This World Circus Day presents us with an occasion to explore a stage and screen vehicle we have mentioned many times on this blog, Polly of the Circus. This influential play was penned in 1907 by Margaret Mayo (Lillian Slatten, 1882-1951), the wife of the major Broadway producer Edgar Selwyn. It tells a classic tale of “show business vs. religion” as personified by a pair of star-crossed lovers, a circus bareback ride and a local minister. With variations, this would become the plot of many a subsequent circus themed movie, as well as things like The Jazz Singer. The play was produced on Broadway by Frederic Thompson of Luna Park and the Hippodrome as a starring vehicle for his wife Mabel Taliaferro, whose sister Edith Taliaferro was also in it, understudying for Mabel. The third act featured a big circus scene, which included the famous St. Leon family of acrobats. The show played for six months on Broadway followed by a national tour (the postcard above is from the Chicago run).
A decade later (1917) the play was adapted for the screen, becoming the first film produced by Samuel Goldwyn at his new Goldwyn Pictures (no doubt through the Selwyn relationship). Though Taliaferro was a movie actress at the time, the lead now went to Mae Marsh. Lucille La Verne was also in the cast. The film was long thought lost until a copy was unearthed at the famous Dawson City Film Find of 1978. At present it’s available to watch on Youtube, and I can’t think of a better way to spend one hour of your Saturday!
In 1932 came the best remembered version, the MGM remake starring Marion Davies, Clark Gable, C. Aubrey Smith, Raymond Hatton, David Landau, Maude Eburne, Ruth Selwyn, Little Billy Rhodes, Big Boy Guinn, and Frank McGlynn. The film came out the same year as Blondie of the Follies, also with Davies, which we wrote about here. Davies, 35 at the time of these films, would retire five years later.
Who no further remakes? Polly of the Circus was already a pretty creaky vehicle by this time, and it’s bones had been picked pretty clean by many another circus movie. By the mid 20th century, there were things far worse than circuses for small towns to worry about. In fact, I know of at least one circus that was FOUNDED by a minister. By the mid-to-late 20th century, circuses and circus stories came to be considered old-fashioned, though both have managed to survive, though with nothing like their former virulence. The image at the top of the post makes a nice metaphor for what Polly of the Circus is to us now — a charming postcard from another time.
To find out more about show biz history, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,