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At the Circus

A poor MGM Marx Brothers affair. After the relative highs of Opera and Races, there was trouble afoot with The MGM Way of Doing Things. Thalberg wasn’t around anymore, the O-Boys were pushing fifty from various directions, and worst of all that all-important script-tightening tour wasn’t budgeted for. Other setbacks, like the presence of the preternaturally annoying Kenny Baker (the most tedious of the romantic leads in these films, and that’s saying something) and the presence of a bleeding bloody effing bloody circus, were minor by comparison. Among the gagmen was a dumper-bound Buster Keaton, who provided Harpo with Buster Keatonish visual gags – ie whimsical, elaborate and not at all funny – which were promptly rejected. Endless hassles getting hold of a gorilla suit, and a gorilla imitator to wear the gorilla suit, ended up with a highly unconvincing lesser ape impersonator in the mangiest skin this side of the Ritz Brothers’ The Gorilla. (Rather wonderfully, many gorilla fans, upon witnessing the taxidermic travesty, demanded – and got – their money back.)

Things that work here are largely the things that always did, albeit less so – Groucho arguing with Chico (who smuggles him onto a train and throws him off at the same time), Groucho and Margaret Dumont, Groucho and the ‘Newport 400’, and Chico and Harpo breaking and entering a strongman’s dressing room. Everything else is rubbish – the ‘modern’ (all neon-lit) circus tent, the endless musical interludes (with Lydia the Tattooed Lady being an honourable exception), Kenny Bloody Baker, and the climactic scene with people flying about on strings while that ‘gorilla’ runs amok, which almost certainly wasn’t meant to look that odd. Tune in half an hour late and switch off five minutes before the end and you’ll be doing OK.



  1. Richardpd

    January 16, 2024 at 11:00 pm

    Supposedly some of the scripts used to simply say “Harpo does something funny” because he could usually improvise something better than the scriptwriters could come up with, even a down on his luck Buster Keaton! By this time Keaton was on the MGM payroll as a gag writer to make ends meet, & admited the Marxes didn’t really require his services.

    The Gorilla suit was very hot to wear under the studio lighting, someone had the idea to poke holes into it to make it cooler, but this lead to it being taken back by the company it was hired off. The only available outfit was orangutan suit, which needed another smaller actor inside.

  2. Sidney Balmoral James

    January 17, 2024 at 7:46 pm

    Poor Buster Keaton did not get on with Groucho Marx – who was a bit of a bastard. Keaton was horrified to discover that Groucho had taught his children how to cheat at cards; the Marx brothers thought Keaton was old hat, and Keaton only really knew how to write for himself. But, before he died, Keaton did see himself acclaimed for the genius he was, thanks to the fortuitous survival of all of his classic films.

  3. Richardpd

    January 17, 2024 at 10:46 pm

    Groucho Marx certainly lived up to his name by being grouchy with people, he even threatened to sue his own son!

    Keaton had a small if significant part in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, showing he could do a speaking part written by others.

    Charlie Chaplin was lucky to have a revival late in life after being given an honorary Oscar, while Harold Lloyd took a time to have a revival because he owned most of his films but hadn’t made a deal to get them screened on TV for a long time.

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