It's nobody's favourite, but there the consensus breaks down.
Some people quite like it; others really hate it.
For some, it's the last watchable one.
For others, it's the first unwatchable one.
The less than glorious creative conditions under which it was produced are well enough known. Basically, it was all change at MGM, and with Thalberg gone to the great executive bungalow in the sky, the Brothers found they were no longer entitled to executive treatment.
Louis B. Mayer, it is said, had it in for them. (But then, Mayer seemed to have it in for all comics, judging by what MGM also did to Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel. MGM was a kind of venus fly trap for comics. They were lured by the prestige, and then Mayer pounced, trapped them, and slowly bled them dry.)
First to go was the road tour to try out and perfect new material: too expensive. Then they were given only one writer. (Irving Brecher was a funny and talented man, but putting one man in a room on his own is simply not how great Marx scripts get written: they need the energy of noisy collaboration, the competitive escalating invention that comes of great writers coming up with toppers, then topping the toppers, then topping the topper that topped the topper. Take that away, and all you are left with is jokes, in succession.)
Leslie Halliwell writes of Circus that: "This film began the decline of the Marx Brothers; in it nothing is ill done but nothing is very fresh either".
I would certainly agree with the second claim, but I would re-append the first to A Day at the Races, and it's to that extent that I would stick my neck out to defend this by no means great but on the whole good-enough-for-a-pleasant-afternoon's-fun little film.
I can see that it's a big comedown from A Night at The Opera, but, to me, it's only a qualified inferior to Races. If Races was an incredibly lazy Opera mark 2 (with good bits), this is an only proportionately lazier Races mark 2 (and still with a couple of unequivocally good bits).
The real leap, I maintain, was from Opera to Races. And personally, I'd rather have Groucho a bad lawyer than a (presumably highly skilled) horse doctor, and I'd much rather take the ending of this film over that boring horse race, which for all its bland slapstick silliness at least tries to be funny, and gets all the Marx Brothers involved.
That said, I do think there is one major and fundamental change since Races, and that it is the thing that does most to scupper the film. But I don't know how easy a sell it's going to be to all of you, particularly because I'm almost as much at a loss defining it as I am accounting for it.
But all I can say is that it seems to me obvious, and when you alternate scenes from this movie with any previous Marx movie it becomes more obvious still.
It's simply this: Groucho has changed.
He has changed suddenly, and he has changed utterly.
Superficially, he even looks different, and not just because of that repulsive wig, the very existence of which violates just about every essential feature of his character, and which must stand as a mistake as decisive as the abandonment of the road tour and the replacement of the writing pool with just one guy. He looks different all round to me, as if he had lost weight suddenly, or had plastic surgery.
But much more important is the change in his performance.
For whatever reason, he's giving a totally new and different one: a broader, louder, bigger, less subtle one.
You have to factor in the relative crudity of the material, and the fact that he may feel he has to try harder to get laughs from it, plus his increasing disinterest in it all, but that still doesn't quite cover it.
It's not that he gives an inferior performance, necessarily; it's not that he seems distracted or less enthusiastic. He's just plain different.
If you had told me that it was at this stage that the original Groucho left the act, and was replaced by a very good lookalike/impersonator, I could easily believe you.
He seems to be consciously changing his act, perhaps to make it an easier fit for what he was increasingly coming to see as his commercial future: the vastly more communal world of radio, where comics have to interact and trade quips in ways that would be virtually as impossible with the disdainful and solipsistic Paramount Groucho as it would with Harpo.
Groucho was no longer the cocksure hero of the Broadway elites: he was just another Hollywood comic, his position by no means as secure as many another, and these days he had to banter with Benny and Bob and Dinah, which means joining their world. (According to several memoirs, it was a constant thorn in his side that, though constantly in demand as guest star, he never got his own eponymous radio comedy show.)
The big change in his characterisation as written is that there is now a marked strain of comic cowardice, about which he explicitly jokes, very much in the Bob Hope manner. The interplay with Goliath the strong man is the best and most often cited example, but it runs all through, and perhaps reaches its true nadir when he is frightened by a train whistle and rushes for safety to the arms of heroine Florence Rice.
It's not an inexcusable change to the character, I guess, but it doesn't play well and it's far less interesting, especially if you come to it after watching Monkey Business. (It's still very much in evidence in Go West, though The Big Store mercifully tones it down a bit, as well as even more mercifully getting rid of that damned wig.)
Likewise in error, I think, is the more general desire to get laughs by making him seem foolish, as when he emerges in costume in the Peerless Pauline sequence, and is then left whimpering on the ceiling at her exit, to be rescued only by Harpo's engineering of a demeaning slapstick fall.
I'm not sure Groucho makes much sense unless he is fraudulently in control of every situation.
But these are deliberate, written alterations to his character, and still don't get to the heart of the change he has undergone since Room Service, which is a change in actual performing style.
Really, the only thing to do is compare and contrast. Take any previous film, Races very much included, and just alternate scenes, and I am sure you'll instantly see what I'm getting at.
Indeed, just compare the Dumont seduction scene with any previous one. In the earlier films, his pacing is actually very deliberate, his intonation level and his body language very controlled. Though the overall impression is one of anarchy, the man himself is enigmatic, and his delivery is measured, the whole a kind of parody of gentility, and the point that you don't necessarily get the measure of Groucho straight away. (That, presumably, is how he ends up being college presidents and feted explorers.)
This is a new, zanier fellow; he seems to speak differently, move his body differently, there's a whole different timbre to his voice; he talks nineteen to the dozen in a constantly varying register. He moves funny: vastly more frenetic, he can't sit still for a second, darting here and there, flinging his arms about. He behaves in a way that is much more overtly silly.
(So far as I am aware, only Adamson among the major writers notices it - certainly he's the only one to note that "Groucho is so chipper in in his first scene that his voice rises several octaves", though it's not just this scene - and he also suggests an intriguing possible explanation: capitulation to over-emphatic direction from Ed Buzzell, who apparently implored the boys to "really act" the scenes, which must have made them positively nostalgic for Sam Wood's exhortation to sell 'em a load of clams. [Adamson, the edition with the shiny grey cover and pink border, page 352]. Another good argument in favour of this explanation is that, like the cowardice, it is considerably lessened in The Big Store but still obvious in the also Buzzell-directed Go West.)
The old Groucho had a vaguely challenging air of insouciance, as if he didn't much care whether you found him funny or not. His primary aim seemed to be to amuse himself, and if you didn't like it he'd probably enjoy himself all the more. This one wants you to think he's hilarious, and he's trying way too hard. He's knowingly and demonstratively comic - and for me at least, vastly less amusing in consequence, even when the lines are good. And more often than I remembered they are, in this film. But the delivery of them I find somewhat grating.
|"Badge? Oh, baaaaaaaaaaadge!"|
The one claim on which all writers agree - that the circus setting is a mistake because they belong there, as opposed to, say, the world of opera, where they do not belong and in which their presence (and to which their relationship) can only be productively antagonistic - is true as far as it goes, but it surely has to be added that the point of the ending is that they bring the circus to one of Margaret Dumont's high society, high culture soirees. (The film builds to this crescendo just as Opera builds to that film's climactic orgy of iconoclasm, albeit to less liberating effect, admittedly.)
At Paramount, of course, all they had to do was turn up and the party was wrecked already: they were plenty circus enough, all by themselves. But given the general emasculation and plodding literalism resultant from the MGM approach to comedy, I think they could have done worse than this.
At The Circus to me is a solid half-success, that more or less manages to postpone, for just one more time, our having to acknowledge the decline of the Marx Brothers that had been in process since 1935. With Go West, you can't pretend it isn't happening any more. Here, if you screw up your eyes, and wiggle your fingers in your ears, you can still hear the orchestra from A Night at the Opera tuning up, and see Groucho and Chico tearing up their contracts.
In reality, they had just signed a new one for three pictures, and it never got any better than this.
03:47: Goliath the Mighty
He performs in a circus double-act with Harpo: an idea so alive with comic possibilities it seems a portent of doom indeed that their scene together peters out before it even gets going, after just a couple of seconds of pretty basic effects slapstick (Harpo fires a cannon ball too early and it hits Pendleton in the ass; Pendleton throws a lifting bar which Harpo catches and the weight makes him sink into the ground). And from then on there's no indication of the two of them having anything more than a passing acquaintance. Strange, given that Goliath is one of the key villains, that Harpo is not made privy to their plans.
05:00: "Mister Carter! Mister Carter!"
Chico's first bit is pretty good, considering; asking people how they're doing and then refusing to listen to the answer because he doesn't have time. He looks interesting too, in a long coat and sailor cap. And he scores yet another solid laugh by asking for the afternoon off because, following his divorce, it's the day he gets custody of his wife's parents.
Not at 7:34: The missing first Groucho scene
It's at this point that we were once intended to watch a self-contained sketch, and Groucho's first scene in the picture. There's two ways of looking at the fact that we're not. On the one hand, any Groucho scene these days is worth keeping, when you consider what little there is to enjoy when they're not on screen, and it's infuriating to know that this one wasn't just written but actually shot, and yet no footage of it seems to remain. (Whereas when you watch any of the MGM That's Entertainment films, they can't stop bragging about all the preserved outtakes and offcuts they're going to include.)
On the other hand, if we must be philosophical about it, and until someone finds the missing footage that's our only option, it has to be admitted that we actually aren't missing all that much. Showing Groucho the lawyer at work in court (and beginning with him asleep in the jury box) it makes its best 1939 stab at vintage Groucho wordplay, ranging from the not too inauthentic ("affidavit is better than none") to the positively torturous ("a woman has always been something to revere; my mother was a woman, granddaughter to Paul Revere, but that's a horse of another story.") It ends with the message we see Chico sending to him in the release version being delivered by a singing telegram boy.
So far as I'm aware, this is the only complete Groucho scene shot but missing from any of their films, but I think most fans would agree that, ecstatic as they would undoubtedly be at news of its recovery, it wouldn't be as exciting as the prospect of a fully restored Horse Feathers, even though the missing material there amounts only to a few snippets.
07:51: Jeff Wilson Gives Up Green Backs For Bare Backs
Must have been a slow news day. Here's the full text of the front page news story for which the above is the bizarre headline:
Jeffrey Wilson, nephew of the prominent New York socialite Mrs Suzanna Dukesbury, is broke today! His aunt, Mrs Suzanna Dukesbury, in a statement to the press, declared that she would not tolerate her nephew or any member of her family acting in a way to bring discredit to the family name.
And despite two huge portraits of the pair, that's it for the story. Love the exclamation mark, and the repetition of her name, Mrs Suzanna Dukesbury, but no mention of why he's broke or how he's disgraced her, nor any reference to the circus beyond the hint in the headline. No Pullitzer for this one.
09:10: "Was I hearin' things, Julie? Did'ya really mean what'ya said?"
Now, anyone familiar with this site will know that I am, to put it mildly, no advocate of the seemingly obligatory habit among Marx fans of mocking the straight guys and guffawing through the songs. The exception that proves the rule, however, is Kenny.
He's a nice enough little singer, with a personality that would probably play cute in other contexts, but it's hopefully not too unkind to say that the god who handed out magnetic screen presences made him a nice enough little singer with a personality that would probably play cute in other contexts. Certainly, he makes you think longingly of Allan Jones. Half an hour in, you'll feel like Rosa when she left him behind at the dock.
More importantly, he has zero rapport (and virtually zero involvement) with the team: as a result this becomes the first time that the two elements - the comedy and the musical romance plot - seem rigidly compartmentalised, almost like in one of those Laurel and Hardy operettas.
The duet Two Blind Loves comes in around 09:30 - you'll all hate it; I'll concede it's forgettable. It's certainly a bit of a cheek expecting us to sit through it this early in the film, when we still haven't seen Groucho and we've had one song already: Step Up and Take a Bow, performed by Florence Rice and a plainly unamused horse.
Is this the Marx movie record for longest-delayed first Groucho appearance?
Surely it must be. Even Duck Soup didn't expect us to wait this long, and that at least spent most of the opening building up our expectations. This one takes twelve minutes just making room for him. The hat he's wearing delays the nastiest surprise, but the change in his performance I mentioned here is obvious from the first second.
12:18: "I haven't seen you since I stopped taking Scott's Emulsion."
Still in production, Scott's Emulsion is a cod liver oil preparation for children, available in orange flavour and original flavour (which presumably means cod liver flavour, about as euphemistic a use of the word 'original' as can be imagined).
Groucho's comment presumably refers to the advertising, which depicted a fisherman carrying an enormous cod on his shoulder: Chico is keeping out the rain by wearing what looks like a fisherman's waterproof hat and coat.
12:50: "Oh, you mean my Lone Ranger badge? Sorry, they took it back, I stopped eating the cereal."
As many other writers have pointed out, this badge scene is pretty awful, in that it plays like a Marx Brothers scene written by people who have seen one or two Marx Brothers scenes but don't really have the first clue how they work or what's funny about them. It sort of sounds and moves like a classic Chico-Groucho duologue, but it's stupid. (Adamson notes however that the fault is not Brecher's: the script he submitted was very different and considerably better.) It's by people who think that Chico just behaves meaninglessly, whereas the truth is that he has his own anti-logic that is, on terms entirely incompatible with that of anyone else, rigidly logical. Here, his behaviour is simply ludicrous, and the topper - where the badge he personally gives to Groucho he then rejects as if he had not done so - is perhaps the low-point of the entire film. How could they have got it so wrong, and how could the two men - no matter how little enthusiasm they had for their careers - have performed it without protest?
Anyhoo, the line about the Lone Ranger and cereal refers to the Lone Ranger radio series that began in 1933, and pertaining to which various promotional tie-ins, including badges, were issued via the sponsor, General Mills, the guys and gals behind Cheerios, Wheaties, and Kix.
15:32: Chico's piano spot
Instead of playing for cute kids, he's got his preferred audience back here: a whole gaggle of adoring chicks. Very nice, as always, but only an insulting minute and a half in duration.
18:41: What is that thing on Groucho's head?
|What in God's name is he wearing, Art?|
Damned if I know, Len.
It matters because there are ways you can tamper with Groucho's basic character and ways you can't, if you want it to retain any kind of meaning at all. Making him a 'funny' coward, as I noted above, is a pretty bad idea that robs his persona of one of its unique qualities, but it is sustainable in context, just. But if Groucho is anything he is the enemy of pretension, affectation and vanity: he is, of course, the man who once actually grabbed a man's toupee and ran off with it, on the pretext that the Indians are coming. He just cannot wear a wig, and it only makes things worse that it's not something that's meant to be funny, not something we're supposed to even notice.
If it really was meant to be some new funny part of his character - if he had to keep holding it in place, say, in the Peerless Pauline sequence, adding to his embarrassment - I'd still be dead against it, but I'd be happy to debate the position with those who felt otherwise. But it's not supposed to be a wig, it's supposed to be his hair, and it's either here at the studio's insistence (which is terrible) or at Groucho's own instigation (which is worse).
The most insoluble mystery of all, however, is why it's so bad. Bogart and Bing and Bud Abbot and many another old star went to work touped up, as, almost certainly, is Chico in this very film. But there are wigs and there are very much wigs, and what Groucho's got perched on his head is one of those very much wigs.
18:44: "Well, after a fashion. And a pretty old fashion. And I wish I had an Old Fashioned."
Shall we all go off and try, and meet back at the P.T. Barnum joke, in, say, twenty minutes?
19:12: "Think you're the greatest circus owner since P.T. Barnum. Isn't it a P.T. we never met before?"
If by any chance you need reminding about Peety, all the basic facts are here.
As to the line itself - I'm expecting dissent, but I think it's pretty funny, and made funnier still by Harpo's facial expressions. Too much of the dialogue in this film is just senseless word-play (like "Either this coat's inhabited or I'm inhibited" at 19:31, which doesn't mean anything at all). This, by contrast, always makes me chuckle, though others find it too silly. 'Oh, honestly,' they say to me, 'that's just silly!' We have pretty much the same argument about "It's m'steak and I want it!" in A Night in Casablanca.
To be honest, even if they'd left the Hackenbush song (a conscious imitation of Hello, I Must Be Going that has never really struck me as all that good) in Races, this would still be a revelation.
The fact that they didn't makes it seem like a gift from God. Suddenly, from nowhere, and just when you least expect it: the first original Groucho comic song since Paramount!
This surprise reinstatement of the Groucho specialty number, and especially the reference therein to Captain Spaulding, is presumably what this bizarre publicity piece (from the Los Angeles Times of April 17th, 1939) means by "will class as a musical... and will also reflect back on some of the earlier features in which the comedians appeared like The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers."
As to the suggestion of a song called 'Oh, the Elephant Never Forgets', I think that can be safely put down to Louis B. Mayer's short-lived decision to pay his publicists their salaries before lunchtime.
The only thing that took the edge off Lydia for me - very, very slightly - was the fact that I already knew it from another source - and I don't mean The Philadelphia Story. I am of course referring to Kermit the Frog, and one or the other of the first two Muppet Show LPs. (I think it's the first one; Andrew Smith will know for sure.)
Even if familiar from elsewhere, however, it still shines as one of the two unquestioned masterpiece moments in the film. (I especially like the joyousness with which it is performed, with all the extras joining in, Chico grinning from ear to ear, and Harpo leaping up and down.)
Our pal Mr David Cory dissects Lydia here (not as gory as it sounds), and thus saves me the trouble of identifying all of the many sights and individuals with which the young lady has had herself decorated.
Most interesting for me - apart from the perennial Mendel Picasso mystery - is his more correct and contemporary explanation of 'over on the west coast we have Treasure Island', which I always took to be a reference to the R.L. Stevenson one. (Intriguing, too, to learn that it was written in conscious emulation of Gilbert and Sullivan, with whom Groucho was obsessed, and with records of whose work he used to sing along, to a degree that discouraged guests and contributed towards his divorces.)
As is well known, the couplet "When she stands, the world gets littler / When she sits, she sits on Hitler" was deleted before shooting on the grounds that it might lead to a second world war. But my personal favourite lines are the following:
She has eyes that folks adore so,
And a torso even more so,
Lydia, oh Lydia (etc)
Ironically, however, from childhood and until more recently than I care to admit cold sober, I had always heard this as:
She has eyes that folks adore,
So annatour, so even more,
So Lydia, oh Lydia (etc)
What did I think 'annatour' meant? I don't recall ever giving it a hell of a lot of thought, to be honest, but I suppose I must have taken it for a French term for desirable, or seductive, or svelte... though I'm not sure it's possible to have svelte eyes... anyway, I prefer the correct version, which isn't always the case. (I still prefer "No matter if he's imferooferdoofer or Japan" in I Always Get My Man.)
Incidentally, the real tattooed lady at the 1939 World's Fair was not Lydia, but Betty Broadbent...
(Still more on Betty here.)
But the Lydia revelations don't even come to a halt there, no sirree!
A fascinating new angle on the whole business is offered for the first time here, by friend of the site Rodney Stewart Hillel Tryster.
It's enough to sweep an admiral clear off his feet.
23:15 Gibraltar the ape
A Mr Gibralter (sic) shows up in Time For Elizabeth, which according to Norman Krasna, Groucho and he had already begun writing. It's just possible that Groucho carried over this extremely unlikely surname from this film at the same time.
27:50: "Hors d'oeuvre!"
A pleasant enough innovation for Groucho: the exclamation of random foreign phrases as he embarks upon or compels a course of action.
28:30: "Maybe I'm Captain Flagg!"
this comic book super hero. But as he made his first appearance in 1941, that would be impossible, to say nothing of unlikely. Personally, I have my doubts.
It seems certain, therefore, that what Groucho in fact says is, "Maybe I'm Captain Flagg!", as in Quirt and Flagg, the popular character played definitively, both in films and on radio, by Victor McLagen.
You know, this dude.
30:45: "Who on this train smokes cigars... or heavy underwear?"
One of those lines, like the one in A Day at the Races about the pigeons, that is seemingly devised only to baffle and frustrate me in my efforts to compile this series of posts. And while the pigeons may be safely attributed to crossover from some missing scene or previous draft, this seems to be a perfectly straightforward, self-contained little joke... that I don't understand in the slightest. Who on this train smokes cigars, or heavy underwear? Who out there can explain to me what this means?
I'm not even certain what 'heavy underwear' itself means. I got this far, but that's not really very far, all things considered.
UPDATE: Joe Adamson says he's just saying it's a bad cigar ("like referring to 'El Ropo'" - which I also had to go and look up!) Still somewhat in the dark, but that certainly helps...
UPDATE ON THE UPDATE: Oh, okay. 'Heavy underwear' is what we call thermals: extra thick and warm long underwear. And the cigar smells bad, like this thick cloth being burned.
31:30: The cigar scene
It's usually criticised as a) a misreading of the character and logic of the Chico-Groucho encounters (in that Chico's constant locating of one more cigar is just bovine rather than slyly irrational or absurd), and b) not funny.
Sometimes the complaint is made as 'a) and additionally b)', but usually as 'a) therefore b)'.
For myself, I must start by saying that the scene always makes me laugh, so I have to disagree with b). I think I also disagree on principle with the logical necessity of the formulation 'a) therefore b)', in that I think a thing can be a) and not necessarily b), though of course it might be.
If we're talking about the really great Chico-Groucho scenes, from 'why a duck' up to and including the contract tearing scene, then I really do think it has to be be conceded that the Tutsi Fruitsi Ice Cream routine also qualified as a). I also think that most of the perceived flaws in Chico's behaviour here could also be levelled at his almost malevolently obtuse reasoning in the Cocoanuts auction scene, which I'd certainly say is about as far from being b) as is possible in this imperfect world. Chico's certainly not behaving as impossibly stupidly here as he is with the badges in the first Groucho sequence.
It's not wildly inventive, of course, or an all-time classic scene. But still, I enjoy it, all in all; in particular I am amused by the sheer relentlessness with which he finds the cigars, the way Harpo produces the enormous box of matches and lolls about on the floor with them, and the way they bump their heads every time they stand up. I think the humour with the cigars is not so much in the fact that he keeps finding "just one more", though it's partly that; it's also that he keeps expecting Groucho to be pleased, no matter how often he has the true state of affairs explained to him (shades, now I come to think of it, of the soda fountain scene in Laurel and Hardy's Men O'War),
I like the comedy of repetition, so this all works okay for me. Oh heck, I seem to be all out of cigars...
32:55: "Bad luck: three on a midget!"
As Chico rightly says, it's a superstish: Groucho is of course referring to the old saw that it is bad luck to use the same match to light three cigarettes (three on a match). This is commonly thought to refer back to the First World War, because to keep a light burning for the length of time necessary to light three fags would enable an enemy sniper to target you. In fact, its origins are slightly more mysterious, and its date of first use not conclusively known. Also used as the title of a cracking movie from Warner Brothers with Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak thusly courting fate.
35:08: "No, but I'm getting tobacco heart!"
Rapid irregular heart rate believed to result from heavy tobacco use.
35:19: "I told you to eat corn flakes for breakfast, not the goldenrod!"
edible wildflower, so Chico is presumably positing an allergic reaction to its pollen.
39:53: "There must be some way of getting that money, without getting in trouble with the Hays office!"
Groucho's rumination at the sight of Peerless Pauline secreting Jeff's stolen money in her bosom is probably the most famous joke in the film, which of course references the administration of the Hollywood Production Code by which films were censored, named after Will Hays.
It occurs to me, though, that it was very sporting of the Office to let even that line pass: I can't see how it differs, in censorable terms, from the straightforward tit joke it pretends to be circumnavigating. If he had made any other comment about the task of getting to the money in its present location, they surely would have acted purely on the nature of the inference. So what's the difference?
45:24: "I guess Emily Post was right. A girl should never propose to a man."
Post (1872-1960) was an American famous for her writings on the subject of etiquette. Her 1922 Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home is a classic of the 'don't eat peas with a knife' genre, and has been updated several times, most recently in 2012, by her descendants. And still, via her institute, the work goes on.
46:40: "And yours truly, who could certainly use the money, for Jeff."
What is it about that "for Jeff" that makes the heart sink? After all, the Marx Brothers have been helping people out, and helping young lovers out, and catching villains out (all in their fashion, of course) since film number one. But there's something so craven about this; it's as painful, in its way, as watching him leap with fear at that train whistle at 29:12.
46:43: "Goodbye, Mr Chimps"
Groucho bids adieu to Gibraltar by mangling the title of James Hilton's novel Good-bye, Mr Chips (1934), the sentimental story of a beloved old English schoolmaster. It famously reduced to tears Harpo's normally waspish Algonquin pal Alexander Woollcott, who called it "a tender and gentle story as warming to the heart and as nourishing to the spirit as any I can remember."
The joke also makes for a nice little bit of free publicity for another MGM movie of the same year, directed by Sam Wood (now well out of the Marxes' range, after their post-Thalberg prestige plummet).
Because the presentation of the acts is a stereotypical one the scene is controversial with modern audiences, but it went over like gangbusters in 1939, ironically in part by appealing to the same spirit of universal fraternalism that has retrospectively thumbed its nose.
(To which I will only add that audiences yet unborn might be just as baffled by our own comparable unconcern for the supporting cast of mournful elephants and confined, pacing tigers, and the three lions crammed into a single cage, forced to join Harpo and his friends in their antics. The point being that it's important to remember that at any one moment most of us are good people, facing forward and imploring the times to keep up with us, and unless we genuinely scent malice, we should be as generously understanding of our grandparents' naivete as we would hope our grandchildren will be of ours. Why didn't they see it was patronising? For the same reason we don't all notice those pathetic lions: because it wasn't so obvious then, not because they were any less whole than we are.)
'Swingali' refers to Svengali, the Russian hypnotist of Gerald du Maurier's Trilby, the suggestion being that Harpo and his music have hypnotic powers.
48:34: "He waves that Toscaninian hand"
51:18: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
A brief snatch of this famous melody for the second Marx film in a row - for American audiences, at least. This time, it wasn't inexplicably overdubbed so as not to confuse the British...
54:27: "What a brawl that was. Well, here I am, after the brawl is over!"
After the ball is over,
After the break of morn
After the dancers' leaving,
After the stars are gone
The sheet music sold over five million copies, making it the best selling song in Tin Pan Alley's history, and prior to this film it had been revived in two 1936 movies: Show Boat and MGM's San Francisco.
61:30: Searching Goliath's room
After Two Blind Loves gets a second working over from the gruesome twosome, we arrive at the classic scene of the movie; the one sustained comic sequence that would not only fit but still shine in any of their other movies. Here, at last, we have not just comic invention but true, liberating comic absurdity, whereby each funny idea not only tops its predecessor but also happily undermines it.
The premise is that Harpo and Chico want to search the strongman's room for the stolen loot, but he's in there, asleep. So they have to search his cabin without waking him. The following elements all strike me as top drawer Marx comedy:
1. Though the room is small, Chico suggests they look in different places, and meet up again in the middle of the room. Harpo marks a chalk cross on the floor for reference.
2. Though comic suspense is supposedly being milked from the prospect of Goliath waking and finding them, they pull him about with complete abandon, and when he does begin to stir, the sound of Chico singing 'Rockabye Baby' in his ear is enough to send him instantly back to sleep.
3. Harpo, characteristically, is far more interested in amusing himself than performing the intended task, and when he accidentally turns on a fan and makes a snowstorm of some feathers from a shredded pillow, he opts to impersonate Santa Claus by stuffing a pillow up his jumper, making a beard out of a towel and loudly ringing a bell. This is already hilarious, given what he's supposed to be doing (and not doing) but the real masterstroke for me is that Chico, instead of angrily stopping him, capitulates likewise to the joy of the moment and joins in. No longer merely making a noise sufficient to wake somebody, they are creating an almighty din through which it would be impossible for anybody to sleep. "Hey, Sandy Claus!" Chico shouts delightedly, "it looks like a white Christmas!", and all the while Harpo is grinning manically and clanging the bell. Then they suddenly remember what they're doing, and shush each other, and all is well.
4. The grotesque and strikingly non-MGM-ish final image of Harpo vomiting feathers.
67:50: The 'great scheme'
What is the plan exactly? I don't really get it. Groucho has conned Dumont into thinking he is Jardinet's representative, so he can give Jeff the money to pay off his creditors. But how does bringing the circus to her party help? Why is that part of his great scheme? Or am I missing something?
69:48: The banquet scene
Not really a self-contained comedy sequence, but plenty of big laughs, I'd say, from the very start, as Groucho loudly counts the number of guests arriving and concludes with, "They all showed up, looks like no second helpings." Probably as many good, funny Groucho lines here as in the whole rest of the film: "Good evening, frieeeeeends!"; "now let's lap up the vittles!"; "Elephants, at your age!"; "Can I quote you on that?"; "Mrs Dukesbury's friends are my friends! I'll take care of him!"; "Take this bearded symphony down to the bandstand."
Then there's the downright jaw-dropping moment when a giraffe runs its long tongue up Dumont's back and she giggles on the assumption it's Groucho, and his superb method of stalling for time: making everybody wait while he has "another cup of coffee". A lovely shot of him taking alternating sips from a whole battery of cups, too, which is a good example of the visual extending/subverting the basic joke. Well done all round.
77:02: Step up again and take a bow again
And you thought Margaret Dumont getting turned on by a giraffe's tongue was unnecessarily kinky. Wait till you see your dismay at the prospect of this number also getting a reprise give way to fascinated horror as it is performed not by Florence with a horse but by Florence performing as the horse, with encouraging little taps from Kenny's whip. Hard enough to imagine what we're supposed to get from that, but what Dumont's guests are supposed to make of it, completely unfamiliar with the original routine as they are, is beyond supposition. (But they do love it; indeed they love the whole show. Those stuffed shirts may come out for Jardinet, but what they really want is a circus hosted by a loved-up pair of crooning sadomasochists.)
79:05: "Suzie would like to mumble a little double-talk in Esperanto."
Or, in Esperanto: "Suzie ŝatus murmuri iom duobla-diskuto en Esperanto", Esperanto being an artifically constructed 'universal language', invented in 1887 by one L.L. Zamenhof and intended as "an easy-to-learn, politically neutral language that would transcend nationality and foster peace and international understanding between people with different languages." (Wikipedia).
79:20: The circus finale
A further admisson of the fact that the Marxes are now just another bunch of movie clowns: their first ever pure slapstick climax. Reasonable trickwork and a few good laughs, but it's all very anonymous. Groucho's running commentary is quite funny: "Keep calm, folks, it's all part of the show!", when in fact it isn't, and the people are in real danger. Likewise "Swing your lady!" and "I hope he's got two pair of pants with that suit!" are funny not because they are amusing in themselves but because they are his response to something that could easily result in multiple deaths.
81:12: "And there goes Seabiscuit!"
82:38: The end
The gorilla counts the money and confirms it's all there, and blissfully unaware that they drifting further and further out to see, Jardinet and his orchestra play on.
Who would have guessed that At the Circus might deliver the best ending of any Marx Brothers movie?