The production of A Day at the Races went into limbo as funeral arrangements were prepared for Irving Thalberg, the film’s heretofore production supervisor and the Marx Brothers’ champion at the otherwise indifferent MGM. “After Thalberg’s death, my interest in the movies waned,” Groucho said. “The fun had gone out of picture making.”
The Fall begins…
While waiting for shooting to restart, Groucho and Chico did another pilot for another radio show. It didn’t get picked up by a network, but would have almost disastrous consequences (more on that later).
Harpo used the suddenly available downtime to get married. For almost four years he had been dating Susan Fleming, a former Ziegfield girl and actress who’d had a featured role in the W.C. Fields comedy Million Dollar Legs (earning her the very creative nickname “The Girl with the Million Dollar Legs” by the Paramount publicity department — someone probably got a raise for thinking that one up). She confessed to being utterly fascinated by Harpo, and proposed at least three times. He always demurred, saying he enjoyed the relationship as it was, and why mess with a good thing? (He was also very aware that his brothers — Gummo aside — all had problematic marriages.) While he was away touring with Scenes From A Day at the Races, Fleming took it upon herself to begin totally redecorating the interior of the Beverly Hills house he shared with a menagerie of dogs, cats, birds, turtles, a squirrel monkey, and roommate Oscar Levant. Harpo took it as a sign (as it was undoubtedly intended to be). “Susan’s a lovely person, and deserves a good husband,” Levant told him. “You’d better marry her before she finds one.” The couple were married on the spur of the moment by a justice of the peace on the second floor of an Orange County firehouse on September 28, 1936. The groom was just shy of 48 years old. Levant moved out, and the Girl with the Million Dollar Legs moved in. As was typical of the era, she retired from show business upon becoming Susan Marx. (As for the more than twenty-five films she appeared in, she felt “they were all junk” anyway.)
Harpo and Susan Marx
Shooting resumed on A Day at the Races in December, with A Night at the Opera’s Margaret Dumont, Sig Ruman, and Allan Jones all returning in similar parts, joined by a newcomer in the ingenue role, Maureen O’Sullivan. The Marx Brothers’ future at MGM would be a short one, if they had any say about it. Their contract with MGM was technically a contract with Thalberg’s production unit within MGM. Thalberg’s brother-in-law, Lawrence Weingarten (whose tone-deaf micromanagement of Buster Keaton’s early MGM work literally drove Buster crazy), took over as production supervisor on the film. The Brothers already knew they wanted out. Louis B. Mayer now had no rival for creative control of MGM’s output, and any supervisor assigned to the Marx Brothers would undoubtedly be a second-rate Mayer yes-man. The terms of their contract stated they could withdraw from their association with MGM if Thalberg were “incapacitated” for longer than four months. Seeing as how Thalberg’s incapacitation was more or less permanent, the Brothers seized the opportunity to escape having to work for the despised Mayer.
On the set of A Day at the Races
But before they could go anywhere, they had to finish A Day at the Races. Director Sam “Twenty Takes of Each Shot” Wood moved at his usual plodding pace (and ranted against Roosevelt to anyone who couldn’t escape his presence), script revisions necessitated endless re-shoots, and as the filming wore on, Groucho — whose marriage to Ruth was falling apart — fell in love with his co-star. Maureen O’Sullivan was a vivacious, twenty-five-year-old Irish-born brunette who was famous at that time for playing Jane in the Johnny Weissmuller series of Tarzan films. O’Sullivan remembered Groucho’s advances as only a friendly flirtation, but others on the production recall Groucho being besotted in a way that was very out of character for him. “I was crazy about her,” he admitted. Groucho seemed to be going through something of a mid-life crisis as his marriage deteriorated and his kids grew older. Although O’Sullivan had fond memories of Groucho, she diplomatically remarked that he wasn’t her type, as he couldn’t hold a normal conversation. “His life was his jokes,” she said.
Compounding Groucho’s erroneous tree-barking was the fact that O’Sullivan had married director John Farrow only sixteen days before Harpo’s nuptials the previous September. (The couple would produce daughter Mia Farrow and six other children). It’s hard to imagine two more opposite types than the steely-eyed, sandy-haired, intensely serious John Farrow and Groucho Marx.
(Off-topic aside: Remember all that hoopla a couple of years back about Mia’s son Ronan actually being fathered by her ex-husband Frank Sinatra and not Woody Allen? Complete with side-by-side photos of Ronan and Frank? There was indeed a resemblance, but you know who else looked an awful lot like Ol’ Blue Eyes? Grandfather John Farrow. The genetics are clearly in place without resorting to dreamed-up paternity conspiracy theories.)
Filming A Day at the Races continued until April 1937, when Wood finally called a wrap. Groucho gave up his hopeless pursuit of O’Sullivan, and booked a trip on an ocean liner to Hawaii to see if he could salvage his relationship with Ruth. They had fallen into a vicious cycle. He was embarrassed by her limited intellect and heavy drinking, and made cutting and disparaging remarks to her constantly. This only fueled her growing alcoholism. The Hawaiian sojourn was a disaster, marked by Groucho’s seasickness and constant ill temper, which drove a boozed-up Ruth into a fling with an onboard dance instructor. It was the end of the marriage, emotionally if not yet legally.
A Day at the Races was released on June 11, 1937. After all those drafts from all those writers, the final screenwriting credit went to George Seaton, Robert Pirosh, and George Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer’s position was originally occupied by Al Boasberg, who objected to being in third place. Not only that, he demanded a special credit reading “Comedy Scenes & Construction by Al Boasberg.” MGM refused, and Boasberg asked that his name be removed from the film entirely. It was, and its place was taken by Oppenheimer. Boasberg did not have long to nurse his hurt feelings. He dropped dead of a massive heart attack exactly one week after the film’s release.
It’s easy to see why Boasberg wanted special credit for the comedy scenes. They’re pretty decent (although not Paramount or Opera level), but they’re not integrated into the main story very well. As they play out, they might as well have a flashing sign on them reading “COMEDY SCENE.” In fact, the comedy scenes (road-tested and audience pre-approved, remember) could be lifted out of the film and shown separately and out of context, and land with the same effectiveness (which is pretty much what the pre-filming tour did).
“Either he’s dead or my watch has stopped”
The plot revolves around a failing sanitarium in the resort community of Sparkling Springs, adjacent to a casino and racetrack. Judy Standish (O’Sullivan) has inherited the facility, and can’t make it turn a profit. If she can’t come up with $5000 by the end of the month, the property will be shut down and get turned into another casino. Judy’s employee, Tony (Chico), proposes getting the money from one of the sanitarium’s few patients, the wealthy (and slightly unhinged) hypochondriac Mrs. Upjohn (Margaret Dumont). Upjohn insists that the only person who can treat her is “Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush” (Groucho — whom she doesn’t realize is actually a veterinarian), and if he can be summoned to the sanitarium to be her personal physician, she will consider bailing them out.
Tony gets Hackenbush on board, but the good doctor has to keep his actual profession secret from Judy’s crooked business manager and his associates. In the meantime, Judy’s boyfriend Gil (Jones) has rather stupidly pinned his hopes on a racehorse he bought with what remained of his savings. Stuffy (“Stuffy”?! — Harpo’s character names continue to get worse and worse) is a recently fired jockey who throws his lot in with the sanitarium-saving crew. Sig Ruman shows up as a Viennese doctor out to expose Hackenbush, leading to a slapstick medical “examination” of Mrs. Upjohn. There is an attempt to replicate A Night at the Opera’s chaotic stateroom scene with a chaotic wallpaper-hanging scene. There is an elaborate (i.e., way too long) “water carnival” sequence that serves as a musical interlude: Harpo’s harp, Chico’s piano, and Jones’ singing. O’Sullivan is no singer as Kitty Carlisle was, so there’s no duet. Jones just holds her by the shoulders and croons “Tomorrow Is Another Day” directly into her face as tears stream down it. (Is she crying over the potential loss of her sanitarium, or because Jones won’t let her escape this nightmare of a ballad?)
As the film moves (slowly) towards its conclusion, there is an uncomfortable sequence between Harpo and a community of Black stable workers that was clearly intended as a bit of sympathetic ‘30s progressivism, but now is tough to watch. Unlike the turgid “Tomorrow Is Another Day,” the jazz-based music in this sequence is quite good, and there is a jitterbug dance sequence that would otherwise be exhilarating, but the whole thing carries a heavy whiff of minstrelsy. (Yes, blackface is involved.)
Anyway, Gil’s horse wins the big race (the twist at the last minute is quite good — I choose to think it was George S. Kaufman’s uncredited work), and the sanitarium is saved.
Groucho and the object of his affection
In fairness, there are some lines outside of the “Comedy Scenes” that made me smile. “Oh, he’s honest,” says Chico of Harpo, “but you gotta watch him a little.” Even non-Marx characters score some laughs. Two sanitarium doctors: “What’s the matter with Mrs. Upjohn?” “Nothing, in its most violent form.” Groucho’s one-liners bat about .400 (excellent for a baseball player, not so hot for comedy dialogue), but the good ones are as good as ever. (“I’ve never been more insulted in all my life!” “Well, it’s early yet.”) Chico and Harpo have their first of many sequences where Harpo attempts to give important information to Chico via charades.
Esther Muir finds herself in the clutches of the Marxes
The MGM production values are on display, as the Marx Brothers still carried the Thalberg association and were considered an A-list property. The sets are elaborate, and the costumes are great. I particularly like Chico’s “house detective” disguise, and Groucho rocks a sleeveless “horse doctor” smock during the exam scenes. (If you don’t know why a horse doctor’s arms need to be bare up to the shoulder, message me and I’ll explain it.) Allan Jones is solid as usual, and you can certainly see what Groucho saw in Maureen O’Sullivan, and why everyone wants to bend over backwards to help her. Esther Muir as a villainess is clearly a Thelma Todd substitute, but she kind of galumphs around and does not come close to replicating Todd’s light comedic touch.
Sad to say, I think Margaret Dumont is a little over-the-top this time. She is Margaret Dumont-ing all over the place so fiercely that her performance comes off as self-parody. The Thalberg-softened, watered-down Marx characters have continued their devolution. Groucho still retains a portion of his former spark, but is terrified of being exposed as a fraud (Paramount Groucho wouldn’t have given a shit, or would have actively courted exposure for his own amusement.) Harpo is once again is introduced as a punching bag for a bullying boss to generate sympathy, and Chico has again tempered his con man instincts with a streak of sentimental sappiness.
The story of A Day at the Races does not reflect the Herculean effort on the part of many, many people to write it, nor do the onscreen results reflect the five-plus months it took to film. At 109 minutes, it is far and away the Brothers’ longest film — and it certainly feels like it. The segments of non-comedic plot and exposition go on interminably. But for many years A Day at the Races was regarded as one of their classics, a near-equal to its predecessor A Night at the Opera, and it actually made more money on its initial release than any other Marx Brothers film. Its reputation’s decline in the modern era is matched by the edgier Duck Soup’s ascension, a switch caused mostly by changing audience tastes. No one has the patience for A Day at the Races’ flavor of old-fashioned 1930s corn anymore (and the blackface doesn’t help).
Groucho and Chico spent the remainder of 1937 getting sued for plagiarism — twice. In the first instance, the offending material was a sketch broadcast on their September 1936 radio pilot. A couple of writers claimed the sketch — “Mr. Dibble and Mr. Dabble” — was their work and they did not receive credit or compensation. The Brothers stated the sketch was written by Al Boasberg, but no one could ask him because he was inconveniently dead. They settled the civil suit out of court, but plead not guilty to criminal charges of copyright violation — and to their amazement, were found guilty. After humiliatingly being booked and fingerprinted, they paid the hefty fines and avoided possible jail time.
Getting sued, 1937
In a second lawsuit, they were sued over material in the Day at the Races screenplay. I can kind of see how the radio show lawsuit was valid (if Boasberg indeed swiped the sketch) because Groucho and Chico were the pilot’s producers, but how could they as performers be sued for words in a screenplay written for them by others? (Harpo seemed uninvolved — maybe because he had no lines?) The court agreed, and the Brothers were eventually dropped from the case. (The case proceeded against MGM itself, and I suppose came to some kind of conclusion, but that’s beyond our scope at this point.) Chico was also involved in his own legal imbroglio when a shady gambler was shot dead with a $2000 check signed by Chico in his pocket. The widow filed suit because the check bounced. At this point, in the words of Marx biographer Simon Louvish, “protecting Chico from the consequences of debts to people who were in the cement overcoat business became a running concern.”
Found guilty but not looking too guilty — Groucho and Chico exit the courthouse (Chico makes a point to never be photographed wearing his glasses, which he carries in his right hand)
(Also in 1937, Salvador Dali wrote a surrealist screenplay for the Brothers. Titled Giraffes on Horseback Salad, it was never seriously considered for production. The long-lost script was discovered in 1996, and a graphic novel adaptation and accompanying soundtrack were produced in 2019.)
In March of 1938, Harpo and Susan adopted the first of what would be four children, one-year-old William Woollcott “Bill” Marx.
Zeppo and Gummo’s agency was very successful at this point. They had over 250 clients, many of them Broadway performers. Gummo was sent back east to head up the New York office. Zeppo handled L.A. business, but did not get involved with the performing Brothers’ affairs. “They probably didn’t think I was good enough,” he said bitterly. (Bitterness seemed to be Zeppo’s defining trait for the rest of his life.) He decided to prove himself, and began to shop around for a new film contract for them.
The Five Marx Brothers in Groucho’s billiards room, late 1930s (when you wore your belt above your navel)
Room Service was the current Broadway sensation. Written by Alan Boretz and John Murray (who also seem to be among the unsung multitudes that contributed to early drafts of Races), it opened on May 19, 1937 and ran for 500 performances before closing over a year later. Its success led to a huge bidding war between all the major studios who wanted to put it on the screen. RKO Pictures (which was indeed a major studio of the day, before being acquired by Howard Hughes and ran into the ground) won out, ponying up a record $225,000 for the rights to the play.
This image neatly sums up everything about Room Service
With lines for A Day at the Races around the block at every theater, Zeppo was in a good position to arrange a deal for the Marx Brothers to appear in the screen adaptation of Room Service, and convinced RKO to shell out a further $250,000 for the privilege. Not that his brothers showed much gratitude. Groucho remarked that it should have been $350,000, and said no more about it. Zeppo never directly represented the Marx Brothers again. “I told Gummo they were all his. I didn’t want any part of it.” (Gummo wasn’t all that interested in handling his cantankerous brothers at this point, either.)
Room Service would be a different direction for the Marx Brothers. They would be appearing in a pre-existing property with established characters that had nothing to do with their personas. Veteran Marx screenwriter Morrie Ryskind was given the unenviable task of turning Gordon Miller, Harry Binion, and Faker Englund into Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. (He started by changing Harry Binion’s name to “Harry Binelli.”)
Gordon Miller is a small-time theatrical producer attempting to put on a play without the necessary financial backing. He and his entire company are lodged at the White Way Hotel, and are about to be thrown out for running up a $1200 tab. They are preparing to just skip out on the bill, when news arrives that money is on the way — but they have to manage to stay at the hotel for another day to receive it. Adding to the complications is the unexpected arrival of the playwright, Leo Davis (Frank Albertson), a naive small-towner from upstate Oswego, who gets involved with Miller’s machinations against his better judgment. Chico is Harry Binelli, who in the stage version of Room Service is the play’s director, but in the movie his role in Miller’s company is left vague. (At one point, he’s just referred to as Miller’s “assistant.”) Even more vague is Harpo as Faker Englund. Englund may have had a clearly-defined role in the stage version, but in the film no one bothers to explain who he is or why he’s there. There are no musical segments, harp, piano, or otherwise.
Cliff Dunstan (as the hotel manager and Miller’s brother-in-law), Donald MacBride (as the hotel’s blustery supervising director and Dunstan’s boss), Phillip Wood (as the backer’s agent), and Alexander Asro (as a Russian waiter and aspiring actor) are all imported from the original Broadway cast. MacBride in particular is, shall we say, theatrical. Every line is bellowed to the back rows and he comes off as a jowly hunk of grade-A ham. Although they fare somewhat better performance-wise, the parts of the female “leads” are quite inconsequential. Ann Miller is the playwright’s love interest (no one knew she was only fifteen at the time, having lied about her age to get her RKO contract), and Lucille Ball is an actress in Miller’s production (and is implied to be his mistress as well), and the one who brings in the financial backer that will save the production. It’s interesting to hear Ball’s clear-as-a-bell voice as it existed in her twenties, before sixty cigarettes a day turned it into the raspy croak we’re all familiar with.
Having never seen the original play, I can’t say how faithful the adaptation is. The New York Times review indicated the film did not alter much from the play, and if that’s the case, one has to wonder why the play was such a hit. It must be all in the staging. Room Service the play is usually described as a “farce,” and if performed at an accelerated pace with the in-and-out door-slamming typical of a farce, maybe it would take flight. But the only thing that takes flight in the sluggish screen version is the fake special-effects turkey that Harpo chases around the hotel room with a club. Harpo still seems game (his eating scene is the only thing that comes within shouting distance of quality Marx Brothers), but Chico is starting to show his age (the lines around his eyes, first noticeable in Races, have deepened), and Groucho seems bored stiff. The role of Gordon Miller is fairly conventional, and for all his statements about wanting to play other kinds of characters, Groucho does not put a lot of energy into his performance.
Broadway veterans Cliff Dunstan (left) and Donald MacBride (right) are now known primarily for appearing in a really bad Marx Brothers movie
There were no rewrites or reshoots. RKO did not want a hit play they had paid through the nose for to be tampered with too much. A Day at the Races took five months to shoot. Room Service was knocked out in five weeks. The dull and uninspired direction of William Seiter actually makes one long for the craftsmanship of Sam Wood. The film is completely stage-bound, set mostly in a single hotel room. The ten minute segment of the Marx Brothers trying not to get thrown out of a hotel room in A Night at the Opera contains more laughs than the entire running time of Room Service. In fact, Room Service is the first film in the Marx filmography where I didn’t laugh — or even crack a smile. It’s genuinely awful.
Although the critics were surprisingly kind, audiences smelled a loser and stayed away. When the film was released on September 30, 1938, it failed to turn a profit. Morrie Ryskind later remarked he had the distinction of having written both the best and worst Marx Brothers movies. “We can’t do gags or play characters that aren’t ours,” Groucho said. “We tried it and we’ll never do it again.”
(RKO decided to try again and remade the play as a musical — 1944’s Step Lively, with third-rate song-and-dance man and future Senator George Murphy as Gordon Miller, and Frank Sinatra in his first real acting role as the young playwright, who also happens to be a singer. It flopped as well.)
The failure of Room Service meant the Brothers were unlikely to continue with RKO. Open to offers, the best one they received was from…MGM. Mayer’s distaste for them aside, the studio and its parent company, Lowes, decided in the wake of A Day at the Races’ huge success that letting them go had been a bad idea. The Brothers were understandably dubious, but the deal was irresistible…three movies for $250,000 each, plus the freedom to work for other studios in between MGM commitments. No other studio was putting that kind of deal on the table. Despite their reservations, they signed up. “We did it because Chico needed the money” became Groucho’s oft-repeated refrain over the next several years.
Although their personal paychecks were hefty, production-wise the Marx Brothers were definitely now on MGM’s B-level. Second tier, with corners to be cut however possible. Their production supervisor would be Mervyn LeRoy, a great director recently hired away from Warner Brothers who turned out to be an indifferent producer for MGM. The first thing he did was nix the idea of a road tour to test the material. The next thing he did was nix the idea of a full team of writers. Although he accepted story ideas and outlines from a few different writers (including Ben Hecht and Arthur Sheekman), when it came down to banging out the actual screenplay, LeRoy hired one man because he came dirt cheap. Irving Brecher was a novice comedy writer whom LeRoy had taken under his wing. Brecher had little experience as a screenwriter, but a lot of Sammy Glick-style brashness and energy.
Irving Brecher with Groucho
MGM loved a formula. Brecher was very likely given the outline of a circus story and a copy of the Day at the Races screenplay and told “do it like that.” He typed “A Day at the Circus” across the top of page one, and pre-production on the Marx Brothers’ third MGM movie had begun.
January 1939…Groucho and Chico could not stay away from radio. Now that vaudeville was dead, it was the best way to keep active and make easy money in the gaps between pictures. Plus there were no costumes, no travel, no laborious rehearsals. Just stand in front of a microphone with script in hand. (Harpo, of course, couldn’t participate, so he took up painting to fill his time off.) While they waited for the circus movie to be ready to shoot, they joined the cast of The Circle, a round-table discussion of current events performed in character, with a few songs to fill some time.
The original cast of The Circle
Partly scripted and partly improvised, the regulars were initially Ronald Colman, Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, and Groucho & Chico. Guests included Alexander Woollcott, Boris Karloff, Merle Oberon, and Noel Coward, among many others. Colman left after a month, replaced by Basil Rathbone. Rathbone and other performers complained to the producers about Groucho’s constant interruptions and distracting ad-libs. (Well, you hire Groucho, you get Groucho.) Expensive to produce and too smart for its own good, the difficult series was canceled in July, after twenty-six episodes. Just as well. The Brothers were back in front of the cameras again by that point.
Read-through for The Circle. Groucho’s cigar and thinning hair are visible on the far left. Noel Coward and Cary Grant take a backseat to Chico’s cocked fedora
Edward “Eddie” Buzzell was tapped to direct A Day at the Circus. Like Groucho, Buzzell was a former juvenile vaudevillian who had performed in Gus Edwards revues, and his path had crossed with the Brothers several times through the 1910s. If it was hoped that this shared history would help the director and the comedians bond as a team, it wasn’t to be. Although the Brothers certainly tolerated him better than Sam Wood, and even grew to like him (a little) personally, they gave every indication that they (correctly) thought of Buzzell as a mediocrity, and gave him the usual hard time they gave anyone who attempted to reign them in and make them act professionally. Buster Keaton was brought in during the shooting as an on-set gagman, but his style didn’t mesh with theirs, and none of his ideas were used.
The collaboration between Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers was not to be
Probably at MGM’s insistence, At the Circus (the title was shortened after filming) does not try very hard to differentiate itself from what had gone before. It essentially repeats the story beats of A Day at the Races, but makes each element appreciably worse. There is once again a beloved family business in danger of being taken over if a substantial amount of money is not paid to greedy villains. Once again, Chico is a guy named Tony, a loyal employee of the business who enlists the help of Groucho (as lawyer “J. Cheever Loophole”) to save the day. Once again, their plans involve Margaret Dumont as a deep-pocketed potential savior. Once again, Harpo has a stupid name (“Punchy”) and features in a dated, embarrassing scene where racial stereotypes are played for laughs.
Only instead of a sanitarium owned by the wonderful Maureen O’Sullivan, it’s “Wilson’s Wonder Circus” owned by a walking rash named Kenny Baker. No, it’s not the little person inside R2-D2. This Kenny Baker plays Jeff Wilson, identified by his unsettling simian features and the voice of a whiny nine-year-old (girl). (Baker initially rose to fame as the house singer on radio’s The Jack Benny Program, and he does indeed have a face perfect for radio. Mervyn LeRoy thought luring him away for a career in the movies was a genius idea. Mervyn LeRoy was wrong.) His duet with his love interest (Florence Rice, making no impression at all apart from shiny blondeness) is “Two Blind Loves,” in the running for worst song.
With Florence Rice and Gibralter, who gave a much more memorable performance than she did
Not just “worst song in a Marx Brothers movie,” I mean worst song in the history of recorded music. Groucho’s Loophole character is mostly depicted as a craven coward, very much a comedown from the glory days of Rufus T. Firefly. And at some point in the pre-production process, someone decided Groucho’s hair was beginning to look pretty wispy, so he was fitted with a wig that looked like it was made of scraps from Chico’s wig. At least Chico had the advantage of having his wig covered by his pointed hat most of the time. Groucho’s is on full display, and it is incredibly distracting.
Jesus, that wig. (Groucho’s, I mean. As usual, Dumont’s looks pretty good)
The harp and piano solos are in place, and are performed with their usual acumen. (I’ve always liked how Chico and Harpo cease acting when they play their instruments — their faces drop all pretense of their characters, and just exude concentration and contentment.) The film’s villains, Peerless Pauline the tightrope walker (Eve Arden) and Goliath the strongman (Nat Pendleton, formerly one of the football heavies in Horse Feathers) are much more fun to watch than the romantic leads. There’s also a cigar-smoking little person named Professor Atom (Jerry Maren, fresh off the Munchkinland set of the LeRoy-produced Wizard of Oz), and a gorilla called Gibraltar. Gibraltar runs amok in the film’s cheesy, cheap-looking climax. It looks like the end of a Three Stooges short, God help us. (Yes, Jeff the simpering dolt gets his damn money back.)
The main deviation At the Circus makes from the plot of Races is that Jeff actually has the money. Then it gets stolen. A large portion of the film is dedicated to the sleuthing efforts of Chico and Harpo while Groucho attempts to butter up Jeff’s aunt, the wealthy Mrs. Dukesbury (Dumont). And the main deviation At the Circus makes from Room Service is that it has some laughs. Not many, but it does manage to surpass Room Service’s very low bar of “zero.” Chico and Harpo have some good interactions, and the non-gorilla segment of the climax, where an entire orchestra playing on a floating bandstand is cut loose by Chico and sails out to sea, is actually pretty well done.
Last but not least, At the Circus does have one absolute gem — Groucho’s performance of one the best Marx Brothers songs, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” (It’s almost enough to forgive songwriters “Yip” Harburg and Harold Arlen for “Two Blind Loves.”) Irving Brecher would improve as a writer, but would it be in time to help the Marx Brothers? After At the Circus, Mervyn LeRoy quit producing and returned to directing.
At the Circus was released on October 20, 1939. It didn’t replicate the sensation that was Races. In fact, for the second time in a row a Marx Brothers movie lost money. The reviews were mixed, skewing negative. “In all charity and with a very real twinge of regret,” wrote The New York Times, “we must report that their new frolic is not exactly frolicsome.” Groucho agreed. In a letter to Arthur Sheekman not long after the film’s release, Groucho wrote “I saw [At the Circus] the other day and didn’t care much for it. I realize I’m not much of a judge, but I’m kind of sick of the whole thing and, on leaving the theater, vowed I’d never see it again.” Both the studio and the comedy team would press on, and the unspoken agreement was that they would dispatch the remaining two films on the contract as quickly as possible.
In that same letter to Sheekman, Groucho wrote ominously, “The boys at the studio have lined up another turkey for us…”