Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Billy Rose's Jumbo (1962) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

The era of the great MGM musicals drew to a close with BILLY ROSE'S JUMBO (1962), released on Blu-ray by the Warner Archive.

BILLY ROSE'S JUMBO was adapted from a 1935 stage show starring Jimmy Durante, who rather remarkably also stars in the movie as another character, 27 years after appearing in the original show. The movie also stars Doris Day, Stephen Boyd, and Martha Raye.

In a nice touch, the Blu-ray features the original theatrical Overture before the opening credits. After the credits, as if to emphasize the show's old-fashioned nature, Boyd stands on a stage and sings an introduction about going back in time to enjoy the circus; the curtain behind him lifts and the film's action begins.

The slight plot concerns a struggling circus owned by Pop Wonder (Durante), who stars in it along with his daughter Kitty (Day) and his fiancee (of 14 years!), Lulu (Raye).

Unbeknownst to the Wonders, new employee Sam (Boyd) is paying off the Wonders' creditors in order to gain financial control of the circus on behalf of his father (a poorly used Dean Jagger), who owns a competing circus.

I have very mixed feelings about JUMBO, as the movie is also known. In the plus column I love Doris Day, director Charles Walters, the Rodgers and Hart score, and choreographer Busby Berkeley, who retired after making this film.

On the down side, I don't really like circuses or clowns, I don't care very much for the comedy style of Durante and Raye, and while Boyd is very handsome, he's also wooden.

The film's best moments are when Doris Day and the Rodgers and Hart score are front and center and the wide screen is being used to full effect by Busby Berkeley and cinematographer William H. Daniels.

My favorite number, "Over and Over Again," is a miniature Berkeley masterpiece with trapeze artists. It's a colorful sequence which looks fantastic on Blu-ray. (I would also note that the use of a stunt double for Day is cleverly handled; I rewound after the number to look at the editing a second time.) This is the kind of scene where I expect I'll put in the disc just to watch this number again from time to time, even if it's a while before I get back to the movie itself.

The score also includes "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," which is still running in my head, plus standards such as "Little Girl Blue" and "My Romance." While most of the score is terrific, the final song, "Stardust and Spangles and Dreams," is unfortunately a clunker; it was written by Richard Rodgers and Roger Edens.

The film is too long at 127 minutes, wasting time on scenes which do nothing to move the action forward, notably a sequence where Durante tries to shoot Raye out of a cannon. On the other hand, a thunderstorm sequence which includes a complicated aerial rescue is much more exciting.

While JUMBO isn't a complete success, more of Doris Day being available is always a good thing! I also very much appreciate that the Warner Archive is giving new life to less well-known MGM musicals such as JUMBO and HIT THE DECK (1955) on Blu-ray. I anticipate reviewing the new Blu-ray release of MGM's KISMET (1955) in the near future.

Extras on the Blu-ray disc include a Tom and Jerry cartoon, a musical short, and the trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered at the Warner Archive website. Please note that initial copies of this Blu-ray are being traditionally replicated (pressed) rather than burned on demand.


Blogger Blake Lucas said...

I mostly agree with you about it. It's hard to dismiss anything with so many great Rodgers & Hart songs, even if they originated in the original show rather than the movie. My favorite number in it is Doris Day singing "Little Girl Blue"--a great song and she is ideal for it--though imaginatively done it is not that elaborate as I recall, and seemed to me much more Walters (who I like a lot) than Berkeley (not to be dismissive, because he isn't negligible, but he never meant much to me).
At the same time, as you intimate, one has to endure a lot that is uninspired here to enjoy what's good in it.

I think this is a good example of what you talk about in your DANGEROUS RHYTHM review. Movie musicals are mostly not great or bad--most of them are somewhere in between as they have talented people doing the songs and dances and usually the choreography as well, and there are usually enjoyable numbers and scenes even if the whole is much less. I personally don't consider many musicals to be great, even though there are many I enjoy. Great movies should be organic works of art in which all the elements are integral to the whole and count, and movies in which one waits for a great song or dance don't come up to that. MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS is the earliest musical I consider an unequivocal masterpiece. That's along the lines I'm suggesting and owes not only to the inspiration of everyone involved but especially to Minnelli who does create it as a seamless work and one which carries his vision in the way all his great musicals do.

My point of disagreement is minor--Stephen Boyd. Maybe relative to some others who might have played this he's "wooden" but it sounds like you think he could never be more. If so, you might reconsider if you saw some of his other movies, in which he is very effective--THE BRAVADOS (as a really bad villain), THE BEST OF EVERYTHING and THE THIRD SECRET--notably soulful and sympathetic in these two, especially the second).

11:04 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Blake,

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this film, and by extension, my review of DANGEROUS RHYTHM. I'm not certain if I'd seen JUMBO since seeing it at the late, lamented Vagabond Theater over 30 years ago (!), so it was interesting to finally get back to it. I found that the number which has most strongly stayed in my mind all these years, "Over and Over Again," had the same impact this time around.

You're correct, the staging of "Little Girl Blue" is quite simple, and thanks to Day's singing, it's emotionally powerful. A very nice moment, one of those which makes wading through this too-long movie worthwhile. I wished the entire movie could have been as strong as the R&H songs.

I'm not sure I've seen Boyd in anything other than BEN-HUR, and the last time I saw that was a very long time ago. It just so happens that THE BRAVADOS is in my "to watch" stack of Westerns so I will be watching for him in that. Thanks for the tip.

Just watched THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER which left me in a state of teary delight at the end. Hope you've had time to watch the new DVD as well. Review coming soon...

Best wishes,

11:29 PM  
Blogger DKoren said...

I love Stephen Boyd, but he does not work in this movie at all. I think he must have been very uncomfortable in a musical, or something, cuz this is not his normal acting.

Like you, there are parts of this that are good, but the rest... sadly skippable.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Saving THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER for just the right mood since I've waited so long to see it again. Meantime, I'm glad you liked it so much (and not surprised) and look forward to your review.

8:49 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for your feedback on the movie and Stephen Boyd, Deb! I hope I'll appreciate him more when I try some of his other films.

Blake, I think I'm going to rewatch the ending of MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER later today. :)

By the way, my dad prompts a question I didn't think to ask regarding your comment on MMISL being the earliest unequivocal masterpiece: what about films like LOVE ME TONIGHT, the best Fred & Ginger, THE WIZARD OF OZ? Curious to know your take.

Best wishes,

9:13 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Your dad (and you) asks the good questions. I know that I took a pretty hard line there but I do stand by it. I'll quickly look at the ones you name (and maybe a few others).

Interestingly, LOVE ME TONIGHT is the one Hollywood musical before he came here that Minnelli himself was inspired by and thought was great, so I've made a point to get back to it. It always leaves me cold. What delights others (including VM I guess) just seems precious to me.
I want to like it but I just don't. I would say I like Chevalier and Macdonald musicals that Lubitsch directed more than this because they do have a lot of real charm and humor and I think the numbers fit in at least as well. But still, they have their limitations for me, too. Even though he is amusing at times, I have some trouble with Chevalier much of the time--I guess it would take a lot to explain it and I won't try now. In Minnelli's own GIGI later on, it annoys me that we are supposed to find his character charming because I have the opposite reaction to him. Getting back to LOVE ME TONIGHT, I wish I did warm more to Mamoulian because he is plainly creative and imaginative--I know he directed the original stage productions of OKLAHOMA! and CAROUSEL and I can't imagine those were not great; maybe his talent was more suited to theatre though I wouldn't know why that would be.

I do love Astaire & Rogers musicals, especially some of them. THE GAY DIVORCEE and TOP HAT are very funny as well as having some great songs and dances--the supporting cast they share is one I always enjoy. It's just hard for me to think of these very seriously (which doesn't mean they need to act serious--that is a different thing) and probably it's best if one doesn't. My favorite of their movies is SWING TIME--honestly, it's mostly because the numbers are exquisite, and this is a relatively rare case where the over deliberation of George Stevens may have helped make them that way. The final "Never Gonna Dance" is great, even sublime, and if it were all that good I'd say it's a great movie, but it goes on for what feels like 15 minutes afterward, wearing out its welcome and coming to seem a little more frivolous that it had appeared to be in that number.

11:26 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Blake!

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my (our) query. I'm fascinated you don't care for LOVE ME TONIGHT. I have sympathy with your POV on Chevalier, as I wrote about a little when I watched some of the Criterion Lubitsch musicals, yet LOVE ME TONIGHT made a huge impression on me when I first saw it years ago and continues to delight me every time I return.

THE WIZARD OF OZ has never been a particular favorite of mine, but revisiting it for the first time in years at TCMFF, I have to see it as a masterpiece...everything it did it did perfectly. Thoughts?

All this said, the reason I probably glossed over your comment at first glance is because, as you doubtless know, MMISL is one of my favorite movies of all time, and I certainly consider it an unequivocal masterpiece. I've been meaning to write about my experience seeing it at TCMFF, but for a film like that it's almost too difficult to try to express its perfection in a concise format. :)

Best wishes,

11:44 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Part 2

As for THE WIZARD OF OZ, I guess I'm one of the few people in the known world that won't support this as a great film, and I have seen this one many times since I was a child and probably did once think it was great. It has great things--it does have one of the most beautiful songs ever written, beautifully performed and staged, and I enjoy the switch from black and white (actually sepia) to color. But for a fantasy, the Oz sequences seem very earthbound and the movie always obvious, never in any way poetic, except "Over the Rainbow"
(again, this jumps out). Most of it is really sustained by those three ex-vaudevillians, who surely are great, but they are also very broad.

As I said before, I enjoy a lot of musicals and of these earlier ones, even if the whole might not be that substantial, I could even say I love them or at least a lot of things about them. This usually goes for Fred Astaire, with or without Ginger Rogers. Recently I rewatched YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER with Astaire and Rita Hayworth, a fetching movie, as good as any of the ones with Ginger.

And I also love Deanna Durbin and enjoyed just about all her movies (like you, I'm still missing a couple)--their virtues do seem to extend out from her personality, which sets the tone, and I like most things about them but I don't think even she would say they were great. They seemed designed to be very entertaining and succeed in that.

I hasten to add that musicals do not need to act serious and mostly are supposed to be fun. But I'd add that Minnelli generally manages this while finding a note of gravity that inflects the whole without in any way diminishing its charm. My own favorite musical is one few people would choose and very late in the period of classic musicals--it's BELLS ARE RINGING. It lives on charm, humor and imagination (and wonderful songs, too), and is never solemn and mostly hilarious, but along with this there is so much behavioral nuance that it is, for me anyway, a deeply moving work in its movie version, and one in which Judy Holliday lights up the screen in her role in a way few ever have.

It doesn't hurt there that Minnelli keeps to a long take philosophy (Astaire brought this aesthetic to movies in those early ones with Rogers, a major gift to the genre), now long betrayed in musicals and I don't believe there has been a great musical in many years.

Often, simple things in musicals are really best. My favorite dance number of all time is "Dancing in the Dark" in THE BAND WAGON. It's very elegant, beautiful in dance, in design, in camera movement, in every way--and done in three shots.

Since I said I liked Charles Walters before, I'll go back to one of his really outstanding ones because it was the last musical I saw--EASTER PARADE. The high point for me is "Better Luck Next Time"--a beautiful Berlin song that Judy Garland sings in one graceful take while seated at a bar.

I know your question deserves a much better answer than I've given. I hope it's clear that I like musicals--and when I call one great, I guess that means it is really special to me.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi again Blake!

Home from errands and to enjoy Part 2 of your comments. :)

I guess our thinking parts company on OZ and Astaire-Rogers...the Fred & Ginger movies may not be individually perfect (for instance, I really don't care for Victor Moore in SWING TIME even though I love the film), but the magic created in these films is unique. Particularly when considering the context and how pioneering these films were, the stunning set design, how they (along with Lubitsch, Berkeley, etc.) help lay the groundwork for all the musicals which followed, and perhaps especially what they gave to the Great American Songbook...well, I have to think the word "masterpiece" applies.

Now, you're speaking my language when you praise YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER! :) An underrated movie, unfairly in the shadow of the Rogers films. The magical sheen of that film only grows stronger with each viewing.

And I can't argue with "Dancing in the Dark" as one of the really great musical moments. Both YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER and THE BAND WAGON were some of the earliest films I saw on a big screen, during the L.A. revival theater heyday of the '70s, and are really key films in the history of my falling in love with musicals and the movies.

I've only seen BELLS ARE RINGING a couple of times, including a big screen viewing at the Tiffany Theater -- liked it fine but it didn't make a particular impression compared to early MGM films. Interested that the film ranks so high with you. I have the DVD and need to go back to it.

Best wishes,

2:10 PM  

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