What fun to finally have a look a Cecil B. Demille’s (cross-reference below) 1952 circus extravaganza—the big top saga coming to the big screen in the same year that I ventured onto the planet!
To be honest, the best actors are the animals (notably the stoic, ever-patient elephants), and the actual circus performers—courtesy of Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey troupe (advertisements don’t come any better). The last time I attended a circus was in Ottawa several decades ago where I played in the band—nonstop music and sudden cuts, depending on how the acts were going.
The plot is laughable, a kind of Phantom of the Circus as trapeze superstar The Great Sebastian (ably done up with a wink and a nod by Cornel Wilde), brings his legendary skills under the big top to guarantee “boss man’s” (Charlton Heston) full season rather than just a truncated big-city tour. Naturally, inevitably, he misses the net and comes up decidedly shorthanded, but the show goes on…
Both men simultaneously compete for the love and affection of fellow trapezist, Holly (played with bravado by Dorothy Hutton), and Queen of the Elephants, Angel (Gloria Grahame readily serving up tusk love as required).
Most of the comic relief (so very Shakespeare without the telling lines) is Buttons the Clown, who never takes off his makeup… James Stewart has fun with the role, even if there are no surprises about who his girl really is and why he ran away to the circus.
The few songs are readily forgettable and the on-camera band conductor never finds his beat; do watch closely in the stands to see the likes of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope taking in a matinée. Many, many gallons of ice cream must have been purchased for the cutaway of the children (and not a few of their parents) having a few licks “with the greatest of ease”.
Hard to believe that this cinematic act upon act of melodrama (featuring lines such as “Clowns only love once”!) and big red noses and oversized shoes beat out High Noon, Ivanhoe and The Quiet Man. JWR