I've been wracking my brain, but I can't ever remember going to an actual, honest-to-God circus. I vaguely recall a circus coming to the fairgrounds at my hometown, sometime back in my grade school days in the 1970s, with flyers and perhaps even tickets being passed out to students. For whatever reason, I never pestered my parents to take me, and so never got a chance to see a real live circus, which in a way, makes me just a teensy bit sad. The traditional circus, with its big tent, popcorn and peanuts, sawdust rings, elephants, barely-tamed big cats, clowns and high-wire acts and prancing ponies, seems a dying art now. (There is still the Cirque de Soliel, of course, but as physically amazing as those performers are, it just ain't the same thing.) Luckily there are movies out there like Circus World to remind us of the heyday of this venerable form of entertainment, when kids and their parents packed the stands when the circus came to town. Circus World is far from the best movie John Wayne ever made, but despite its many flaws, it does deliver some excellent big-top thrills.
Like El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire and 55 Days at Peking, Circus World is another of those massive roadshow epics produced by Samuel Bronston, financed by Hollywood studios but filmed primarily in Europe. Circus World is arguably the least of the above movies in quality, but ironically is the one with by far the best-preserved film elements (King of Kings, another earlier Bronston release, also looks gorgeous in hi-def.) Circus World is out on a Region B Blu-Ray in Europe and looks amazing sharp and colorful, as does the HD presentation frequently shown on NHK in Japan.
Long a big John Wayne fan, I remember catching this one on VHS many years ago, where its 2:20 : 1 aspect ratio was hacked and slashed almost beyond recognition. (Circus World was filmed in an ultra widescreen process called "Super Technirama 70" and then advertized and shown at numerous Cinerama engagements, though it wasn't actually filmed with Cinerama cameras). I don't remember thinking much of the movie back then, but seeing it now, in its proper widescreen glory, all spic and span and looking its best, helps bring a little of the luster back. I don't think it numbers among Wayne's worst films, as some commenters on IMDB do, rating it alongside Jet Pilot and The Conqueror - unduly harsh, in my opinion. It does fall far short of its potential, however, and is overlong, often slow, with perfunctory characterization and rather flat melodrama bogging down the second half. But as a physical production it's still pretty impressive, and the restored transfer finally gives audiences the chance to really see the large scale of everything, including shots incorporating all three rings of the circus, the enormous circus tent like a cavern above the action, often filmed in long shot to give the audience a sense of depth and distance.
Like the previous year's Wayne film, Hatari!, there isn't much of a plot to speak of here, just a thin clothesline upon which to hang various circus acts and romantic shenanigans. Unlike Hatari!, though, Circus World is distinctly lacking in the action department, as well as missing the core, lovable group of professionals for Wayne to bounce off of, that helps make the former film such entertaining company. Wayne has proven himself time and again to be a top-notch reactor, but he's not given a lot to work with here. He's still the best thing about the picture, along with the nifty circus acts interspersed throughout.
Wayne stars as Matt Masters, head of a successful circus in America (the time period is unstated, but going by the fashions, likely sometime in the early 1900s). He decides to take his troupe on a tour of Europe, against the better judgment of his right-hand man, Cap Carlson (Lloyd Nolan, who stepped in when David Niven backed out over rewrites of the script reduced the size of the role). Cap remembers all too well the disaster that befell Matt's company the last time they went to Europe, some 14 years earlier, when one member of the high-wire act, the Alfredo Brothers, fell to his death. Lili (Rita Hayworth), the wife of the dead man, ran off in despair, leaving her young daughter, Toni, alone. Since then, Matt's raised Toni as his own, and now she's grown up into the gorgeous, va-va-voom form of Claudia Cardinale. Matt, who was in love with Lili, thinks it's about time to head back to Europe to try to track her down, for both Toni's sake and his own.
Also along for the ride is hotshot trick rider Steve McCabe (John Smith), on whom Toni has a big crush, unreciprocated until Steve gets a gander at her in her new costume. It soon seems as if Cap's reservations are well-founded, for no sooner does the circus dock at Spain than a freak accident occurs, causing the ship carrying Matt's animals, gear and very expensive canvas tent to list over and capsize, sending hundreds of spectators to tumble into the sea. (While the exact reason for the accident seems unlikely, nevertheless this well-mounted sequence remains one of the high points of the film, as Matt, Steve and Toni try desperately to save what animals they can from the wreckage. The segment is unfortunately brief, though, and should have been extended to amp up the level of suspense and excitement.)
The incident leaves Matt broke and unable to mount his own circus, so he and the others take jobs working in the wild west show of an old colleague, in the hopes of raising funds to rebuild and start a new show. The rest of the movie follows two main paths - the more interesting one by far depicting Matt's efforts to recruit new talent and rebuild his circus, while the more ho-hum storyline focuses on the eventual return of Lili, who tries to leave her troubled and alcoholic past behind her and returns once more to work in Matt's circus, under his hawkish eye. All this unbeknownst to Toni, who idolizes her dead father but has little memory, or regard, for her runaway mother, and so doesn't recognize the older Lili. Complicating matters is Matt's (perhaps unwise) hiring of the dead Alfredo's brother, Aldo (Richard Conte, wasted), a mysterious Sicilian performer perhaps still holding a vendetta against Lili and Matt, for reasons that eventually become clear. Things come to a head on the eve of the new circus's debut performance in Madrid, yet danger and disaster loom once again...
Originally, Frank Capra was set to direct Circus World, but bailed out of the project over his dislike of the script, originally written by Ben Hecht and Julian Halevy, but completely retooled by Wayne's close confidant James Edward Grant to be more of what Grant supposed was a typical Wayne vehicle. Henry Hathaway took over after Capra bowed out. Hathaway was a good, "man's man" sort of director, who excelled at action and large-scale, difficult productions, and was probably much better suited to the subject matter than the more sensitive, humanist Capra, whose best directing years were definitely behind him by this point (though it makes you wonder what that Capra version would have looked like). The year before, Hathaway had done a very good job on the mammoth production of How the West Was Won, but this time out things didn't go quite as smoothly, and Circus World comes off ultimately as a bit of a misfire. Even ultimate pro Wayne seems to sense something's a little off. He gives his usual solid performance, but seems less engaged, less energized. The script is definitely a problem, marred by generic dialogue and some odd dramatic dead ends and ommissions. Cardinale lights up the screen with her beauty and vivaciousness, but is miscast (for starters, her Italian accent is far too thick for a character supposedly raised in the U.S. from the age of four.) Lloyd Nolan was excellent in nearly everything he appeared in, and very welcome here, but isn't given nearly enough to do. Ditto Smith, a Wayne protege who had co-starred with George Montgomery in the (quite good) TV western series Cimarron City and after this film went on to some fame in Laramie. He's good looking, personable, a decent actor and obviously good at all the physical stuff, riding, roping, etc.
Rita Hayworth is only serviceable as the fragile Lili, still lovely here in her mid-40s but stuck with a drip of a part, and not quite in the sort of physical shape demanded of an actual circus performer (which makes for an obvious discrepancy with her double in the highwire stunts). By all accounts Hayworth was a pain in Wayne's and the production's backsides during filming, rude to members of the crew, acting like a prima donna and struggling with her lines (the latter likely attributable to her incipient Alzheimer's). Despite all the backstage brouhaha, Hayworth does a competent enough job here (she was even nominated for a Best Supporting Actress at that year's Golden Globes, surprisingly), but pretty much every time her character is onscreen, the wind goes out of the movie's sails and the story grinds to a halt. There's also a late-blooming plot reveal, involving Aldo and Matt and Lili's past, which is frankly botched, with a certain character's actions left unaddressed and unresolved - basically just dropped completely - and the final reconciliation comes so quick and easy, it rings false.
I wish the movie had focused more on the nuts-and-bolts, behind-the-scenes putting on a circus stuff; those parts are inherently interesting and are executed successfully. Plus, it's always fun to see Wayne in a different environment than the old west, though he still squeezes in some cowboy action. These “wild West show" scenes are especially enjoyable, with Wayne riding around the ring shooting glass balls off the heads of (obviously very trusting!) circus staff (being the Duke, he never misses, of course), Smith and other stuntmen reenacting an Indian attack on a stagecoach, etc. Wayne and Smith even pull off some impromptu publicity by faking a runaway stagecoach stunt down the Champs de Elysse in Paris. All these practical stunts, falls and tricks are fascinating to watch, and I wish there were more of them.
Aside from the earlier ship disaster, there's also a big fire at the finale, which took five days to shoot and almost cost Wayne his life (the resulting smoke inhalation he suffered exacerbated his lung cancer; he underwent surgery after Circus World wrapped.) This attempt to goose up the tension is pretty impressively staged, too, but comes a little too late to the party to reignite the sluggish second half of the film, and like the earlier setpiece, is over much too quickly.
More positives: We also get to witness some still very neat circus acts, including a lion tamer who lays prone on the sawdust and whip-cracks 4 lions to lay down on top of him, as well as a high-wire traipsing clown. All this circus-related stuff is gold, as far as I'm concerned, and together with Wayne and the alluring Cardinale's presence, makes the movie worth watching. It also gets some amusing mileage out of circus brat Toni's preoccupations with bad omens and other showbiz superstitions, and it's a real change of pace to see Cardinale, so often (and understandably) cast as sultry sexpots, playing such an innocent, bubbly character.
While no masterpiece, Cecille B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) remains by far the superior circus movie, but Circus World, despite its flaws, is a pleasant enough way to while away a slow Sunday afternoon, particularly for John Wayne fans or for those who hold a twinge of nostalgia for the old-time thrills of life under the big top.
Source Note: various background details about the making of Circus World culled from John Wayne - American, by Randy Roberts and James S. Olson, published by the Free Press, 1995.
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