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.

Penthouse

Gasser

Penthouse (1933)

Myrna Loy‘s Hollywood title of “the perfect wife” reflects the reality that her most memorable roles were those that domesticated her to family life. The Thin Man movies, The Best Years of Our Lives and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House are such examples. But she was not always so type cast. She played the exotic early in her career and brought a certain sex appeal that was restrained in her later parts. On the fence between those two worlds is Penthouse. It was directed by W.S. Van Dyke a year before he made The Thin Man and the important decision to cast Loy as Nora Charles, a part that to a large degree makes those movies what they are.

In Penthouse, Loy plays a dame who hangs around with seedy underworld types and who ends up taking up residence at the home of a lawyer. Try as she might, Loy’s charming personality surmounts the suggestive dialogue that would paint her as a floozy. But her wit and comedic delivery of lines here would convince Van Dyke of his find and propel her to stardom the next year.

Warner Baxter plays Jackson Durant, a well-to-do attorney who tarnishes his career by successfully defending mobster Tony Gazotti (Nat Pendleton) from a murder conviction. He also loses the affection of his girl, Sue (Martha Sleeper),  because of the new company he keeps. Sue quickly finds a new love, however, in the arms of pal Tom (Phillips Holmes) and the two get engaged.

Tom must break off his affair with low-life Mimi (Mae Clark) who in turn looks to rekindle a romance with gangster Jim Crelliman (C. Henry Gordon). To satisfy the racketeer, however, Mimi must publicly break things off with Tom. At a nightclub, Mimi takes Tom onto a roof balcony for that conversation but Crelliman and others in the club are surprised by a gunshot. Mimi is dead and Tom is holding the gun.

Jackson comes soon to conclude his friend Tom is innocent when he receives a phone call advising him to stay away from the case. He therefore gets involved. As part of his investigation, Gazotti hooks him up with Loy’s Gertie Waxted. Meeting at a club, Gertie confesses she’d be more comfortable at home cooking “a pot of eggs” but also does not wish to return to her apartment where a photo of friend Mimi will depress her. The solution is Jackson’s flat.

Nothing untoward occurs between the duo and Gertie even says she will get rusty at defending her honor after a month of residence at the home. Jackson wants to keep her safe at his place while he continues the investigation. He’s hoping to get unexpected information from her just by talking about Mimi. In doing so, she reveals several clues, such as that her apartment overlooks the murder scene and that building is owned by Crelliman. The racketeer also knows the pawn broker who IDed Tom as having bought the gun in question.

When Jackson leaves the apartment to investigate Gertie’s home, the woman is unable to stay put as she is fearing for the man’s safety. Later seeing Gertie with Crelliman’s “finger man”, Jackson suspects she has betrayed him. With the help of mobster Gazotti, Jackson unravels the mystery and saves his new girl.

Loy, although one must be patient for her first appearance, steals a decent portion of attention given her relatively small role in Penthouse. The gal is smart, kind and tough and exudes too much class for us to actually believe she was of Mimi’s sort. Gertie is the sort of role you would expect Jean Harlow to play, but by using Loy, we get a much more likeable character and one that seems to be classy enough for the once-revered attorney.

Pendleton is very enjoyable and memorable as Gazotti. The character actor often played gangster sidekicks or detective partners, but this is the first I have seen him in a role of power. He is no less congenial nor any smarter than his other parts, but he makes the criminal who is backing our protagonist easy to like.

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