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At the Circus

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Title: At the Circus  
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Subject: Marx Brothers, Eve Arden, Lydia the Tattooed Lady, Kenny Baker (American performer), James Burke (actor)
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At the Circus

At the Circus
Directed by Edward Buzzell
Produced by Mervyn LeRoy
Written by Irving Brecher
Buster Keaton (uncredited)
Laurence Stallings (uncredited)
Starring Groucho Marx
Chico Marx
Harpo Marx
Margaret Dumont
Eve Arden
Kenny Baker
Music by Harold Arlen
Cinematography Leonard M. Smith
Edited by William H. Terhune
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates
  • October 20, 1939 (1939-10-20)
Running time
87 minutes
Country United States
Language English

At the Circus (also called The Marx Brothers at the Circus) is a 1939 Marx Brothers comedy film released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in which they save a circus from bankruptcy. The movie is notable for Groucho Marx's classic rendition of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady". The supporting cast includes Margaret Dumont, Eve Arden, Florence Rice and Kenny Baker.


  • Plot 1
  • Cast 2
  • Production notes 3
  • Musical numbers 4
  • Reception 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


Goliath, the circus strongman (Nat Pendleton, one of the Darwin football players in Horse Feathers) and the midget, Little Professor Atom (Jerry Maren) are accomplices of the bad guy John Carter (James Burke) who is trying to take over the Wilson Wonder Circus. Jeff Wilson's girlfriend, Julie Randall (Florence Rice), performs a horse act in the circus. In the animal car on the circus train, Goliath and Atom knock out Jeff Wilson (Kenny Baker) and steal $10,000, which Jeff owes Carter. But they unintentionally leave a cigar as evidence.

Tony (Chico) summons Groucho, as attorney J. Cheever Loophole, to handle the situation. Loophole caves in when he sees the muscular Goliath, and gets nowhere with Little Professor Atom. Loophole's attempts to obtain a cigar from Atom to compare with the one found at the scene of the crime are foiled by Tony, who each time offers to give him one of his own cigars. In order to help Wilson, he first tries to get the hidden money from Carter's moll, Peerless Pauline (Eve Arden), but fails. Tony and Punchy search Goliath's stateroom on the circus train for the money, but are unsuccessful.

Loophole later calls upon Jeff's wealthy aunt, Mrs. Dukesbury (Margaret Dumont), and tricks her into paying $10,000 for the Wilson Wonder Circus to entertain the Newport 400, instead of a performance by French conductor Jardinet (Fritz Feld), and his symphony orchestra. The audience is delighted with the circus; when Jardinet arrives, Loophole, who also delayed the Frenchman by implicating him in a dope ring, disposes of the conductor and his orchestra by having them play on a floating bandstand down at the water's edge.

Tony and Punchy cut the mooring rope while the orchestra plays the Prelude to Act Three of Wagner's Lohengrin, Meanwhile, Carter and his henchmen try to burn down the circus, but are thwarted by Loophole, Tony and Punchy, along with the only witness to the robbery - Gibralter the gorilla (Charles Gemora), who also retrieves Wilson's ten thousand dollars.


Production notes

Groucho Marx and Eve Arden in the trailer for At the Circus

Buster Keaton worked on the film as a gag man. His career was on the downside and he was forced to work for scale. His complex and sometimes belabored gags did not work well with the Marx Brothers' brand of humor, and was a source of friction between the comedian and the group.[1] When Groucho called Keaton on the inappropriateness of his gags for the Marx Brothers, Keaton responded, "I'm only doing what Mr. Mayer asked me to do. You guys don't need help."[2]

Hundreds of girls applied for the film, with eighteen finally chosen after "rigid tests." They had to be expert ballet dancers, have good singing voices, and they had to be able to prove all this by doing a toe-dance on a cantering bareback horse, while singing in key. Four of the girls were former circus riders. Several of the other girls had ridden in rodeos, either professionally or as amateurs, and the rest had been riding most of their lives.[3]

The name of Groucho's character in this film, J. Cheever Loophole, recalls that of real-life financier J. Cheever Cowdin, who had ties to the film industry. In 1936, Cowdin led a group of investors who had loaned $750,000 to Carl Laemmle and his son Carl Laemmle, Jr., to finance the film Show Boat. Before the release of the film, the investors demanded repayment, but the Laemmles did not have the funds to pay it back. Because of this, Cowdin was able to take control of the Laemmle's Universal Pictures studio and served as the company's president until 1946. Show Boat proved to be a financial success and, had the loan not been called for repayment until after the film's release, the Laemmles would have been able to repay the loan and retain ownership of their film production company.

Groucho was aged 48 during the filming of At the Circus, and his hairline had begun receding. As such, he took to wearing a toupee throughout and would do the same for the following film, Go West.

One of Groucho's oft repeated stories about the film concerned the gorilla skin that an actor wore. On the Dick Cavett show he said that the actor was too hot inside the skin under the bright lights, and it was summer, and during lunch he went to the cafeteria and poked 40 holes in it with an icepick. The manager of the gorilla skin got to hear of this and took the skin away. MGM scoured the neighborhood of San Diego for a replacement, but could only find a skin from an orangutan, which is only half the size of a gorilla, and they had to hire a midget to be inside it. In case you think Groucho was kidding, you can see the midget ape in the last 10 minutes of the film. He said he got hundreds of letters about this, and some viewers he happened to meet asked him how come the gorilla got smaller in the second half.

Musical numbers


Reviews from critics were generally not as positive as those for earlier Marx Brothers films. Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times wrote that "in all charity and with a very real twinge of regret we must report that their new frolic is not exactly frolicsome; that it is, in cruel fact, a rather dispirited imitation of former Marx successes, a matter more of perspiration that inspiration and not at all up to the standards (foot-high though they may be) of daffy comedy."[4] Variety called the film "broad, ribald fun in familiar pattern to early pictures of the Marx Bros."[5] Film Daily wrote, "The mad Marxmen have never been funnier, nor have they had a better story in which to cavort than 'At the Circus'."[6] Harrison's Reports called it "about the worst Marx picture seen in years ... Children should enjoy it, but hardly any adults."[7] John Mosher of The New Yorker wrote that the Marxes seemed to be trying harder in this picture than they were in Room Service, "but the achievement of novelty or surprise, the true Marx note, is never apparent."[8] The November 11, 1939 Ottawa Citizen described the film as "a veritable riot of hilarity" and "possibly the nuttiest of the films that Groucho, Chico and Harpo have perpetuated."[9]


  1. ^ Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes Zeppo. 
  2. ^ Mitchell, Glenn (2006). The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia. London, UK: Reynolds & Hearn. p. 164.  
  3. ^ "Versatility Required In Marx Bros. Film". The Montreal Gazette (Montreal). Jan 2, 1940. Retrieved 19 May 2013. 
  4. ^ The New York Times Reviews, Volume 3: 1939-1948. New York: The New York Times & Arno Press. 1970. p. 1653. 
  5. ^ "Film Reviews".  
  6. ^ "Reviews of the New Films".  
  7. ^ "At the Circus".  
  8. ^  
  9. ^ "Picture Theaters At the Motion". Ottawa Citizen (Ottawa). Nov 11, 1939. Retrieved 19 May 2013. 

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