At the Circus

Gasser

At the Circus (1939)

With most Marx Bros. movies, the story happening for all the surrounding characters is pretty bland and is easily overshadowed by the somewhat unrelated activities of the boys. In At the Circus, however, there is a pretty decent base plot. Chico and Harpo are appropriately cast as members of a travelling circus while Groucho is invited into the action as an attorney.

Harpo plays second fiddle to the strongman in the troupe, played by a nearly speechless and almost unrecognizable Nat Pendleton. Chico, although pals with Harpo’s Punchy as usual, is behind the scenes and helps out the circus manager Jeff Wilson (Kenny Baker), who is the protagonist of the movie’s actual story. Jeff left behind a life of luxury via his family’s wealth to run the circus but is now at risk of losing it lest he can pay $10,000 to his business partner, antagonist John Carter (James Burke).

John does not actually want Jeff to be able to pay because he does not wish to relinquish his share of the circus. He conspires with the strongman Goliath to steal the $10,000 in cash Jeff prepared, starting the hunt for the money. Chico, Harpo and Groucho as J. Cheever Loophole fail to regain the money and the latter instead targets Jeff’s rich aunt, Mrs. Dukesbury (Margaret Dumont).

When Loophole arrives in Newport to talk the money out of Mrs. Dukesbury, he is mistaken for the orchestra conductor Jardinet, who is to be entertaining the woman’s massive crowd the following night. Loophole plays along and convinces the woman to pay a fee of $10,000 for his services. When the time comes, however, it is the circus that will entertain Mrs. Dukesbury’s guests.

At the Circus, like all Marx Bros. movies, contains scattered and unamusing musical numbers. Chico does fit in his usual entertaining piano playing and Harpo guides a chorus of black singers with his harpist performance. Most amusing is a scene in which Chico and Harpo search Goliath’s train stateroom for the stolen money. The strongman is asleep, and the boys manage to keep him that way while they push him around and climb into his mattress. Coming in second place, by my estimates, is our first encounter with Loophole. Chico has been advised that no one can get on the train without a badge, and despite his inviting Loophole to intervene for Jeff, he will not allow him on board. Loophole ends up rather wet before he can manage to get inside.

I would not say At the Circus is the best Marx Bros. movie, but it is nice to see one that can somewhat captivate you with its main plot line. As I mentioned, the boys usually just steal the show in these movies by conducting their antics while the unimportant plot takes place. In this case I was intrigued by the struggles of Jeff and girlfriend Julie (Florence Rice) to maintain the circus and their romance.

Virtue

Dullsville

Virtue (1932)

     How do you make Carole Lombard look like a prostitute/ex-prostitute? Give her some dark eyeliner. One would not suspect from viewing most of the contents of Virtue that Lombard’s Mae is meant to be a reformed hooker as her style of dress and manner suggest anything but. In truth, the only difference I saw in this Lombard compared to her other roles was some excessive eye liner. Nevertheless, Mae is what she is, but a poorly acted plot does this story no favors.

     Following an arrest and conviction on an unspoken crime, Mae is ordered to exit Manhattan and not return, but the gal hops the train before leaving the island. She rides along in a taxi driven by our male lead, Pat O’Brien as Jimmy, but skips out on the fare. When she later delivers the money to the duped driver, the two hit it off and begin dating. The trouble with Pat is all he can do is yammer on about how no one can tell him about women and that marriage is the worst fate imaginable. Pat is saving up to buy a share in a gas station and knows that marriage will suck his finances dry. Nevertheless, the two wed.

     On their wedding night, Pat learns of Mae’s past profession of “picking up men off the street” but not from his wife, rather a copper who wants to arrest the girl for disobeying her sentence. Pat slaps Mae but later opts to stay in the marriage. All is fine, despite some minor suspicions on Pat’s part, until an old friend of Mae’s requires surgery and convinces the gal to loan her Pat’s money. What follows is more complicated than a case of missing money as murder charges arise and Pat has to decide whether he wants Mae and Mae must choose whether she should take the lug back.

     Lombard does her standard good acting, but the other players in Virtue drag it down. No one is terribly likeable and the story does not leave the audience rooting for Mae and Pat to work things out. The editing is also sloppy at times with some awkward cuts between shots within a single scene that produce a jarring effect. Editing, except when employed in artistic or subliminal ways, is meant to be invisible, allowing seamless transitions between angles, but some goofs or just poor judgement here make Virtue stand out as a bit amateur on the editing front.

Go West

Gasser

Go West (1940)

     Still working my way through a stockpile of Marx Brothers movie recordings, Go West was my most recent endeavor. Coming off Horse Feathers, however, I was a bit let down by this one. Unlike the earlier, college-based comedy, Go West lacked the extensive verbal repartee and cleverly spoken jokes and was instead packed with physical gags. Also, given that Horse Feathers was more a vehicle for such dialogue exchanges, Go West actually placed importance on the plot.

     My first experience with three, rather than four, Marx boys, Go West involves Groucho as a man set for the west in search of his fortune and Chico and Harpo as brothers who dupe him out of his train fare using a $10 bill on a string. Once at their destination, Chico and Harpo legitimately loan the 10-spot to an old man who provides the deed to some land as collateral. Meanwhile the antagonists in the film finagle to have a rail line established through the worthless land so they can make a fortune and also resolve a feud that prevents two star-crossed lovers, if you will, from being married.

     Smattered with wild west fights and fleeing idiots, the story involves the back-and-forth sale of the land despite the actual deed lying unknowingly in the possession of the villain because Chico used it to write an IOU for 10 cents. The brothers get the deed back but a cross-country race by train and carriage ends the film in utter absurdity as the boys must recycle the train cars’ wood for fuel.

     Go West was fun but I miss having catchy lines to laugh about as a recall them days later, as with Horse Feathers. I hope I did not discover my favorite Marx Bros. film too early in my exploration of the trio. What this film did offer were some great musical moments from Chico and Harpo. Although Harpo displayed his harp-playing gusto in other films, in this one he composes a harp from a weaving loom and plays an extensive number. Chico takes to the saloon piano and makes my head spin as I wonder how these shabbily dressed men could be talented in so many ways. The artist side seems to betray their personas. Mark me impressed.

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