On Billy Rose’s Jumbo

Thoughts today on the 1962 semi-classic Jumbo. There are multiple reasons to familiarize yourself with this largely forgotten family film: its circus setting, the many well known Broadway, circus and vaudeville artists associated with it, not to mention its historical value (it’s an adaptation of one of Broadway’s biggest spectacles ever).

Jumbo had been the brain-child of impresario Billy Rose, husband of Fanny Brice, and the producer of revues like Sweet and Low (1930) and Billy Rose’s Crazy Quilt (1931). With Jumbo, he decided to create the biggest show ever. The name of the production reflects its ambitions. Naturally, it’s meant to suggest that the elephant who is the show’s main character is literally Barnum’s Jumbo (billed as the largest in the world in his day), though the actual Jumbo had been killed 50 years earlier. With an elephant as his lead, Rose could whimsically claim to have Broadway’s biggest star at its center. To accomodate the creature, Rose booked Broadway’s biggest venue, the Hippodome, built by Luna Park’s Thompson and Dundy . The Hippdrome’s monstrous stage was long accustomed to big spectacles, including ones starring pachyderms. It had opened with A Yankee Circus on Mars in 1905, and most recently had been the Keith vaudeville circuit’s largest venue, boasting 5,000 seats. The musical show included songs by Rodgers and Hart, and a book by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, writers of the hits The Front Page (1928) and Twentieth Century (1932). It was directed by John Murray Anderson and George Abbott and starred Jimmy Durante (fresh off his series of MGM comedies with Buster Keaton) as well as Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, and dozens of circus and variety stars such as Barbette, Poodles Hanneford, A. Robins, Camilla’s Birds, Hamilton and Barnes, et al. The cast also included the now-forgotten singers Gloria Grafton, and Donald Novis as the romantic leads.

Jumbo opened at the Hippodrome in 1935, but it was the depth of the Depression. It hung on for five months, and then — despite this “can’t fail” formula, closed in 1936. Rose bounced back pretty quickly though. He next went on to open his “gay ’90s” themed New York nightclub The Golden Horseshoe in 1937, and then Billy Rose’s Aquacade, a water spectacle that was a hit of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The Hippdrome itself was not so lucky. It was demolished in 1939.

Jumbo (1962) did not come to the screen until over a quarter of a century after the Broadway original closed. No one knew it at the time, but the film version premiered at the beginning of a decade that would see the ostensible end of the Hollywood musical. The money-losing Jumbo was one of the first to portend the ominous slide, though there were no warning signals. MGM had had a hit with its previous family musical The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962). Jumbo must have seemed a safe gamble. Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth had been a big hit in 1952. Irwin Allen’s The Big Circus (1959) was also profitable. And the creative team is respectable. Busby Berkley choreographed (his last film). Sydney Sheldon (Easter Parade, Annie Get Your Gun) wrote the screenplay. Jimmy Durante returned, though he was was now eclipsed in stardom by Doris Day. and the movie also had Martha Raye , Dean Jagger, and Stephen Boyd (today best remembered as the creepy star of The Oscar, 1966). Grady Sutton has a bit part. Poodles Hanneford and Barbette returned, and it also has Billy Barty, and dozens of other circus acts.

Still, it lost money at the box office. Why didnt it click? Not because it’s a musical. The Music Man and Gypsy were among the top grossing films of 1962. Not because it was big-budget. Lawrence of Arabia and The Longest Day were the top two films that same year. Not because it’s for kids. Disney’s Mary Poppins would be a smash just two years later. Was it the director? I don’t think so. Charles Walters had also helmed Easter Parade (1948), The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), Summer Stock (1950), The Tender Trap (1955), High Society (1956), and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960), all popular with audiences. Was it the screenplay? H’m…you might have something there. The Broadway version had a lighter story because it had theatrical values to sweep it along. It was like being at a real circus. In the screen version, the circus is in the background. Most of the time is spent on the financial and romantic problems of the main characters, and these problems are, in a word, boring. One wants fun at a circus, not melodrama. It needs more comedy! On top of that, I’m not sure the cast was well-calculated to sell tickets. Doris Day was still big box office of course, but at 40 she’s long in the tooth for an ingenue. This was to be her last musical film. Durante of course is loveable, and a link to the original Broadway show, but he hadn’t really starred in movies in a dozen years, and it been nearly two decades for Martha Raye. Jumbo represents the last major film for both of them. Stephen Boyd had played Messala in MGM’s smash Ben Hur in 1959 but that only cements his identity as a big stiff. And his singing was dubbed. If the producers had cast an actual singing star in the role, it likely would have helped. I’d love to have seen Red Skelton in this — long associated with MGM and a former circus clown. Or Ed Wynn. Jacques Tati. Why NOT?

And furthermore, it is called Jumbo and it is for kids, and it has an animal at its center and yet somehow Doris Day and not the elephant is the star. In Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Flipper, and Francis the Talking Mule, the ANIMAL plays a lead role in the plot. That can and should also be the case here, but it’s not. Every so often we are reminded that there is an elephant, but the elephant is more of a prop than a character. See what I mean? There’s a certain lack of imagination in this that prevents real MAGIC from happening.

So why should you watch it?

Um…Shut up and eat your peanuts!

For more on circus, vaudeville, and Broadway, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,