The Big Circus
WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.
It took a long time for The Big Circus to make it to home video, and even at that is is almost a specialty item. I've fond memories of it, and the remastered DVD is worth watching because it's all good clean fun.
Hank Whirling (Victor Mature) has a falling-out with his partners the Borman Brothers and their big railroad circus is split in two. The performers mostly side with Whirling, pooling their money to launch the show as both performers and stockholders; and thus the undercapitalized Whirling Circus, "The Biggest Show in the World," comes into existence. Whirling, a born showman, uses this asset and a calliope to impress a New York City bank into extending him a line of credit. The bank is not totally dazzled, though; they install one of their own executives, Randy Sherman (Red Buttons), as Whirling's CFO in control of the purse strings with orders to reduce costs without sacrificing quality. They also, offending Whirling further, put a flack, Helen Harrison (Rhonda Fleming), in to handle all his publicity, something Whirling is actually very good at. Both are good at their jobs, but neither is circus; no sawdust is in their veins, at least not at first.
The show leaves its winter quarters and takes to the road. There are problems. At a PR party arranged by Harrison, a lion somehow escapes from its cage and wanders into the Big Top where the party is being held. The combined efforts of Whirling and his star aerialist, Zach Colino (Gilbert Roland, in a powerful performance), recapture it. The resultant publicity thanks to Harrison's astute positioning of the averted disaster, is wonderful; but examination of the cage shows it was deliberately opened.
To Whirling's displeasure, Sherman brings in a stake-driving machine. (Parenthetically, I don't know why Whirling was so outraged; Ringling, Cole Bros., and Hannaford among others in America alone had been using them for more than 20 years when the movie was made.)This device replaces 40 roustabouts and saves substantial money, but sparks coving from a faulty exhaust stack set a huge pile of hay bales afire. Only prompt action by Whirling keeps the Big Top from going up in flames. Verbal reports from local kids on the pump gang and examination of the machine show it had been tampered with, and Whirling apologizes to Sherman for his intemperate language and actions.
Later, a train wreck of the first section of the circus train kills Maria Colino, aka "Mama," who is Zach's wife and den mother to everyone on the show, Harrison included. Colino is devastated. Is a saboteur traveling with the Whirling Circus? Whirling, Sherman and Harrison wonder.
The show is not doing well financially; they have been fighting weeks of foul weather while the Borman Circus, the other half of the divided show, enjoys sunshine and great ticket sales in another part of the country. Only glib talk and adept bookwork by Sherman hold the bank at bay. Whirling conceives a bold plan. The show's next stop is Buffalo. The Borman show is scheduled to play New York City, always a money-maker for circuses, in three weeks. He proposes to land a one-two punch. Pull off a spectacular stunt in Buffalo, then scrap his planned route and slip into the Big Apple ahead of Borman to play a two-week stand. This will put the show back in the black, secure their loan, and coincidentally give Borman a black eye, because the Whirling Circus will have cut the circus crowd out from under them.
The problem is with Zach Colino. The stunt Hank Whirling has in mind is a repeat of one last done in the 19th Century by the great wire-walker Blondin: walk across Niagara Falls. Colino is in a fragile state since the death of his wife Maria and seems to have lost his nerve. Whirling taunts him, calling him a coward. Enraged, Colino promises that he will first walk the Falls, and then he will kill Whirling.
Televised by the local TV station, Colino's walk of the Falls is a great success and still scary today, even though on a high definition TV it's obvious that it's blue-screened. Like Betty Hutton before him, Gilbert Roland had to learn a little bit about a uniquely circus art; he actually is walking on a cable in the close-ups in the blue-screen sequence (and yes, there are full length shots). After completing the stunt, Colino realizes that Whirling was attempting to help his old friend and they reconcile. But more trouble lies ahead.
Goaded by a board member who does not like circuses (it is unclear whether or not this board member is working with Borman), the bank decides to foreclose on Whirling. However, the foreclosure is not official until the papers are served on Hank personally. When Mr. Lomax from the bank arrives on the Whirling lot, Hank is nowhere to be found. Sherman, who by now has gotten sawdust in his veins to the point he filled in successfully with a clown routine when Skeeter, the Boss Clown (Peter Lorre) could not go on, works in cooperation with Skeeter and the Ringmaster (Vincent Price, in a small but marvelous performance) and locks Lomax in a cage with a very laid-back lion. Why would they do that?
They'd do it because Whirling made a deal with a New York City TV station to televise that evening's show, hosted by Steve Allen (playing himself). The money from the broadcast is more than enough to pay off the line of credit, put the show back in the black, and let them move ahead on sound financial footing.
At this point, two things happen at once. Jeannie Whirling, Whirling's sister in her early 20s, reveals to big brother Hank and her boyfriend Randy Sherman that she is going to fill in for the late Maria with the Flying Colinos; she has been training in secret with them for a year. At the same time, the NYPD shows up looking for the catcher of the Flying Colinos, Tommy Gordon (David Nelson), an escaped lunatic and homicidal maniac. Tommy deliberately misses a catch, but fortunately Jeannie is able to latch onto one of the climbing tapes and saves herself. A chase ensues in mid-performance, climaxing with Gordon, the saboteur in the pay of Borman, taking a fatal fall when Zach Colino drives him aloft and goes up after him.
The show climaxes with a grand spectacle, with Helen Harrison and Hank Whirling finally admitting what to everyone else on the show is plain to see, that they are in love with each other. As the camera pulls away they are kissing passionately on a couch on one of the spec floats. And they all lived happily ever after.
Even compared to DeMille's epic The Greatest Show on Earth, there's a whole lot of soap opera in The Big Circus. I find that detracting. There is also the fact the viewer does not see the Whirling Circus as a CIRCUS. I know that Irwin Allen hired a small circus to double as the Whirling Circus; but apart from the Great Zacchini performing his human cannonball act, there are no world-class acts on the show as there are with TGSOE. From a pure performance point, it's nowhere near as good, though Red Buttons' turn as a clown in the old Burning House Gag is funny and Vincent Price's air of quiet, amiable menace does heighten the mystery of the saboteur's identity substantially; right up to the reveal you wonder if he is the saboteur. To be honest, I was frankly more impressed with the secondary characters than the leads, which says something about Mature and Fleming's performances.
Still, if you like circuses and don't mind a big cup of soap opera with your popcorn, The Big Circus is a pleasant way to pass a couple of hours on a quiet afternoon. It deserves a place in the collection of every circus buff.