Polly of The Circus 1932 Directed by Alfred Santell. Starring Clark Gable and Marion Davies. A pre-code melodrama. Polly Fisher (Marion Davies) is a brassy, egotistical trapeze star in a traveling circus. Outraged that posters of her put up in a small town have been covered from the waist down (in opaque tights, mind you), she storms into the office of the local priest John Hartley (Clark Gable). John tells her he’s always been a circus fan, but the town is conservative. He attends that night only to see Polly fall from a height of 50 feet.
As the hospital is too far, she’s taken to his house (!) where the town doctor examines her. Miracle of miracles Polly’s broken nothing. (?!) The three to six week recuperation time turns into months as Polly is waited on by a housekeeper, develops interest in the bible and falls in love with her protector…as he does with her. (A case of uneducated street smarts with a heart of gold.) Despite warning from his uncle Bishop Northcott (C. Aubrey Smith), they decide to marry. The congregation will not accept Polly, however.
Sure of another offered job, John interviews elsewhere only to be told nowhere will the diocese accept them. Heartsick, John goes looking for work outside the church. Polly unsuccessfully appeals to the Bishop, then resolves to free her husband. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Dumbo 1941 Based on a character invented by Helen Abertson-Mayer and Harold Pearl for a novelty toy (“Roll-a-Book”). Directed by Ben Sharpsteen. The heartwarming story of an elephant mocked because of enormous ears. When Dumbo’s mother spanks a tormentor, she’s locked up. The hero’s only friend is a mouse named Timothy. Tried out in a balancing act, Dumbo slips causing injury. He attains success in his next job as a clown, but is looked down upon by peers. Visiting his mother, the elephant gets tearful hiccups. He and Timothy drink from a water bucket that turns out to be filled with champagne (?!) The friends unwittingly get drunk.
When they awake in a tree, Timothy realizes that only Dumbo could’ve gotten them up there. With crow friends, he convinces the pachyderm that a magic feather helps him to fly. Dumbo becomes a media star with his newfound talent. The film was intended to be a low-budget feature bringing revenue to the studio after the box office failure of Pinocchio and Fantasia. It’s intentionally more “cartoony” than previous Disney films, one of the last executed by animators with watercolor art. Rent with Amazon Prime.
Dumbo 2019 Directed by Tim Burton. A live-action reimagining of the original film with a new story. Amputee Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns to the Medici Brothers’ Circus after WWI. The circus is in financial straits and Holt’s wife has died of Spanish Flu. To keep the veteran employed, Max Medici (Danny DeVito) hires Holt to look after the animals. When Dumbo is born with giant ears, the caregiver is instructed to tie back his abnormal appendages.
One night during a clown act, Dumbo’s ears break loose and a brutal trainer tries to get him in line. His mother rampages, the trainer accidentally dies, she’s sold off. Meanwhile circus children discover he can secretly fly. A clown act goes awry and Dumbo takes off in public for the first time. The suddenly successful circus is sold to unscrupulous V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) who owns Dreamland on New York’s Coney Island. Dumbo is paired in a trapeze act. Falling off a platform, he reflexively trumpets alarm.
The cry is answered by Mrs. Dumbo elsewhere on the grounds. Vandevere decides she’ll be a distraction and must be put down. Performers revolt, Dreamland’s owner accidentally sets fire to the grounds, Dumbo comes to the rescue. The film ends with mother and son happily in the wild.
Utilizing CGI (the hero’s face is a tad strange but not unappealing), this iteration doesn’t feature talking animals, focusing instead on human characters and the story of turning one’s disabilities into advantage. The group of crows from the 1941 film that had been criticized as being racist were excluded. It looks good but is overcrowded with messages, and somehow never takes off. Rent with Amazon Prime.
The Greatest Show on Earth 1952 Directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Set at The Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus. “…the circus is a massive machine whose very life depends on discipline, motion and speed – a mechanized army on wheels that rolls over any obstacle in its path – that meets calamity again and again, but always comes up smiling…” (from the film) General Manager Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) faces a great many problems at the start of the season.
The first is telling flyer girlfriend Holly (Betty Hutton) that, as dictated by owners, she’s being replaced in the center ring by The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde). The second is Sebastian’s womanizing, the third is Harry (John Kellog), a midway concessionaire he suspects of cheating customers. A fourth, unknown as yet, is the true identity of Buttons the Clown (Jimmy Stewart) who’s hiding from the law. Holly and Sebastian compete for public attention, Brad and Sebastian compete for Holly. Harry gets fired and seeks revenge. Buttons is unmasked.
In addition to actors, the entire Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey’s Circus’ 1951 troupe appears in the film which includes real acts, animals, and behind the scenes footage. Despite a basic plot, it feels authentic because of this. The film won two Academy Awards. Rent on Amazon Prime.
The Big Circus 1959 Directed by Joseph M. Newman. When he splits from the Borman Brothers, Hank Whirling (Victor Mature) needs a bank loan to keep his self-named circus going. Money is offered with the stipulation he take along accountant Randy Sherman (Red Buttons) and publicist Helen Harrison (Rhonda Fleming). From the start of the season, one incident after the other indicates sabotage. There are deaths. To compete, Hank convinces a bereaved wire walker to traverse Niagara Falls. The saboteur almost kills another aerialist. Stick with the film above. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Circus Kid 2006 Directed by Lorenzo Pisoni. “…When I was a kid, I just wanted to open my father’s closet and see a rack of suits…” Larry Pisoni founded the idealistic Pickle Family Circus in 1974 before Lorenzo was born. A one-ring, no animal, traveling show it was revered in circus circles for high quality performance, purity of intention, and imagination. “All decisions were made collectively by the entire group, all got the same pay, all performers also had offstage jobs.” Early days featured young Bill Irwin and Geoff Hoyle (both speak in the film) who would become famous on their own.
Lorenzo performed as a clown before the age of five. He was subject to Larry’s high standards and unremitting work ethic. At six, a contract was put before him with a note, “Think about it. I don’t want to be responsible for stealing your childhood.” The boy learned acrobatics, to juggle, walk the wire, and fly (trapeze) … When Larry had a breakdown abandoning the circus and his family, Lorenzo’s mom moved to San Francisco to handle the business while he remained at Pickle raising himself on tour, taking on his father’s roles until attending high school in San Francisco. (Lorenzo became an actor.)
The documentary features a great deal of salient early footage and glimpses of Lorenzo’s one man theater piece Humor Abuse about the relationship with his father and circus. I saw the show years ago. It’s marvelous – funny and poignant. He interviews the prickly Larry, his mom, and those involved early on. An usual look at the craft, an extraordinary circus, and a survivor. Free with Amazon Prime.
Water for Elephants 2011 Based on the Sara Gruen novel. Directed by Francis Lawrence. A flashback story starting in 1931. Young veterinary student Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) hops a train owned by the Benzini Brothers Circus. When he exhibits medical knowledge about an ailing animal, its ringmaster/animal trainer August (Christopher Waltz – excellent) skeptically hires him. They lock horns almost immediately. Jacob is attracted to August’s compassionate wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) and notes his mistreatment of her.
Issues arise with the beating of an expensive elephant who will not follow orders. Jacob discerns why and the act goes smoothly. Spending time with the animals, he and Marlena fall in love. They briefly escape, but are dragged back to consequences. August’s brutality causes his employees to mutiny. Violence and chaos ensues. It all comes out fine in the end. Good story but zero chemistry between leads. Pattison can’t act his way out of a paper bag. Rent on Amazon Prime.
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