Under the Big Top - Fridays in November
“The circus comes as close to being the world in microcosm as anything I know,” wrote children’s author E.B. White. “In a way, it puts all the rest of show business in the shade.” Since the earliest days of cinema, moviemakers have agreed, celebrating this colorful and far-reaching form of entertainment by turning out dozens of films about the Big Top. TCM’s tribute spans four decades and a baker’s dozen of films set amid the spectacle of the circus. Below is some detail about a film from each decade covered.
The Circus (1928) finds Charlie Chaplin at the peak of his form as the Little Tramp when he inadvertently becomes a Big Top star after blundering into a circus tent to escape police who think he’s a pickpocket. Chaplin not only stars but produces, writes, directs and edits. (For a 1967 reissue, he also contributed music including a theme song which he sang over the credits.) Merna Kennedy plays the circus owner’s daughter, a bareback rider adored by Charlie; and Harry Crocker is the tightrope walker she loves in turn. The slapstick comedy is capped by a poignant ending.
The film brought Chaplin his first Academy Award, bestowed for “versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing.” The production itself had been a harrowing one for the great comic, occurring as he was in the midst of a difficult and highly publicized divorce from Lita Grey, whose lawyers sought to seize Chaplin’s studio assets. The circus tent itself was destroyed by storms, and a studio fire wiped out sets and props. It was such a troubled period for Chaplin that, despite the film’s merits, he doesn’t mention it in his autobiography.
Writing for Slant magazine, critic Christian Blauvelt describes The Circus as “a great elegy to the lost art of music-hall pantomime and, for that matter, the soon-to-be lost art of silent-film comedy.”
At the Circus (1939) continues the theme of classic Big Top comedy, as the Marx Brothers try to save a circus from bankruptcy in this, the third of five films they made for MGM. Groucho shines in his delivery of “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady,” one of the songs written for the film by Harold Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg; and in his scenes with his great foil, the befuddled Margaret Dumont. Another highlight is a scene where Chico and Harpo search for stolen money in the room of sleeping strong man Nat Pendleton. A nice bonus is the casting of caustic Eve Arden as aerialist “Peerless Pauline.” Plus, there are the spectacles of Dumont being shot out of a cannon and Harpo riding an ostrich! Edward Buzzell directed.
The influence of MGM producer Irving Thalberg on the Marx Brothers continued after his death in 1936. Unlike earlier freewheeling films made at Paramount, their MGM vehicles had more structure and storyline, and the brothers worked out the timing of their routines with live audiences before filming them. Former comedy legend Buster Keaton was reduced to working as a gag man on At the Circus. Harburg wrote special lyrics for “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” that were used exclusively in screenings of the film for Allied service in European war zones. One example: “When she stands the world grows littler; when she sits, she sits on Hitler.”
At the time of its original release, the movie was not a big critical success, with some reviewers complaining that it wasn’t up to the brothers’ best work. In a 2005 review, critic Dennis Schwartz noted that, although this film marked “the beginning of the Marx Brothers’ slide from their peak comedies,” it “still has enough madcap comedy to be a decent representative of their zany slapstick.”
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) is Cecil B. DeMille’s Oscar-winning spectacle built around the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. In colorful turns as circus performers are Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Gloria Grahame, James Stewart and Dorothy Lamour. Charlton Heston plays the circus manager, and some 85 acts from the real circus are featured including clowns Emmett Kelly and Lou Jacobs. John Ringling North plays himself as the circus owner. Paramount Pictures spared no expense on the movie, which utilized the real circus’s company of some 1,400 people and hundreds of animals, along with 60 railroad cars of equipment and tents. The film takes a documentary-like look at the logistics of moving this army of circus workers from one location to the next and includes a spectacularly staged climax built around a train crash.
Hutton and Wilde, as competing aerialists, had to learn the basics of trapeze work for their roles. Because of a fear of heights, Wilde did not adapt well – but Hutton became so proficient that she later included a trapeze act in some of her concerts. James Stewart, as a clown with a dark secret, never appeared without his clown makeup. The movie won the Best Picture Academy Award, along with a second Oscar for Best Story and was nominated for DeMille’s direction, costume design by Edith Head and company and film editing. It also picked up Golden Globes for best dramatic film, direction and cinematography.
There have been many complaints over the years about The Greatest Show on Earth being unworthy of its Best Picture Oscar in competition with such films as High Noon and The Quiet Man. But anyone who saw it as a youngster probably thought that award went exactly where it should have. Among those enthralled by the movie was a five-year-old Steven Spielberg, who later said that this circus epic was the first film he ever saw and that it was a major influence in his desire to become a filmmaker.
Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962) is significant in Hollywood history because it was Doris Day’s last film musical and one of the last big musicals produced by MGM. The movie was based on a stage musical with a circus theme produced by Billy Rose at the New York Hippodrome in 1935. At the time, Rose specified that any future film adaptation would have to bear his name in the title.
Like the stage show, the movie boasts a beautiful score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and a performance from Jimmy Durante as the owner of the circus and Jumbo the lovable elephant. The movie retains Durante’s famous line from the original production when he’s leading Jumbo about and is asked by a police officer: “What are you doing with that elephant?” Durante’s deadpan response: “What elephant?”
In addition to Durante as Day’s irresponsible father, the cast includes Stephen Boyd (fresh from his Ben-Hur,  triumph) as the mysterious circus hand who pursues her, and Martha Raye as Durante’s long-time fiancée. Charles Walters directed. Day performs such standards as “My Romance,” “This Can’t Be Love” and an exquisite “Little Girl Blue.” Durante and a dubbed Boyd also sing, and Martha Raye joins Day on a lovely duet, “Why Can’t I?”
Although the movie is spectacularly produced and Day was the No. 1 box-office attraction at the time, Billy Rose’s Jumbo had two major problems in attaining commercial success. A newspaper strike meant limited reviews, and there was growing apathy toward musicals among movie audiences. A reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune called the movie “a great big blubbery amiable polka-dotted elephant of a show.” Variety wrote that “Doris Day may never have sung better… While the story is no challenge to her thespic talents, her return to the thing she does so well could (and should) persuade her to make more musicals.” Alas, it was not to be.
Other movies portraying life Under the Big Top include He Who Gets Slapped (1924) starring Lon Chaney and Norma Shearer; Freaks (1932) directed by Tod Browning; Man on a Tightrope (1953) starring Fredric March and Gloria Grahame; Carnival Story (1954) starring Anne Baxter and Steve Cochran; La Strada (1954) starring Giulietta Masina and Anthony Quinn; Merry Andrew (1958) starring Danny Kaye and Pier Angeli; The Big Circus (1959) starring Victor Mature and Rhonda Fleming; 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) starring Tony Randall; and Berserk (1967) starring Joan Crawford.