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.

Fast and Loose

Ring a Ding Ding

Fast and Loose (1939)

      The success of The Thin Man movies clearly proved that audiences did not need a blossoming romance tacked onto their mystery thrillers and that a devoted husband-wife set up was just as appealing. A trilogy of “Fast” movies were the result in 1938 and 1939 as MGM sought to capitalize on the complaint that too much time elapsed between the release of each Thin Man picture. 

     Fast and Loose starring Robert Mongtomery and Rosalind Russell was the second of three films featuring mystery-solving booksellers Joel and Garda Sloane; however, each film featured different stars in those roles. For the first, Fast Company, Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice filled the parts. The last, Fast and Furious, featured Franchot Tone and Ann Southern as our married sleuths. I have not seen the other two flicks, and while I think the leading men in all three would be great as Joel, I do believe I picked the best actress to play the devoted wife.

     Montgomery’s Joel is very much like Nick Charles in his reluctance to engage in crime solving using his extensive powers of rare book knowledge. In Fast and Loose he is unaware he will be engaged in such crime-solving until he is knee-deep in trouble. The Sloanes visit rare book collector Nicholas Torrent (Ralph Morgan) to broker a deal for a absent-minded grocer who seeks to purchase a rare Shakespeare manuscript from the cash-strapped man. The couple stay in the house overnight when Joel is alerted to a crash that turns out to be someone knocking out family friend Vincent Charlton (Reginald Owen), who was examining the manuscript in the dark at the house safe. The manuscript is found nearby but the question of forgery starts to surface as we learn the Torrent librarian has a prison record related to forgery. Next, Nicholas Torrent is murdered at his desk and Joel finds himself an on-and-off suspect in the case all while trying to solve it himself.

      The difficulty comes in the mass amount of suspicious characters. Joel’s friend Phil (Anthony Allan) who is secretly dating the Torrent daughter, seems rather shady and possibly in cahoots with the Torrent son Gerald, played by Tom Collins. Meanwhile, Gerald makes contact with a “hussy” –as Garda calls her– and the gambling joint owner with whom she pals around. The librarian with a felony record, who has disappeared, looks like the sure culprit, but he is later found stuffed into a suit of armor, dead. Joel’s meddling also earns him a nudge off the roadway by another car, driven by goons of the gambling heavy, and he begins to worry about his wife’s safety. In true Nora Charles fashion, however, Garda is a tough broad who talks big and enjoys watching her husband sock the bad guys.

     I typically complain in films like this that there are too many characters to keep track of and remember their names, which can make figuring out the story rather difficult (ala The Big Sleep). Fast and Loose did a fantastic job, however, of making clear the names of each character so when they are referenced later I could understand about whom they were speaking. This is also a nearly impossible mystery to crack, but we thankfully get a summary of the events at the close of the film with the revelation of the murderer, a technique also employed in The Thin Man.

     Montgomery makes a great detective. He would further prove this when he directed his own Lady in the Lake years later, playing a full-blown private eye. The man has never had trouble on the charm front and proceeds through his mystery-solving work with all the ease of a pro. Russell is very enjoyable as the loving sidekick. She is quite down to earth while fitting in with the lofty society in whose company the couple finds itself. The two leads also have good chemistry. They seem like a comfortable married couple and the romantic basis of their relationship comes to the surface each time Garda becomes jealous of the company her husband keeps.

     As long as one does not compare Fast and Loose too closely to The Thin Man, a marvelous time is sure to be had. One would not think the subject of rare books could work as the backdrop for a thrilling murder mystery, but it does. Who knew a person could take a background in manuscript sales and use it to work as a police consultant? Only in the movies, I suppose.

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