Tonight on TCM: More Circus Movies

Tonight, starting at 8pm EST, TCM will be showing three more films with circus settings (following upon their recent screening of Jumbo, which we wrote about here.) Two of the films are whopping bores, melodramas with circus settings, a lethal subgenre which has been inexplicably replicated NUMEROUS times. We share the information about the screening mostly for educational purposes. Actual circus performers are in the films (though sadly mostly in the background) and the two films have an interesting relationship one to another that is worth looking at. Wedged between them, almost as a palate cleanser is Charlie Chaplin’s near-masterpiece The Circus (1928) which we wrote about here. (The Circus is screening at 10:45pm EST). As for the others, they are examples of the tedious “circus finances” plot device, much like Jumbo and the Marx Brothers At the Circus (1939). The best and perhaps only truly entertaining film of this type which I have seen is W.C. Fields’ You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939), because the circus boss is funny, and has FUN making a go of it through the time-honored circus tradition of charming swindles. Who wants to watch a dour drudge sweat over his bills for three hours? Movie producers, of course! And that’s apparently why these films get made. But as I say they are not entirely without virtues, so we do recommend you see them at least once.

8:00pm (EST): The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

I am a huge fan of Cecil B. DeMille and this film was a smash. It won a Best Picture Oscar and was top-grossing film of 1952. And for many years it was regarded as a classic. So first we talk about its virtues. It is set at the actual Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, in its 1951 edition — one of the last editions under a literal big top (RBBB stop touring with tents in 1956, booking civic centers and stadiums thereafter). There are dozens of actual circus stars in the film, including impresario John Ringling North; star clowns Emmett Kelly, Lou Jacobs, and Felix Adler; Little Angie (also in the movie Freaks); acrobats, trained animals, etc etc etc. DeMille never does anything small, and this is a big canvas. In addition to circus performances, we get to see a circus parade, and (the highlight of the film) a SPECTACULAR train wreck, which by itself is worth the price of admission. I’ll probably watch the film tonight just for the train wreck, unless I switch over to CNN to watch the other train wreck (the Presidential election).

Particularly amusing to me is the presence of DeMille himself as the narrator. We are accustomed to his voice hovering over his next film The Ten Commandments (1956) so it just sounds absurd to hear him announcing the moving of a circus from town to town with the same high seriousness with which he described the Israelites walking across the Red Sea. These monologues describing the circus as some kind of holy mechanistic conquering army are hilarious.

And, as he always does, DeMille fills his cast with stars, though it seems to me for the most part he cast the wrong ones. Betty Hutton is great as a trapeze artist — and she actually learned the skill for the part. With her pep and show biz associations she is well cast. But as for the rest: it’s just this boring melodrama. I supposed the idea was to interest “grown-ups” as well as children, but I’m not quite sure how you interest people by boring them to death. Future Moses Charlton Heston is the struggling circus boss, all frowns and mopping sweat with a handkerchief. Cornel Wilde is Hutton’s faux-French acrobatic and romantic partner who suffers a spectacular injury. Jimmy Stewart plays a doctor who’s on the lam from the law for committing murder in some vague way (euthenasia? botched abortion? did he just snuff his girlfriend?). He is in disguise as a circus clown, and we never see him out of make-up. He’s certainly the right “type” to be a circus clown, but he’s no clown, and it’s an insult to clowns to imply that all there is to it is put on some greasepaint. Might have been a plum role for Red Skelton; in fact he was to play a part not too unlike it the following year in the aptly named movie The Clown. Edmund O’Brien and Syd Saylor both have cameos in the film as outside talkers (known to civilians as “barkers”). Also in the cast are Dorothy Lamour and Gloria Grahame and a bunch of nondescripts and they all hit their marks, but there is a distinct lack of pizzazz or resonance to the story itself. We are more thrilled by several celebrities who show up in cameos, people like Hope and Crosby, Hopalong Cassidy, and Danny Thomas. I’d much rather have seen any of those guys play the Charlton Heston role. (Jack Palance played the part on the 1963 TV series; kind of lateral in the merriment department). And I’d rather have seen real-life trapeze artist Burt Lancaster play Cornel Wilde’s part. (Lancaster’s 1956 film Trapeze seems to have borrowed the high-flying love triangle subplot from this movie, so in a way he’s “in it” after all).

Bottom line on this movie: great elephants. The people, not so much. But stick around for the train crash — that’s first rate. And speaking of disasters…

12:15am (EST): The Big Circus (1959)

Today Irwin Allen is best remembered as the Master of Disaster films like The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Towering Inferno (1974). In his early years, he was a sort of aspiring, cut-rate DeMille. His previous film The Story of Mankind (1957) had used an all-star cast and lots of stock footage to tell a kind of half-assed Hollywood history of the human race’s high and low points. In The Big Circus, he is clearly trying to replicate the success of The Greatest Show on Earth on half the budget and with a fictional circus. Apart from the lead Victor Mature (in what way is he NOT Cornel Wilde?), the cast of this film is much more fun and lively than its predecessor as it includes Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Red Buttons (though sadly as an accountant and not a clown), David Nelson (of Ozzie and Harriet), Howard McNear (Floyd the Barber from The Andy Griffith Show), and Gilbert Roland as an acrobat named Zach Colino (clearly based on Con Colleano). Steve Allen has a cameo as himself. The cast also includes Rhonda Fleming, Kathryn Grant (then just recently married to Bing Crosby) and Eden Hartford (the third wife of Groucho Marx, which is notable because the Marx Brothers had appeared in The Story of Mankind Funny too to mention the brothers as the name of this movie seems a mash-up of At the Circus with The Big Store — and it’s about as good as that would be, too.). The Big Circus also has many genuine circus performers associated with it although no big name stars apart from Barbette, who worked on the film as a trapeze choreographer.

If you’ve not heard of this movie, there’s no reason to hide your head in shame. As compared with The Greatest Show on Earth, which earned nearly ten times its budget, The Big Circus just about broke even, which may be the most true-to-life thing about it.

Stay tuned! TCM is showing circus movies every Friday this month. I’m certain to spout off about some of those as well.