review for At the Circus on AllMovie

At the Circus (1939)
by Craig Butler review

Many film comedy historians point to At the Circus as the moment when the legendary Marx Brothers began their cinematic decline. While it's undeniably true that Circus is in no way in the same class as such earlier Marx-ian triumphs as Duck Soup or A Night at the Opera, it's a mistake to think that it's not worth a glance. For one thing, Circus is the film that introduced Groucho's immortal performance of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," and that by itself makes Circus worthwhile. It also features a very funny finale sequence, as well as such delights as Harpo and Chico searching the bed of a circus strongman while the strongman lies sleeping in it, and a memorable gag involving Eve Arden secreting some money about her person. But it's also true that there are some stretches that don't work nearly so well; when the Brothers are involved in them, they keep them from falling flat from the sheer force of their talent and determination. But when the trio is absent -- and especially if the love story is center stage -- things get very sticky indeed. There's also a segment that should have been a classic Harpo musical interlude that is upended by the inclusion of a chorus singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." So Circus is a hit-and-miss affair, but one that farcical comedy lovers should definitely sample.