’s going on and that each scene is just set up after set up for a string of the Marx Bros. patented, zingy one-liners, which is exactly what depression era audiences were paying for. In fact, the jokes come so fast and furious, you’ll require playback in order to catch the true meaning of every throwaway line and side remark.
The truth is you can’t talk about the comedies of the 1930s without mentioning the Marx Bros. Within the history of cinema these men are known to be emperors among the kings of comedy, especially among the common folk looking for escapism during America’s first great “economic downturn”. Straight out of the vaudeville circuit, there is no pretense of sophistication. The jokes are quick and to the point, often running one after another if not on top of each other, never stopping long enough for you to catch your bearings, let alone your breath. The lines fly from one train of thought to another until you are completely turned around and unable to remember what started the whole thing. With Groucho’s double talk, Chico’s non-sequiturs and Harpo’s manic escapades, the three brothers were the embodiment of depression era escapism, embraced by a public that desperately welcomed the distraction.
And although the jokes are meant to be understood by the masses it’s not as if the brothers were pitching slow balls to the lowest common denominator - no, not at all. The wit and intelligence is startlingly sharp, and yet at times one can’t help but wince at the painfully funny puns. So much so, that sometimes the only thing missing is an over articulated wink to the camera and a jab to the ribs timed to a well-placed rim shot. In fact, Groucho does indeed address the camera on several occasions, breaking the so-called forth wall in order to let the audience in on the set up, almost as if to say, “I know this is silly and you know this is silly, but I wonder if the other characters in the movie know this is silly”.
No, At the Circus is not the best Marx Bros. film ever to be made, but it is a Marx Bros. film. In the pantheon of film comedies that’s saying a lot in itself. So, I suggest you enjoy this film for what it is, which is an opportunity for Grouch, Chico and Harpo to do what they do best – run amuck with delightful abandon among those who take themselves far too seriously.