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The Big Circus (1959) was pegged at the time of its release as an awkward all-star melodrama, full of color, hokum and clichs and about as nutritious as fresh-spun cotton candy. It was produced by Irwin Allen (originally for Columbia Pictures, although the film was ultimately released by the low-rent Allied Artists), fresh from the debacle of The Story of Mankind (1957). That film was a would-be epic that was seen as a two-hour excuse for stunt casting and was justifiably lambasted by critics. For The Big Circus, Allen is following the well-trod path of Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), presenting an eclectic assortment of stars mixing with genuine circus performers at the service of a muddled story of overlapping personal dramas under the Big Top. By far, the center-ring attraction of Allen's opus is the chance to see some favorite stars in unusual guises; where else, for example, can one find the great Peter Lorre as an alcoholic clown, or Vincent Price in a made-to order ringmaster uniform? The pleasures of The Big Circus may ultimately be guilty ones, and are about as subtle as a tightrope walk across Niagara Falls (which just happens to feature as the climax of this movie!)
To open the film, Ringmaster Hans Hagenfeld (Vincent Price) announces a "Parade of the Nations," a dull and unspectacular march of animals and performers which plays out under the movie's opening credits. The opening song (by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster) is inoffensive 1950s pop which assures the listener, "There's nothing as gay as a wonderful day at The Big Circus!" A montage of newspaper headlines (and even a cover of Life magazine) spells out the financial troubles of the Borman and Whirling Circus. In a circus wagon accompanied by Skeeter the Clown (Peter Lorre) and other performers, circus owner "Hank" Whirling (Victor Mature) stops at a bank in town to try and secure a loan for his ailing business. Banker Jonathan Nelson (Charles Watts) is sympathetic and when Randy Sherman (Red Buttons) of the bank's loan department argues against giving Whirling a loan following his split from the Borman brothers, Nelson decides to send Sherman along with the traveling circus to keep an eye on the investment. Sherman brings along Helen Harrison (Rhonda Fleming) to act as the new press agent for the circus; she proves to be another thorn in the side of Whirling. The film introduces drama in the lives of the performers: Skeeter is an alcoholic (although a jolly drinker in the tradition of most 1950s movies dealing with the topic); Hank's sister Jeannie (Kathryn Grant) wishes to be a performer; and all is not well with the team of aerialists made up of Zach Colino (Gilbert Roland), his wife Maria (Adele Mara), and young Tommy Gordon (David Nelson). The greatest threat to Hank's circus is a mysterious series of acts of sabotage -- a lion is set loose at a press party, a fire breaks out and threatens the lives of the animals, and a train wreck kills two people and strands the circus.
The Big Circus was blasted by the critics, in particular Bosley Crowther of the New York Times. Crowther reminded his readers that there was nothing subtle about a circus, and if they keep that in mind, "...then you can better be prepared for the beating you are going to have to endure when you take the kids to see Irwin Allen's The Big Circus....Apparently, Mr. Allen, who wrote the story and produced the film, was more concerned about a quantity of clichs than he was about the quality." Crowther does not spare director Joseph M. Newman, who he says "...wasn't concerned about anything except getting the picture finished, which must have been quite a chore. In CinemaScope and color, which is almost too violent to endure, he simply throws it at you and leaves all to the dominance of weight."
Charles Bennett, the co-screenwriter of The Big Circus, had a long career as an actor, playwright and primarily, a screenwriter. After his play Blackmail was adapted to film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1929, he began a long relationship with the director which included the adaptation for The 39 Steps (1935) and the screenplays for Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), and Foreign Correspondent (1940). He collaborated with Cecil B. DeMille on the films Unconquered (1947), The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944), and Reap the Wild Wind (1942). Just prior to writing The Story of Mankind with Allen and beginning an almost exclusive relationship with the producer which closed out his career, Bennett wrote the screenplay for the highly regarded thriller Night of the Demon (1957), directed by Jacques Tourneur.
The Big Circus proved to be the final film performance for actress Kathryn Grant. (A subsequent release featured her voice performance in the feature-length UPA cartoon 1001 Arabian Nights , but given the long process of producing animation, her part was probably recorded well before her appearance in the Irwin Allen picture). The uncommonly stunning brunette from Texas entered films in 1953 and soon scored unbilled walk-ons in big budget movies such as Rear Window and Living It Up (both 1954), but was seen to better advantage in supporting parts in low-budget crime films like The Phenix City Story and Cell 2455 Death Row (both 1955). Columbia Pictures was clearly grooming Grant for stardom, and following a memorable turn in the comedy Operation Mad Ball (1957) she appeared as Princess Parisa in their classic fantasy The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). In 1959 Grant landed an important supporting part in Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder, but after that film and The Big Circus she retired to raise a family with crooner Bing Crosby, who she married in 1958 (she was 30 years his junior). Throughout the 1960s and until Bing's death in 1977 she could be seen as part of the Crosby Clan in numerous Christmas specials and orange juice commercials on television.
Following the production of The Big Circus, producer Irwin Allen switched to science-fiction style adventures with such films as The Lost World (1960), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) and Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962). Allen then moved his brand of juvenile science fiction to television, and produced four hit shows for 20th Century Fox: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968), Lost in Space (1965-1968), The Time Tunnel (1966-1967), and Land of the Giants (1968-1970). Allen returned to feature films in a big way with The Poseidon Adventure (1972). That film - featuring an all-star cast put in harm's way by a series of contrived perils - revived the formula that the producer/showman had previously exploited with films like The Big Circus and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and made Allen the "Master of [the] Disaster" movie subgenre.
Producer: Irwin Allen
Director: Joseph M. Newman
Screenplay: Irwin Allen, Charles Bennett, Irving Wallace (screenplay); Irwin Allen (story)
Cinematography: Winton Hoch
Art Direction: Albert D'Agostino
Music: Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter
Film Editing: Adrienne Fazan
Cast: Victor Mature (Henry Jasper 'Hank' Whirling), Red Buttons (Randy Sherman), Rhonda Fleming (Helen Harrison), Kathryn Grant (Jeannie Whirling), Vincent Price (Hans Hagenfeld), Gilbert Roland (Zach Colino - the aerialist), Peter Lorre (Skeeter), David Nelson (Tommy Gordon), Adele Mara (Maria 'Mama' Colino), Howard McNear (Mr. Lomax)
by John M. Miller