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.