Elephants, at your age


Continuing our journey through the films of the Marx Bros, while ignoring, as much as possible, the Marx Bros.

AT THE CIRCUS is rather good — I have historically undervalued it. It seems to be somehow slightly less memorable than A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES, the first two MGM Marx vehicles, without being any weaker in entertainment terms. There are some very good quips, the slapstick (to which Buster Keaton contributed his gag-writing skills) is often hilarious, Groucho gets one splendid number (Lydia the Tattooed Lady) and a couple of terrific set-piece scenes.

As the movie opens, we have the usual agonizing Wait for Groucho, during which romantic pseudo-leads Kenny Baker and Florence Rice make googly eyes and sing a dull song. As is standard, she is slightly more appealing than him. Kenny Baker lacks his famous namesake’s charisma and novelty size, but he has a squeaky Mickey Mouse voice which some might enjoy, I guess.


Then there’s the usual gruff businessman villain, a Scooby Doo stock figure without charisma, but James Burke does have some really good moments when he’s being attacked by a gorilla in the climax.

About that gorilla — Fiona pointed out that MGM are drawing upon their earlier hit(s), THE UNHOLY THREE. They don’t have a female impersonator hawking mute parrots, but they have a “midget” and a strongman and a mighty jungle beast.

Jerry Maren/Marenghi plays Little Professor Atom (watch his best scene here), looking like a ten-year-old boy if it were not for his dapper pencil mustache. The same year he would join the Lollipop Guild as a munchkin in THE WIZARD OF OZ. The scene in his room, with miniature furniture (Antic Hay!) and endless cigars emerging from Chico’s vest is one of the film’s highlights. One of those great scenes where Chico’s stupidity assumes almost diabolical proportions.

Jerry is still alive! Well, he was only 19 in 1939.


Goliath the strongman is Nat Pendleton, one of Shadowplay‘s favourite heavies, typecast as surly ruffian types. Here he’s initially unrecognizable in a Harpoesque wig and twirly moustache — he at least looks more like a strongman than that sagging hambone in FREAKS. (Sad to see none of the FREAKS ensemble turning up here — Koo Koo would have fitted right into a Marx Bros pic. But there is an appearance by a seal who looks a little like Prince Randian.) Pendleton’s brand of grating menace makes him an ideal Marxian antagonist: Chico and Harpo get another standout scene as they attempt to search his room while he’s sleeping in it. This heavy is a heavy sleeper. This one fizzles out at the very end, but not before building to ridiculous excess.


Gibraltar the ape is another Shadowplay fave, make-up artist and part-time gorilla impersonator Charles Gemora, last seen gluing eyelids to Marlon Brando a few days back. Gibraltar makes the climax of the film the triumph it is (along with Fritz Feld’s irascible conductor, complete with pointy beard for Groucho to mock). He seems not so much dangerous as high-spirited, having a rare old time terrifying people on the flying trapeze, behaving not so much like a jungle beast as like a short Philipino makeup artist who’s just put on a gorilla costume and is having the time of his life.


Rounding out the team of baddies is vamp Peerless Pauline, played by husky-voiced Eve Arden, who has a nice human fly act with Groucho, walking on the ceiling. In the MGM films, Groucho’s horndoggery is dialled down, so he can only flirt with vamps and with Margaret Dumont. Somehow he’s always had a Spider Sense that allows him to detect who the leading lady, so he can restrain his wolfishness when she’s around. (LOVE HAPPY, dismal as it is, at least allows him to resume his moth-eaten lechery with Marilyn Monroe as letch-magnet.)


In shameless and senseless emulation of A DAY AT THE RACES, this movie also features a big production number where a lot of black people appear from nowhere to put on a show. But I quite like the Swingali number — director Edward Buzzell throws in some Dutch tilts for added vigour. The lyric “Is he man or maestro?” harkens back to DUCK SOUP. And he’s more resourceful at filming harp solos, which makes the Harpo interlude about 8% less dull than usual.


Then there’s Dumont, an essential part of the team — more important than the discarded Zeppo, it seems. Giant crane shot at her party — Rosalind Russell supposedly said you can’t do comedy on big sets but Mags makes a chump out of her here. Amidst all the cruelty, it seems a shame that, after her Mrs. Dewksbury has shed her pretensions and settled down to enjoy the big top entertainment (there’s more damn SINGING in this circus than I recall being usual under the big top), she still has to be fired out of a cannon and swung on the trapeze in her bloomers. Overkill! She’s already loosened up. How loose do you want her?

Great image of the orchestra drifting out to sea makes the film’s ending even better — maybe the best Marxian fadeout?


What happens after that fadeout? First violin leads a mutiny against the conductor while the brass section resorts to cannibalism?


11 Responses to “Elephants, at your age”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    I feel the obligation to mention that “Lydia” was written by the WIZARD OF OZ team of Harold Arlen (music) and E.Y. Harburg (words). So was the much less popular “Two Blind Loves.”

  2. There are some comics who thrive in worlds as crazy as they are; others need something to play off of: normalcy, respectability, wealth, seriousness, etc. The Marxes, even at Paramount, needed SOME sanity around them.

    The circus was usually perceived as already having many of the qualities the Marxes imposed on their surroundings. It’s outsized, a little dodgy, and a bit at odds with respectable society. I can see where modern (or even period) audiences might assume Marxes at the circus is either cheating or overkill. It’s a tribute that they manage to remain Marxian against backdrops where they almost blend in.

    That ending always bothered me a little. I would have liked to see the orchestra drifting into a foreign port, causing some drunken wharf rat to toss his bottle into the sea. Or beach themselves on a tropical shore, where the natives take only casual notice as they launch their fishing boats. Or suddenly glide into the path of channel swimmer trying to set a record. Or confuse the heck out of Chuck Heston at the end of “Planet of the Apes” Or …

    Groucho had a tale, possibly blarney, about how the climax featured TWO gorillas of different sizes. According to him, they started with an actor and a gorilla suit, both of whom had agents. When the actor began overheating, he punched some air holes in the costume. The costume’s agent/owner stormed off the set with it. The actor managed to line up another ape suit, but it was conspicuously smaller and they had to replace him with a conspicuously smaller actor.

  3. Well, Charles Gemora was cponspicuously small. Somehow it never matters that his gorillas are tiny, they SEEM huge. I think if you hired his ape suit, you hired him as a matter of course: he probably didn’t let anyone else wear it, even assuming you could find a suitable jockey with thespian ambitions.

    There’s an early Simpsons episode which shows Homer crying at a movie on TV, in which a giant gorilla drifts to sea on a raft. “It’s not fair! Just because he’s different…” sobs the occasionally empathetic Homer. I’m assuming the writers were folding together the two last images of this movie, probably unconsciously.

  4. I have to admit, this line made me do a double take: “But there is an appearance by a seal who looks a little like Prince Randian.”

  5. Groucho vs. Eve Arden is remindful in many ways of Groucho vs. Thelma Todd. Most of the time he was dealing with suckers, but Eve and Thelma are sharpies much like he is.

    And now the inevitable: Kenny Baker Buns Hot

  6. Groucho versus a vamp always makes for a diverting scene. In theory he should want to be seduced so there should be no conflict, but he can’t help playing the insult comedian.

  7. Groucho’s insult approach appears to work on Margaret Dumont, whose character can’t quite believe he’s saying all that. One could argue that he thinks it’s a winning approach.

    Probably unrelated, but a few years ago there was “Mystery”, a heavily hyped Pickup Artist who did TV shows. A big part of his method was constantly chipping away at a woman’s self-esteem from first meeting on.

  8. I think Groucho’s own self-respect demands that he make his true feelings known, secure in the knowledge that Dumont’s character either won’t understand or will erase the insult in a fir of “he couldn’t mean THAT — because he’s saying something NICE now.”

    The pickup thing is horrible, and any resemblance to Groucho purely coincidental, though it at first seems quite strong. For one thing, Dumont’s self-esteem is unassailable, like Gibraltar (the rock or the gorilla).

  9. Steve Burstein Says:

    I think I actually prefer this to RACES, because the straight scenes aren’t as lumberingly stodgy here as in that film.

  10. Yes, revisiting Races I didn’t like it as much as I’d remembered.

  11. […] (Judy Barclay). Florence would immediately  have an encounter after this with the Marx Brothers in At The Circus, making her career at this point very Browning-like, with his connections to travelling circuses […]

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