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June 25, 2013

The Big Circus

big circus poster.jpg

Joseph Newman - 1959
Warner Archives DVD

"They're on the brink of disaster,
hearts beat faster,
when they're through."

The lyrics teeter on the edge of self-parody. Considering that the title song for The Big Circus was written by Sammy Fain and Paul Ferris Webster, I have to put it in perspective of their two Oscar winning songs, "Love is a Many Splendored Thing" with its big chorus can in no way be considered understated, while "Secret Love" from Calamity Jane left a door open for other interpretations to the lyrics. The song is no classic, and neither is the movie, not that either get in the way of the fun.

Released seven years after Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth, and barely disguising any similarity to that film, Joseph Newman's film is actually an improvement. Sure, the budget was smaller, and the stars were culled from the B list, but unlike DeMille's two and half hour slog, this show is lighter by about forty-five minutes. I don't know how much the film cost to produce, but it was successful enough to get producer Irwin Allen back onto the lot of the 20th Century-Fox for the next decade, while Newman closed out his career in theatrical films as house auteur at Allied Artists, for whom this film was made.

the big circus 1.png

This is another case of a DVD rescue allowing me to see a film that I was aware of, but had never seen, from childhood. I have a memory of constant television commercials for The Big Circus. I would have been seven years old at the time. Summer of 1959 at my grandparents house in Detroit. If there was any name among the stars that had any meaning, it would have possibly been Red Buttons. What I do recall is the announcer pronouncing the name of the top billed actor as "Victor Mat-yooooor!".

Anyways, Vic is running a circus that's on the verge of bankruptcy. Red Buttons is the bank's guy who makes sure that their investment in the circus pays off. Red brings along Rhonda Fleming as press agent who challenges Vic's ideas on suitable jobs for women. There's also someone who's trying to sabotage the circus. I won't tell you who, except that it is revealed that prior to joining the circus, he had spent six years in "an institution for the criminally insane". I would guess there was a time when job references weren't always a key to some forms of employment. Best of all is Peter Lorre as Skeeter. Lorre takes on the James Stewart role from The Greatest Show on Earth in the role of an actor who can be easily recognized, even with clown make up. Lorre is the best part of this film, whether dressed as a clown or not, providing wise cracking commentary for most of the action.

Being an Allied Artists' production, the film was shot with an economic visual style of mostly full shots and some medium shots. It's not like Joseph Newman wouldn't have known how to film it any other way, but he uses his budgetary constraints to his advantage. The without using the kind of positioning of actors that might be found in the wide screen works of Nicholas Ray or John Sturges, many of the shots are composed in such a way to see the actors speak or react to each other, without looking "stagy". The result is that the viewer can glance from the banter of Victor Mature and Rhonda Fleming, to the comical poses of Peter Lorre within the frame, rather than cutting between the actors and their particular bits of business. As a former Assistant Director, Joseph Newman would be conscientious of keeping any film production on time and on budget.

The film story was by Irwin Allen, not above plugging one of his earlier productions, when Victor Mature passes a theater marquee showing Allen's documentary, The Sea Around Us. Also credited for the screenplay are Charles Bennett, best known for his writing collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, and Irving Wallace, his last screenplay before embarking on a career of literary potboilers like The Chapman Report. As the title song suggests, there is a sense throughout the film that everyone knows not to take anything too seriously, all of which adds to the fun.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 25, 2013 08:55 AM