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Monday, June 06, 2022

The Circus Being No Place for Marx Bros ...


More of Marx Comedy for Metro

The first MGM Marx Bros. comedy not road-tested in live theatres prior to production. Did failure of A Day at the Races ($543K loss) disincline the studio toward that added expense? Groucho thought tours an only sure way to make sure thing of Marx routines. Did he ask for, and did Leo refuse, the accommodation? If so, it was harbinger of tight times to come, for little else spoke so loud to diminished confidence in the team. Marx comedy was increasingly a matter of set pieces spotted throughout story otherwise wan, so these had to work for overall effect, being all an audience could take away from experience of seeing At The Circus or whatever the boys engaged. They had not been on a proper stage for years (other than tryouts for movie routines), let alone Broadway, and crowds forgot what panics The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers had been. Some execs, if not a public at large, saw the Marx Bros. as upscaled Wheeler/Woolsey, or any team in comedic decline. Still there was $250,000 for Marx trio to share from each of three Metro pledged them to, and we wonder if regrets did not accompany ink as it dried upon such contract, especially with guiding light Thalberg gone and less sympathetic others to handle chore the Marxes increasingly were.

At The Circus
was done for less than A Day at the Races ($1.3 versus $1.7 million), and again, there was red ink ($492K). Less writers would contribute, Irving Brecher getting sole scribe credit. Surely others took part, but Brecher insisted to an end that it was all his. Louis Mayer was said to be at the least ambivalent re Marx Bros. Groucho had insulted him on occasion, foolishly so based on accounts. L.B. asked once how a picture was going and Grouch replied that it was none of his concern. How impolitic was that in a business where relationships were key? Mayer might forebear were the team still hot, but based on ticket performance, I could envision him suggesting the team “retire” from features, at least ones produced by MGM. The Thalberg formula was used again, and why not? Here was an act limited severe for vehicles to suit them, song and story imposed still to relieve Marx madness, only they were less mad than hapless helpmates to romance relief in person of Kenny Baker and Florence Rice, two who made Allen Jones and Kitty Carlisle seem like MacDonald/Eddy by comparison.

There are anecdotes to effect of Marxes, individually and together, lighting hot foots to propriety in/out of Hollywood through the 30's --- was this frustrated compensation for movies they knew weren't as funny? These were older men now, mature when they began filming (1929), mischief likelier dreamt by press agents put to task of keeping them in character whether cameras turned or not. Routines throughout At the Circus might look alright on paper, but fall flat for poor staging, off-timed edits. The director was Eddie Buzzell, friendly with the Brothers (stage and vaude) before he became a Metro factory man. Now he wore a leash and wouldn't chance front office slap for seeing things Marx way. The idea was to start and finish At The Circus on assembly terms. So, whose wrong idea was it to put the Marx Bros. under a Big Top? --- freaks among freaks was how it turned out --- and imagine squirm for 60/70's college viewers during twelve-minute wait after credits for Groucho to even show up. Salaried Buster Keaton was sent over to furnish gags, Grouch wondering why this guy might imagine he’d make funnies. Keaton said later that Marxes could never be located at a same time so work might commence. If that was the case, and progress was slowed, why keep them around to fulfill the final two per agreement (Go West, The Big Store)?

Wisecracking To the End --- Even Lobby Card Captions Aren't Spared

In fairness, Groucho didn't want any part of At the Circus, having written off movies after Thalberg passed. Latter was firewall against a front office that never much liked them, less studio effort on Marx behalf a sure sign that things could only get worse. Grouch was habitually unhappy with gags as firm-submitted … what was amusing in the morning would not seem so by lunch. Most comedians were insecure --- how to know if watchers hundreds or thousands of miles distant would eventually laugh? Groucho said, and often, that his lousy movies ended up in crumb-dump cinemas little better than holes he and brothers played through upward struggle, everything after Thalberg going bad to worse. Not hard to understand why in senior years he preferred not to be reminded of the last three at Metro. There was comfort to think At the Circus would fade quick from screens and embarrass Groucho no further. Would he have done the thing at all if he knew it would play revivals all the way to the end of his long life?

And yet there was effort applied here, albeit by ones not fully in grasp of what a good Marx Bros. comedy should be. Evidence suggests there were better situations to start that for whatever reason got discarded. This had been a case before, even Duck Soup monkeyed with and possibly denuded. Ad-libs were expected of the team, so however precise a watch got wound in advance, they'd have their singular way with it. But was that always to the good, or was what got left behind better? We’ll never know as to that. These comics rose or fell on quality of writing. Just because they looked funny and acted that way was no assurance the Brothers could be so for ninety minutes or more. Not one or combined effort of three could save a failing enterprise. To the Marxes, this was work done for a price, Groucho vexed over script quality or its lack, Chico and Harpo earning theirs, then onward to greater priorities. Grouch was pack leader for at least in part caring … we feel load he bore that was At The Circus.

Abandon of their Broadway work could not be recaptured on chalk marks drawn at Metro. Maybe this is what made Circus a war not worth fighting for Chico/Harpo. Life had been free, easy, and fun during stage days, with an audience always there to reward them, while on a sound stage, no gag seemed funny from hindsight of ten takes and counting. I’ll guess Chico had a better time performing with his orchestra in years after At The Circus, but it took a lot of supper clubs to match what one movie paid, plus Chico gambled ... ruinously so. How often do you suppose Groucho or others made him take a pledge? It's easy to knock At the Circus when you watch alone, which again brings up the question: How does this perform to an audience? Did they/Do they laugh? There is a You Tube committee that might answer, a panel of experts that do podcasts second to none for Marx lore. These are fans who have come to the table later than ones supping for fifty plus years, and theirs I must say is a fresher output of appreciation and insight. Listen to any broadcast from The Marx Brothers Council, there are 46 so far, one I particularly enjoy about the notorious Groucho plus Richard Anobile Scrapbook devoted to the team, featuring guest Nick Santa Maria, whose intros and presentations so enlivened last week’s Columbus (Ohio) Moving Picture Show. HERE be where the Council dwells, a must of an address for those who revere the Marx Brothers and want to learn more about them.


Blogger Rodney said...

I saw At the Circus at a revival house in Cincinnati back in the early/mid 90's, and my memory is of it playing very well with an audience. I was but a teenager and had no idea that this was lesser Marx. I thought it was great.

11:14 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Delighted to hear that AT THE CIRCUS had a well-received revival run, especially as late as the early/mid 90's. Thanks for that info, Rodney.

11:18 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

I remember that Harpo cut loose a symphony orchestra on a floating bandstand, and we'd periodically see them drifting further out to sea as they played, oblivious to a passing ship and their own peril. It was funny but at the end it bothered me; I worried about them. Wish they'd had shown them drifting into a foreign port, or onto a tropical beach.

It must be noted that the film did give us "Lydia the Tatooed Lady" and Groucho's upside-down bit with Eve Arden. And Groucho worked up a long, funny story about why the gorilla is visibly different in some scenes. The final Marx epics may be disappointing, but they're never flat-out awful -- unlike some other comic stars who stayed too long at the fair.

The "Big Store" may be more entertaining now than it was at first release, since the non-Marx material offers modern viewers ironic laughs -- mostly when it's trying to be funny. I remember Tony Martin's "Tenement Symphony" going over big with a 70s college crowd. Was that meant to be a hoot, or cultural uplift to balance the bill?

3:25 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I had a 16mm print of AT THE CIRCUS. I cut the song in the diner. The film was vastly improved. Then I kept the tag of the song as the couple left the diner. That got a huge laugh. Try it with your digital copies if you have them.

5:37 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

No sympathy from me. United Artists offered the Marxes carte blanche for writers and producers. RKO promised them interesting projects like "Of Thee I Sing". Instead, they took the money at Metro. Groucho's complaints ring hollow.

And why would Brecher want to claim sole credit on a movie like that?

5:42 PM  
Blogger IA said...

"At the Circus" has a single genuinely great sequence in "Lydia the Tattooed Lady." Groucho's performance of that wonderfully witty song suggests that even if the rest of the movie was a slog he must have loved filming "Lydia." But everything else in the film is forgettable. As Joe Adamson observed, the circus is exactly the wrong place for the Marx Brothers. As a comedy team they existed to let the stuffing out of the high and mighty. In a circus they're lost among the other freaks.

"Go West" at least had good opening and closing sequences (the latter almost certainly had input from Buster Keaton). "Circus" had a great song but little else, though that still gives it an advantage over the feeble and lifeless "Big Store." "A Night in Casablanca" has very little first-rate material but its overall quality and vitality beats any of the other post-Thalberg Marxes.

9:18 PM  
Blogger Bob Gassel said...

Thanks for your nice words about our podcast.

One of our biggest issues regarding "At The Circus" concerns Groucho, not only does he looks different with an awful toupee, but his performance is very strange...he seems over-caffeinated and way too full of energy, forsakes his usual measured delivery and sarcasm, and basically comes across as a bad Groucho impersonator. In fact, the funniest scene in the film, where Chico and Harpo search the strongman's cabin, doesn't even include him.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The movie going experience is one mean to be experienced not with a few friends of similar mind but with hundreds and thousands of strangers. As one who has experienced these films with such audiences more times than most here even the poorest of The Marx Brothers' pictures brings audiences to paroxysms of laughter. A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA knocks 'em dead.

12:18 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

Yes, I remember the final three MGM Marx films really came to life in front of the audience I saw them with in 1972.

11:12 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Sometimes I wish their act had included identical-twin Grouchos instead of just the one.

3:18 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

Yeah, I never understood the need for the toupee in AT THE CIRCUS and GO WEST. By the time they made THE BIG STORE, I guess MGM had given up on the trio. Groucho went au naturel, although he had a side part, which I don't think he ever had when playing "Groucho". My general opinion of MGM comedies with the great clowns is, the films would gave been better with other performers. The material never seemed to be tailored to the actual style or characterizations of the stars.

6:22 PM  
Blogger tmwctd said...

I´m glad for 'At The Circus' as it gives us 'Lydia' (which Groucho sang numerous times afterwards). A great number which should have been included in one of the "That´s Entertainment'-movies.

1:04 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I've never seen "At The Circus", but I just took a gander at the "Lydia" song excerpted from that movie on Youtube; and I think Bob Gassel is right about Groucho being somehow "off" in this - even from this short excerpt it seems to me that that isn't quite the same Groucho I'm used to seeing - but where the difference is in this performance as compared to the earlier films is difficult to describe, or to put a finger on. But Mr. Gassel is right, it is definitely different than before. It's odd.

10:10 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Groucho is 49 in "AT THE CIRCUS." He has to wear a wig. Irving Thalberg had castrated them (as he did everything he touched) to make them safe. So, yes, something is missing.

8:17 AM  
Blogger tmwctd said...

Is Groucho singing Lydia really that different from him singing "Sing While You Sell"?

1:58 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Watching "Lydia" again and comparing it to "Sing While You Sell", and then also watching "Hello I Must Be Going" from 'Animal Crackers', I now think my real problem with "Lydia" boils down to Groucho's hairstyle in that film - it just looks weird.
But I find Groucho's dancing consistently amusing in all three performances; and I hadn't truly appreciated until paying attention to these musical numbers just how physical Groucho's comedy act really was, how much of it depended on how he looked and how he moved - I mostly remembered his film parts for his witty repartee, not his physical comedy - and for me, just how good he was at that physical part of his comedy act was brought out by watching the effortlessly funny way he dances in these musical numbers.

11:43 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I wonder if Groucho was trying to inject something akin to humor in a script that was sadly lacking it.

4:45 PM  

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