Watching 1939: At the Circus (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  “At the Circus” (1939)
Musical No. 611

Release date:  Oct. 20, 1939

Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Kenny Baker, Florence Rice, Eve Arden, Margaret Dumont, Nat Pendleton, James Burke, Fritz Feld, Jerry Maren (as Jerry Marenghi), Dudley Dickerson

Studio:  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director:  Edward Buzzell

Jeff Wilson (Baker) runs a circus and has been disinherited by his wealthy aunt (Dumont). When Jeff’s circus finally turns a profit, he plans to marry performer Julie Randall (Rice), but some of the other performers steal the money. Circus performers Antonio Pirelli (Chico Marx) and Punchy (Harpo Marx) hire lawyer Loophole (Groucho Marx) to try to find the money and save the circus.

1939 Notes:
• The only Marx Brothers film released in 1939.
• Kenny Baker was in two films released in 1939. The other was the musical “The Mikado.”
• Florence Rice was in five films released in 1939.
• Eve Arden was in seven films released in 1939. Arden was still on the rise and not quite the sassy dame she came to be later in the 1940s.
• Jerry Maren first entered films in 1939, and this was his fourth film. He was a member of the Lollipop Guild in The Wizard of Oz the same year.

Other trivia: 
• Evelyn Jurs dubbed Florence Rice’s singing.
• 130 Hagenbeck-Wallace Circuscircus performers appear in the film
• Technical advisors to the film included circus performer Anna Merkel and former circus manager S. L. Cronin.
• Jerry Maren is billed as Jerry Marenghi

Notable Songs:
• “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” performed by Groucho Marx
• “Swingali” performed by Dudley Dickerson
• “Step Up and Take a Bow” performed by Florence Rice, dubbed by Evelyn Jurs, and Kenny Baker

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
This review begins with a film confession: Until I watched “At the Circus” (1939) last week for this review – I had never watched a Marx Brothers film. I have a memory of watching a Marx Brothers biography on television as a little kid, but that’s it.

So, “At the Circus” (1939) is my first and only Marx Brothers film. It was the brothers’ ninth film together and the only film the brothers made in 1939.

“At the Circus” (1939) is a mix of musical numbers and zany comedic incidents, lead by Groucho, Harpo and Chico. The backdrop to the jokes is a circus, which is in financial distress. Run by Jeff Wilson, played by Kenny Baker, the performers haven’t been paid. Until he makes some money, Jeff can’t marry his sweetheart – circus performer Julie Randall, played by Florence Rice. Once the circus does make money, it’s stolen by the circus’s strongman (Nat Pendleton) and midget (Jerry Maren) to help outsiders take over the circus.

This is where the Marx Brothers come in. Antonio, played by Chico, works for the circus and tries to help get the money back by hiring attorney Loophole, played by Groucho. With the investigation follows comedic moments, like Harpo and Chico searching the strongman’s room, and Groucho sweet-talking Jeff’s rich aunt Mrs. Dukesbury, played by Marx Brothers regular Margaret Dumont, and tricks her into financing the circus.

You may ask, “Why has Comet Over Hollywood never seen a Marx Brothers movie? She has seen so many musicals and 1939 films and never a Marx comedy?” Well, truth be told, the type of zany humor the Marx Brothers exhibit can really grate on my nerves. I also feel many people grow up on these comedy groups and are introduced to them at an early age. My parents also weren’t fans, so I did not grow up on their films.

However, I enjoyed “At the Circus” more than I thought I would. It helped that it was partially a musical. Groucho Marx’s famous performance of “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” is both catchy and funny – quite the showstopper. I also really enjoyed the lengthy “Swingali” medley, which features singing by Dudley Dickerson and Harpo Marx playing the harp.

For our other leads – Kenny Baker is mediocre in everything I see him in, though moderately pleasant. Though Baker and Dick Powell started in films around the same time, I felt that his style of hair, dress and singing was very similar to Powell. Though not well known today, I always find Florence Rice to be a pleasant presence on screen.

We also have the pleasure of seeing Eve Arden early in her career. Though she had acted in a few films, she wasn’t yet the Eve Arden character that developed in the 1940s with the dry, wry wit. Arden is a mobster’s girlfriend here, who also is a circus performer.

I also love to see Nat Pendleton in anything, even if he is a villain.

Will “At the Circus” spawn a Marx Brothers marathon for me? Probably not. But I was pleasantly surprised by the film.

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