The first time I tried to watch this, which is part of a four-movie set, the disc went all screwy right in the middle of "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady." Now, this song has nothing to do with anything. It's just Groucho performing to the circus people because he wants to perform for the circus people. This is how Marx Brothers movies work; the musical numbers very seldom have anything to do with the story, and we don't expect them to. However, this is probably one of the only songs the average person can name which ever appeared in a Marx Brothers movie, and this is in no small part because the song is just so much fun. It's theoretically a love song, but not in any real sense of the term. Supposedly, the singer is in love with Lydia, but she does go and marry someone else. It's more a fascination song, I think--he just finds her intriguing and wants to share what's interesting about her with, in this case, a bunch of circus performers. Which basically means that this was the worst possible place for the disc to screw up, because it's the part of the movie which is the most interesting. Naturally, I could have skipped the love song between the Unnecessary Romantic Duo.
In this case, they are Jeff Wilson (Kenny Baker) and Julie Randall (Florence Rice). He has walked away from a world of wealth and privilege for the joy of running a circus instead. Like you do. Only he owes a lot of money to John Carter (James Burke), and if he doesn't pay up by the end of the week, Carter is going to take the circus. Jeff had the money, but it disappeared. His friend and random circus worker, Antonio (Chico), calls his good friend, Attorney Loophole (Groucho), to fix things for Jeff, who will then be able to marry Julie. Also, "Punchy" (Harpo) is the assistant to Goliath (Nat Pendleton), the strongman, and there's conflict between them. Goliath hates Punchy, probably because Punchy is incapable of not being funny. And Goliath's act isn't supposed to be. So there's that, and the search for the missing money, and so forth. And then Loophole decides that the easiest way for Jeff to pay off Carter is to regain the goodwill of Jeff's aunt, and if you didn't know she was played by Margaret Dumont, you must have missed that this is a Marx Brothers movie. Here, she is Mrs. Dukesbury, but her character's name doesn't matter any more than that of any of the brothers. The point is that Groucho must wheedle Jeff back into her good graces.
There is also Eve Arden as the Peerless Pauline, whose purpose in the movie I found vague. She's the young, pretty girl to counteract the Margaret Dumont, something intended to clarify that Groucho is only attracted to Margaret Dumont's dollars. I think she's interested in Jeff, and I think she might be involved with Carter in some way, and I think she's interested in the money. And she does express my bewilderment with Julie's act--"Who ever heard of singing in a horse act?" I mean, don't get me wrong. Most of the "acts" are just filler, because this is a Marx Brothers movie, and they somehow feel obligated to fill them up with non-Marx Brothers material. As if anyone watches these movies to hear the ingenue sing. Now, I think Eve Arden could have made an interesting foil for Groucho, certainly more interesting than the real villains in this piece, but then again, the "real villains" of this piece are really something to kill time and give us a reason for whatever is happening to be happening.
Marx Brothers movies are, of course, about wordplay. Harpo did physical comedy, because that was what he was capable of doing, but you watch these movies to hear Groucho crack wise and Chico twist logic. It seems as though the studio never quite got that. Maybe they didn't think it could hold up an entire movie, but I'm quite sure it could. I think people have a strange view of comedy as a medium. Comedy is hard. I think it's probably easier to make someone cry than it is to make them laugh in some ways, and it's certainly true that what makes people cry is more universal. In some ways, this was the genius of the Marx Brothers. Each of the three was funny is a slightly different way, and the humour they produce working together is slightly different even from that. This may be the true essence of great comedy; each element of it should stand on its own but combine with any others to produce something even better. Then again, analyzing comedy has the net effect of pinning it down with the prospect of killing it, so maybe I should stop there.
So far, I have to say that the earliest Marx Brothers movies are the best, Zeppo or no Zeppo. At least Zeppo, as "the handsome one," took away the need for nonentities like Kenny Baker, who was exceptionally bland. Only on very rare occasions are the romantic couples in these movies people who would be interesting enough to support movies on their own. This movie, for example, would be flatly dull without Marx Brothers in it. I have said, many times, that the miracle of 1939 is not that no bad movies were made then, just that the percentage of good movies was higher than in most years and the percentage of great movies possibly the highest ever. Alas for the Marx Brothers, this is not one of the great movies of 1939. It's not that high on the list of good ones, though certainly higher than some of the other Marx Brothers movies we've seen. I am given to understand that, yes, there is such thing as a bad Marx Brothers movie, but I haven't gotten to any yet.