Critica Retro and Summer of Serendipitous Anachronisms. The blogathon runs this weekend, November 12-13, with a sequel weekend planned for late November or early December. Please visit the blogathon for links to more entries on circus films!
THE BIG CIRCUS (1959) is an Irwin Allen production for Allied Artists. It's a fairly elaborate film for a company often associated with lower-budget movies. Although much of the film takes place in just one set, the big top, the circus scenes look terrific. Even better, the film stars a deep cast of most enjoyable faces.
Victor Mature plays Henry Jasper Whirling, proprietor of the Whirling Circus. The circus has struggled since Hank parted ways with his partners, but he receives a bank loan on the condition that a bank employee, Randy (Red Buttons), travel with the circus and monitor expenditures. Randy is initially dubious about circus life, until he gets to know Hank's cute little sister Jeannie (Kathryn Grant).
Randy hires an ace publicist, Helen (Rhonda Fleming), much to Hank's annoyance, but it's clear that Hank and Helen's sparring masks an attraction.
Other members of the circus family include ringmaster Hans Hagenfeld (Victor Price), star clown Skeeter (Peter Lorre), and the members of a high wire act, Tony (Gilbert Roland), Maria (Adele Mara), and Tommy (David Nelson).
The script, by producer Allen along with Irving Wallace and Charles Bennett, is fairly pedestrian, yet the film is quite engaging thanks to the top cast and the Technicolor CinemaScope filming of Oscar-winning cinematographer Winton C. Hoch. Pretty much every twist and turn of the plot went as expected, but I must say I quite enjoyed it.
I particularly liked Roland and Mara as a devoted couple and wished the film had had time to more deeply explore their relationship. With such a big cast, everyone has a moment to shine but none of the characters have much depth. That said, I also found Price quite good as a top professional in his field. Mature and Fleming are always enjoyable, and all in all the film is a fun watch.
Price and Mature, incidentally, had costarred in an Irwin Allen production half a decade previously, DANGEROUS MISSION (1954).
The aerial scenes are quite well done, smoothly edited between the real aerialists and the actors. The crossing of a back projection Niagara Falls is a little less successful visually, but the scene works thanks to the charismatic Roland.
THE BIG CIRCUS runs 109 minutes. It was directed by Joseph M. Newman.
It's available on DVD in a beautiful print from the Warner Archive. There are no extras.