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Warner Home Video presents
Room Service / At the Circus (1938 / 1939)

Gordon Miller: It's a pleasure to meet a man who never sleeps.
Binelli: You ought to come up and take a nap sometime.

- Groucho Marx, Chico Marx (from Room Service)

Review By: Rich Rosell   
Published: May 02, 2004

Stars: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx
Other Stars: Lucille Ball, Kenny Baker, Florence Rice, Ann Miller, Eve Arden, Margaret Dumont, Nat Pendleton, James Burke, Jerry Maren, Frank Albertson, Cliff Dunstan, Donald McBride
Director: William A. Seiter, Edward Buzzell

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 02h:47m:00s
Release Date: May 04, 2004
UPC: 085393384920
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

This two-sided double feature, part of Warner's Marx Brothers multi-disc boxed set, gathers up a couple of their late 1930s films, each made by different studios (RKO and MGM), offering a slightly different take on the wacky antics of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. The downside is that neither film necessarily represents the pinnacle of their successful career; the format of the overall gags remains similar (Groucho wisecracks, Chico offers his pseudo-Italian dialect, and Harpo pantomimes wildly), but there is a noticeable gap in the quality of the material.

Room Service (1938)
Directed by: William A. Seiter

This RKO title, crafted from a Broadway play written by Allen Boretz and John Murray, has the unique distinction of not only being the only film the brothers made for the studio, but the only one not specifically written for them. They were basically inserted into it as something of an afterthought, and it is fairly apparent. RKO contract player Lucille Ball has a supporting role that doesn't really showcase her comedic skills, showing up as a loyal friend of Groucho's, and dance queen Ann Miller pops in as the nice-girl love interest for a small-town playwright, played by Frank Albertson.

Groucho plays the harried producer of a play in desperate need of a financial backer, as he and his entire cast are about to get the boot from their hotel rooms since they can't pay the rent. When Albertson's naïve playwright arrives in the big city to see his play, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo have to schmooze and cajole their stay at the hotel, in between numerous run-ins with the gruff hotel owner (Donald McBride).

Even in a project not written specifically for them, the Marx Brothers are still the only remotely entertaining about this mostly unremarkable farce. The quick wordplay between Groucho and Chico, while not up to par with some of their classic titles, does merit a few laughs, and bits like the three brothers literally devouring a room service tray is still a brilliant bit of physical comedy.

At the Circus (1939)
Directed by: Edward Buzzell

This was the Marx Brothers third film for MGM, made at a time when their golden days were well behind them. What it is, however, is a throwback to their old school comedy/musical roots, offering a great locale (a circus), snappy banter, memorable songs (Groucho's Lydia the Tattooed Lady), and perennially classic stuffy society foil Margaret Dumont; even familiar moments like Chico getting a piano solo, and Harpo dishing out of one of his long, ponderous harp numbers.

Groucho plays shifty lawyer J. Cheever Loophole, who is pegged to tag along on a travelling circus train after getting a call from an old friend (Chico). It seems that the clean-cut circus owner (Kenny Baker) is about to get shut down when $10,000 is stolen, and it is up to the brothers to find the missing dough, as well as bust the bad guys. Comedically, there are more outright laughs than in Room Service, and bits like Groucho and Chico's argument about the need for a badge to board the train is great stuff. Their interrogation of a circus midget (Jerry Maren), in his tiny stateroom, is another well-staged Marx Brothers moment, with a recurring gag about cigars and politically incorrect jokes ("How'd you like to go to Sing-Sing and get the high chair?") giving the humor something of an edge.

Maybe this one didn't need three painfully warbled songs between Kenny Baker and Florence Rice, but the surreal weirdness of Harpo's harp solo (and all of its bizarrely wide-eyed Stepin Fetchit stereotypes) elevates At the Circus to a strange place that I don't think was necessarily intended. The scene goes on way too long, but is so strange that it has to been seen to be appreciated. Produced by Mervyn LeRoy, At the Circus also features Eve Arden as a sarcastic aerialist.

The fast-paced physical and verbal comedy of the Marx Brothers still manages to hold up well after all this time, which can't be said for many 65-year-old films. There are a few dated references sprinkled here and there, but most of the gags are still pretty fresh and timeless. An uneven film like Room Service weighs down this particular double bill from the boxed set, but At the Circus easily picks up the slack.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: This two-sided disc offers up one film per side, presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Image quality on these two prints is not awful, considering their age, with At the Circus looking the worse for wear of the pair. Nicks and sprocket marks are frequent annoyances, as are some other minor telltale debris. No jarring edits or splices are evident.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: A clean, hiss and crackle free Dolby Digital English mono track is the solitary audio option. Dialogue presentation is more than adequate.

Both films sound as good as you would expect two films from 1938 and 1939 to sound.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 47 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, French with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
4 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: In addition to theatrical trailers for Room Service and At the Circus, Warner has included four shorts (two per side) to kind of give you the feel of the olden days. There are a pair of Our Gang shorts (Party Fever and Dog Daze), as well as two cartoons: a black-and-white Porky Pig adventure entitled Daffy Doc, and Milt Gross's Jitterbug Follies, featuring Count Screwloose and J.R. The Wonder Dog.

Room Service is cut into 22 chapters, and At the Circus is cut into 25. Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

These aren't two of the strongest Marx Brothers titles in their catalog, though both have a fair share of good laughs. Room Service really grinds to a halt when they're not onscreen, but At the Circus comes the closest to delivering the kind of formulaic nonsense (songs and all) that made them so fun to watch.


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