Tuesday 5 February 2019

The Big Circus (1959)

Director: Joseph M. Newman
Writer: Irwin Allen & Charles Bennett and Irving Wallace, based on a story by Irwin Allen
Stars: Victor Mature, Red Buttons, Rhonda Fleming, Kathryn Grant, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, David Nelson, Steve Allen and Gilbert Roland

Index: 2019 Centennials.

Oh hey, that’s a big screen! Irwin Allen’s attempt to bring what ringmaster Vincent Price calls “a spectacle of unparalleled beauty” to our eyeballs was done in TechniColor and CinemaScope and it looks huge. It takes all of ten seconds to dwarf Price in one of the rings of a immense circus tent; he’s so tiny that we wouldn’t have a clue who he was if it wasn’t for his instantly recognisable voice. He’s Hans Hagenfeld and this is not his story, as important a star as Price was in 1959; he made this in between House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler. In fact, the story here frankly doesn’t matter because it’s good old fashioned Hollywood hokum, crammed full of pointless romances, ridiculous plot devices and transparent mysteries; what isn’t entirely stupid was lifted directly from Cecil B. DeMille’s Academy Award-winning The Greatest Show on Earth, made seven years earlier. What matters is the spectacle, because the movie is as gaudy and outrageous and enjoyable as any circus and, arguably, that’s why, as bad as it is, it works so well.

Of course, times have changed since 1959 and I’m not only referring to the lyrics of the clich├ęd musical theme song number which suggest that, “There’s nothing as gay as a day at the circus with you.” Circuses were still big in the fifties and this one comes fitted with all of the reasons why they’re not still big today: there’s a lion act in which the big cats don’t look particularly comfortable, an array of elephants painted from trunk to tail in different colours and a slapstick routine with clowns that’s taken straight from the Keystone Kops playbook. Nowadays, we like our lions and elephants to roam free and our clowns to be kept far away from our kids because, after Stephen King’s It, every damn one of them’s scared silly whenever they see one. To a child of the 21st century, this will be as old fashioned as the Enid Blyton books I read in the seventies about kids running away to join the circus. To them, it’ll be a curiosity of a bygone era and their parents might find themselves having to explain more than they might believe.

The first thing to have to explain is why the Whirling Circus kicks off its grand show, inevitably “the biggest show on Earth”, with a boring Parade of the Nations. I’d have no idea either except that it’s colossal and colourful and that was kind of the point of movies shot in Technicolor and CinemaScope. The screen, packed with colour coded dancing girls, grand floats and horse-drawn carriages, begins to look like an explosion in a candy store and, frankly, it’s just as substantial, but there’s always something for us to look at. Then, as the credits and the theme tune wrap up together, we find that the Whirling Circus’s carriage, led by horses and complete with steam-powered pipe organ, is something to look at too as it wends its wild and wonderful way through the agog streets of New York City. It eventually stops outside a bank so Henry Jasper “Hank” Whirling can walk up to the boardroom to find every man still looking out of the window at the spectacle he brought to town. It’s an important lesson: always be watchable.

Hank’s there to secure a loan and an investment, now that the empire he ran with Jules Borman has split into two separate circuses. “I’m only asking for half a million dollars,” he says but they’re not biting. Accountant Randall Sherman suggests that a $250k loan is safe but the equivalent investment isn’t, because “circuses are dying.” His boss calls Whirling a “notorious personage” and “one of the most reckless spenders in existence”, but grants the half million on the condition that Sherman hits the road with the circus as their new financial expert to ensure that it remains profitable. After all, he hates circuses, so he’s hardly going to be seduced by the sawdust. Oh, and Helen Harrison will join the affray too, as “the best public relations agent available”. I should point out here that Miss Harrison is an enchanting redhead played by Rhonda Fleming and Hank has a delightful sister called Jeannie in the lovely form of Kathryn Grant. Let’s see how long it takes you to figure out the two romances that this picture will set up!
Just in case you need a nudge in the right direction, I’ll add that Hank Whirling is played by Victor Mature, who appears here rather like a living caricature, and Randy Sherman is brought to charismatic life by Red Buttons, who would have been one hundred years old today and was a hot property back in 1959, having won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Sayonara only two years earlier, an impressive feat for his first major picture. While his work spanned multiple media, not just stage and small screen but stand up too, I had a number of obvious choices for this review, most obviously the other films for which he received award nominations: Harlow, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Pete’s Dragon. Behind those, there are interesting films like Hatari!, the John Wayne safari comedy for Howard Hawks; Who Killed Mary What’s ’er Name, an investigation of the murder of a prostitute, bizarrely rated PG; and a strange “double feature” called Movie Movie. And, of course, there’s an even more famous Irwin Allen picture: The Poseidon Adventure.

Many things drew me to The Big Circus, one of which is that Red Buttons has the only character with a real story arc, if we discount a trapeze artist who loses his nerve but promptly finds it again just in time to walk a high wire across Niagara Falls. Randy’s initially a stuck up accountant who hates circuses but, after spending many months touring with Whirling, finds himself harbouring rather different attitudes about them. That change is epitomised by a glorious pair of scenes midway through the movie. The first features a clown called Skeet, played by Peter Lorre, passing out drunk because of bad news. The second sees Randy unexpectedly taking his place in the ring, in a dangerous and very physical routine he’s never practiced featuring the collected clowns in a slapstick attempt to save people from a makeshift burning house. That’s the pivotal point for Randy, because he goes from a perceived enemy of the circus to “one of us, one of us”, but he builds towards it and he grows on after it. It’s hardly Oscar-worthy material but hey.
Another reason is that Irwin Allen connection, because he didn’t become the “Master of Disaster” until the seventies, having been through five separate careers already—editing Key Magazine; producing a radio show for eleven years; writing a syndicated gossip column; producing and directing films; and then making a string of famous television shows—but this film pointed the way to that future. While it’s easiest to watch The Big Circus as a hundred minute spectacle and Hollywood would probably want us to see it as a romance, it’s framed as a mystery and it plays out like an old forties serial with a disaster to end each episode. Some of these tie to the mystery, because villainous Jules Borman is quite obviously paying an unknown someone to sabotage the Whirling Circus from within, but they’re all disasters. There’s a fire that threatens the circus, floods that threaten its success, a train crash that threatens its schedule (and kills a couple of people), even a loose lion that threatens its press. This is Irwin Allen, the Journeyman of Disaster.

Add to that the stellar cast and this became a gimme. Victor Mature is far more of a star here than he is an actor, but that fits well with the material. Hank Whirling is a larger than life character, someone who runs his circus like a benevolent dictator with sheer power of presence. There are better actors here and better acting as well, but Mature is the only choice for figurehead, if not quite bobblehead. While Borman (literally the only member of the rival circus that we see) is his nemesis and Randy the accountant is his initial enemy, Rhonda Fleming is his real foil, as Helen Harrison, the bitch who thinks she can do PR better than him. He would feel threatened even if she was male, but she’s both skilled and sultry, so she’s double trouble. Sadly, if you’re thinking that she was an ahead of her time tough lady, she also has an annoying habit of throwing up her hands and surrendering to every crisis that shows up. It’s ridiculous inconsistency, but Fleming handles it about as well as anyone can.
Kathryn Grant, the new Mrs. Bing Crosby who would retire from the screen after this film for literally half a century, has the same annoying habit, as if it’s as inherent a component part of womanhood as a vagina, but she does at least get a mild character arc that doesn’t involve which man she’ll end up with. Her mother, she tells Randy, died in a tragic accident on the flying trapeze, and she’s now driven to fly safely herself, not so much to conquer a fear as to give honour to her heritage, after which point she’ll be happy to retire from the circus, which she oddly hates, and settle down in a small Connecticut town to raise kids. Of the supporting actors, only Gilbert Roland really gets much to do. He’s Zach Colino of the Flying Colinos, the leader of the trapeze artists, master of his art. His wife dies when the train is sabotaged and he loses his nerve. Hank calls him on that, rather viciously, and pushes him into doing the Niagara Falls publicity stunt, setting up a cheap temporary rivalry and its ramifications. However, Roland elevates it with style.

And then, after mentioning that Vincent Price’s talents are wasted in the background and Peter Lorre’s are restricted to a couple of good scenes and still more background, there’s Red Buttons, our centenarian du jour, who ably demonstrates how great he was by shining in the one role that really ought not to shine. He’s an accountant in a suit and tie who spends the majority of this film at the circus, the Big Circus as the title reminds us, which is notably bigger than we might expect as the director of photography, Winton Hoch, veteran of a string of John Ford/John Wayne movies including The Searchers, used a lot of long shots to emphasise that fact. If there’s a character here less likely to be noticeable than Randall Sherman, I have no idea who that might be. That Red Buttons does enough to be noticed is a firm nod in his favour; that he does enough to shine is notably impressive. We actually come to care about this initially whiny accountant, who finds himself at Whirling and finds his future too, because, you know, Hollywood endings.
Red Buttons, of course, was not this particular actor’s real name. He was born Aaron Chwatt in New York to Jewish immigrants and picked up his name sixteen years later while working as a bellhop. Charles “Dinty” Moore, the orchestra leader at Ryan’s Tavern in the Bronx, conjured up the nickname from Chwatt’s red hair and the large and prominent buttons on his uniform and it stuck. As I have no idea how to pronounce Chwatt, that’s probably a good thing. Buttons worked his way up the chain, of course, though there were career setbacks. He was due to open on Broadway in a farce called The Admiral Had a Wife on 8th December, 1941, but as it was set in Pearl Harbor, which the Japanese bombed the day before, it was promptly cancelled. He joked, years later, that the Japanese only did so to keep him off Broadway. He was on stage in Wine, Women and Song, the last classic burlesque show in New York, in 1942 when the authorities shut it down; that event was memorialised in the William Friedkin film The Night They Raided Minsky’s.

His first film appearance grew out of a Broadway show, one put on by the U.S. Army Air Forces, into which he’d been draughted in 1942. It was called Winged Victory and so was the movie adaptation in 1944. For some reason, he chose not to pursue a career in film, appearing (uncredited) in only one more feature, Jimmy Cagney’s 13 Rue Madeleine, within the next decade. Instead, he expanded to television, hosting The Red Buttons Show for two seasons, while continuing on in Broadway shows. It was Sayonara that enticed him back onto the big screen, playing an American airman who marries a Japanese lady during the Korean War. Both he and his screen love interest, Miyoshi Umeki, won Oscars for their work, albeit in the Supporting category. After that, came a succession of notably varied and often very interesting films, many of which I’ve already mentioned. His big screen career lasted for fifty-five years, but he only appeared in half that number of films, racking up as much fame as a comedian and TV star.
The sheer breadth of his career means that he’s remembered in many different ways. His big award win was for Sayonara, but more film fans will remember him from The Poseidon Adventure. Those who prefer television might remember him from his starring role in The Double Life of Henry Phyfe in 1966, but they’re more likely to cite his many appearances on The Tonight Show or any number of Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, at which he was a regular. Comedy Central listed him amongst the 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time and the Hollywood Walk of Fame only has a star for his television work. His final screen performance came on television, in a reprise of another regular slot, albeit a shorter one, on ER. Not having grown up with American television, I know him from films and I realise through this project that I’ve seen a higher percentage of his features than I expected but a lower number than I’d like. Few careers on the big screen are as interesting as that of Red Buttons, who died in 2006 at the age of 87. Happy birthday, sir.

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