Thanks to everyone who has stuck with this article over the past two days. In today’s final part, I’ll be covering the final 3 classic Marx movies.
At The Circus (1939) – Jeff Wilson played by Kenny Baker
At The Circus was the first attempt at an MGM Marx movie since Irving Thalberg passed away during the production of A Day At The Races. Room Service, a loaner for RKO in 1938, was not a successful movie and the boys were still under contract for five pictures at MGM, a studio where they had only really been appreciated by Thalberg. The famous director Mervin Leroy, of Little Caesar, took over production duties and the picture was directed by Ed Buzzell, who would also shoot the brothers’ next film, Go West. In defence of Leroy and Buzzell, both At The Circus and Go West, though uneven, contain some of the most genuinely hilarious scenes in all the Marx pictures and usually get an unfair rap amongst fans. In their guilty column, however, stands Kenny Baker.
The year 1939 brought two terrible blights upon humanity, the Second World War and Kenny Baker as Jeff Wilson. Mr. Baker is, without a doubt, the most annoying male lead to ever appear in a Marx Brothers film. It’s hard to imagine that at the exact same time Jimmy Stewart was appearing in Destry Rides Again, John Wayne in Stagecoach, Clark Gable in Gone With The Wind, or Cary Grant in Only Angles Have Wings, somewhere Kenny Baker was also milling around a back lot, stinking up the screen.
In At The Circus, Kenny plays Jeff Wilson. Once again in the great tradition of Marx jobs, Jeff is both a runaway millionaire and a penniless ringmaster / circus owner. Yes, rather than run away to join the circus as the cliché goes, Jeff has defied convention by running away to own the circus. I’m sure that is missing the point somewhat. He’s also been saving up the cash to pay off his debts so he can see about marrying his lion-tamer girlfriend. But unfortunately, every single other member of his circus is a giant crook. The trapeze girl, the midget, the strong man, even the ape seems to be against him, not that I blame them. Of course, he gets ripped off for his savings by all of his own employees, and ends up recruiting the help of the Marx Brothers.
Mr. Baker is the bane of my Marx watching. While I really enjoy many of the comedy sequences in the film, any scene involving Jeff Wilson makes is almost impossible to watch. While Baker doesn’t get in on the comedy act as such, he does try a few smirky lines during the first section of the film which don’t work, and he has one of those terrible insincere laughs that comes from the top of his throat. Kenny Baker’s fame at the time came from his singing, as he used to perform on the Jack Benny show and appeared in the Technicolor version of The Mikado the same year as At The Circus. Unfortunately any talent in this regard doesn’t help him in this picture, his song Two Blind Loves is one of the poorest of any Marx movie. I won’t belabour the point about Kenny’s performance, but let’s just say that he can’t convincingly act knocked out by an ape.
Go West (1940) – Terry Turner played by John Carroll
Terry Turner is probably the most straightforward male lead in the Marx movies. He’s just a cowboy. In any other movie, that would be plenty, but for a Marx movie it’s a little underwhelming. Terry’s plan is to sell the deed to some useless land to the railroad company for a big pay day. He hopes the proceeds will settle the feud between his family and his girlfriend’s family, so that he can marry his sweetheart. Of course, things don’t go exactly to plan, Terry hasn’t thought about actually possessing the deed to the land before he sold it to the railroad.
John Carroll, who plays Turner, is the most manly of the leading men, looking like a kind of bargain basement Clark Gable. Carroll had actually played Zorro in Zorro Rides Again and held his own co-starring with the Duke in Flying Tigers. The same year he made Go West, Carroll also appeared in Congo Maisie playing a kind of Indiana Jones figure paired up with a showgirl in Africa, a very strange film that you can sometimes find on cable television late at night. If you see someone doing a cabaret routine to scare away an army of stereotypical natives, you’ll know you’ve found the right picture.
So when it comes to pointing a gun or talking tough, John Carroll pulls it off just fine. Go West has some of the better songs in the Marx movies and Carroll has a rich voice that would have seen him well in musicals. Unfortunately, he isn’t really one for comedy, but thankfully they don’t really attempt any with him. John Carroll belongs to that group of second bananas who pretend that the Marx Brothers aren’t doing anything crazy at all and are really quite useful. In the old silent days, they used to shoot a picture first, and then sometimes decide later that it would work better as a comedy. Change a few titles and you could quite easily change the genre of something played quite broadly. I often wonder what would happen to these movies if you cut them the way actors like John Carroll played them. Perhaps it could be some kind of psychological thriller, where only Terry can see the Marxs, and he’s not even really a cowboy.
The Big Store (1941) – Tommy Rogers played by Tony Martin
I’ve made a point of mentioning each time the occupation of the male leads. While some of them have been excellent, The Big Store has one of my favourites, even though the film itself is quite poor. In this picture Tony Martin plays Tommy Rogers, recording artist, philanthropist and department store owner! These days characters in films might be pop stars, web developers or commandoes, but they are very rarely web developing commandoes with a new album coming out. In The Big Store, Tommy is looking forward to selling up his department store and concentrating on his music career and romancing one of the shop girls, while also helping out a local music conservatory financially. But just like in At The Circus, a plan is afoot to bump Tommy off and seize control of the department store.
As I’ve said, The Big Store is one of the worst Marx Brothers films, in fact it probably is actually the worst if we don’t count the RKO or UA pictures. One reason that The Big Store is so poor as a Marx Brothers movie is that it doesn’t really feature the Marx Brothers very much or showcase them very well. This is also the problem with the RKO picture, a property that was not written initially for the brothers, but they were shoehorned in. The Big Store contains some elements of the brothers vaudeville act (the detective agency run by Groucho) but the laughs are few and far between.
It’s strange that a film which was marketed as a goodbye to the Marx Brothers does such a bad job of sending them off, and gives so much attention to the love story / plot rather than some genuinely witty scenes. But none of this is the fault of Tony Martin who is quite likeable, gets along well with Chico and delivers all his scenes well. Tony is also one of the best singers to be featured in a Marx Brothers movie, and he should be. The reason Tony’s name is so large on the poster is because he was a himself a big professional singer of the late 30s and 40s with a number of hit records in his day.
To end on a nice high note, I’d like to mention that he’s also famous for one other little thing. Tony Martin is Mr. Cyd Charisse, she of the five million dollar legs! Martin and the famous dancing movie star have been married for sixty years, which is really saying something for Hollywood. And yes, that should be in the present tense because Tony Martin, actor, singer and veteran of World War II is still alive! Tony is now at the grand old age of 95, and I’m too much of a gentleman to reveal the age of Cyd Charisse. This makes Tony the last surviving leading man of a Marx Brothers movie, having outlasted his nearest rival, Opera’s Allan Jones, by a whopping 16 years. So Mr. Martin, if you are out there somewhere, congratulations and keep it up!