Villainous John Carter, along with his accomplices Goliath The Strong Man (actor Nat Pendleton) and the midget Little Professor Atom (actor Jerry Marenghi, also of Wizard of Oz Lollipop Guild fame), knock out stalwart singing circus owner Jef Wilson (actor/singer Kenny Baker, who was formerly Jack Benny's "Dopey Kid" singer on the radio before Dennis Day took over), and steal his $10,000 bank roll. Wilson's lawyer J. Cheever Loophole (Groucho) arrives, and along with circus performers Antonio (Chico) and Punchy (Harpo) makes a mess of the situation by fumbling every attempt at getting the money back from Goliath, Professor Atom, and Carter's moll Peerless Pauline (actress Eve Arden, whom you may remember as Principal McGee from the 1978 Grease movie). Loophole then cons Mrs. Upjohn (Margaret Dumont) into paying the $10,000 to the Wilson Circus to entertatin the "Newport 400," an upper-class society, instead of a planned orchestra performance led by conductor Jardinet (actor Fritz Feld). Groucho delays Jardinet by accusing him of being the leader of a "Dope Ring," and takes care of the orchestra by having them play on a floating dock - and then cutting loose the ropes! Meanwhile Carter and his gang of carny crooks resort to attempted Big Top Arson, but are stopped by the Marx Brothers, along with Gibraltar the Gorilla (actor Harry Gamorra) - who snatched back the original stolen $10,000!
At the Circus isn't one of the Marx boys' best film efforts, but is still a lot of fun. In his book Groucho and Me, Groucho Marx tells a hilarious story of the actor Harry Gamorra wearing the gorilla suit, which your Barker will excerpt here. It seems that the suit Harry was wearing wasn't properly ventilated, so Harry was inconveniently passing out from the heat of the studio lights quite frequently. When he complained to the suit's owner to no avail, he took it upon himself to take an ice pick and thoroughly ventilate the suit himself. When the owner of the suit found out he threatened to sue the studio, and walked out with the suit. Filming shut down for three days as the production tried to find a new one - with no luck. The Barker will let Groucho take over from here:
At last, the Ape Man, ill at ease outside a furry pelt, tracked down a man in San Diego who had an orangoutang skin. Even a child knows that an orangoutang is much smaller than a gorilla, but strangely enough the Ape Man didn't and he impetouously bought it without trying it on. We gave him every chance to squeeze himself into the skin but it was hopeless. When he finally realized he was too big for the pelt he broke down and cried like a baby gorilla. However, this was no time for sentiment. We were faced with reality, and also with the head of the studio. There was a picture to be finished and we were obliged to engage a smaller monkey man who specialized in impersonating orangoutangs in and around San Diego. Moreover, because of the demands of the Union we had to pay the original Ape Man standby salary, portal to portal, and psychiatric treatment.
Buster Keaton helped work on some of the gags in this picture. Buster had fallen on hard times due to alcohol problems during this period. His complex physical gags did not work well with the Marx brand of humor, and there was ill will between them. When confronted, Buster stated that he was only doing what studio head Mayer told him to do, and that he was fully aware that the Marx boys didn't need his help to be funny.
The movie is perhaps most famous for Groucho's rendition of the catchy tune "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," which you can enjoy below:
Kids, would you like to see the fainting Ape Man in action? Well, below you can catch the climax of the film, featuring some great stunt work on the trapeze by Gibraltar:
If you've enjoyed this featurette, be sure and pick up the Warner box set "The Marx Brothers Collection" - it's only $30.99 at Amazon (click this link), and also features six more Marx Bros. classic films, along with newsreels and trailers and cartoons!
Until tomorrow, I'll see you Un Jour Au Cirque!