Billy Rose's Jumbo (1962) was for many of its participants the end of the line. It was star Doris Day's last musical, innovative choreographer-director Busby Berkeley's last movie, and co-star Jimmy Durante's last major film role. While Gigi (1958) is generally regarded as MGM's final major musical there were two significant stragglers, this and The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), the last films of veteran director Charles Walters.
Adapted from the moderately successful 1935 Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart Broadway show, the last, in fact, to play the Hippodrome before it was torn down in 1939, Jumbo is a pretty decent film, but it unambitiously falls back on clichés present in nearly all circus movies, adding nothing new, and the big musical climax is anticlimactic and even a bit dull. The title character, a beloved pachyderm, barely figures into the plot, but the movie is generally pleasant and several of the musical numbers are quite good.
The picture was a big commercial flop, reportedly losing a whopping $4 million at the box-office, a huge loss a half-century ago. Much of this seems due to the way it was produced. Virtually all circus films before and since were made with the cooperation of real circuses, utilizing all of their facilities and performers, oftentimes filmed when they were on winter holiday. But Jumbo was expensively shot almost entirely on MGM's backlot. Ironically, this only served to make the film look less authentic and smaller in scale (especially compared to the later Circus World), and probably this more than any single factor contributed to its commercial failure.
An early Warner Archive Blu-ray, Billy Rose's Jumbo gets a strong transfer with good extras, including the debut of a 1953 Tom & Jerry cartoon short in high-def.
The overly simple plot concerns the Wonder Circus and its financial troubles, and the overused conflict to drive such stories, a rival circus anxious to buy out its competitor. Professional clown Pop Warner (Jimmy Durante) owns the circus, but he's a chronic gambler whose addiction is depicted as something almost endearing instead of the illness it would be today. Forever gambling away the box office receipts, he runs afoul of local businessmen demanding to be paid. This causes his jack-of-all-trades performer daughter, Kitty (Doris Day), no end of grief.
As various performers leave the show for reliable pay elsewhere, stranger Sam Rawlins (Stephen Boyd, late of Ben-Hur), an experienced performer and tent hand, turns up, mysteriously getting Pop Warner out of one jam after another. As rival circus owner John Noble (Dean Jagger) closes in, hoping to take over the circus and gain ownership of star performer Jumbo (Sydney*) especially, fortune teller Lulu (Martha Raye) likewise closes in on widower boyfriend Pop Warner, hoping to finally tie the knot.
The Broadway show, which had featured Durante in a different but similar role, was unimaginatively adapted by Sidney Sheldon, best remembered today as the creator of I Dream of Jeannie and later as a bestselling novelist (The Other Side of Midnight, Rage of Angels, etc.). His screenplay is highly predictable and obvious, relying on the charm of its four leads, the various real-life circus acts, and the musical numbers to carry the film, which to a point they do.
The script appears to deviate sharply from the Broadway show: the song probably best familiar to contemporary audiences, "This Can't Be Love," was actually written for another Rodgers-Hart musical, The Boys from Syracuse. One of Sheldon's very few interesting and original touches has Pop Warner's rival, John Noble, explaining that his determination to gain control of the circus is because he feels Jumbo would complete his dream of staging the perfect evening's entertainment. In other words, he's ultimately a showman himself with the bottom line a secondary concern. It's unfortunate Sheldon's script doesn't develop this idea further.
Nevertheless, several of the numbers are genuinely enchanting. I was particularly mesmerized by (the presumably Berkeley-directed) "Over and Over Again." Kitty admonishes a girl studying the trapeze for not trying hard enough, urging her to keep trying over and over again as various human and animal performers come into frame, bouncing on trampolines and dangling from the high wire until several dozen are in view, perfectly synchronized to the music. "My Romance" and "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," Rodgers & Hart standards, are also pleasant, the former particularly suited to Day's singing style. However, the grand finale, "Sawdust and Spangles and Dreams" is like a half-hearted attempt to revive the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink finales of many a ‘50s MGM musical, finishing the otherwise mild film on a disappointing note.
Jimmy Durante was pushing 70 but you'd never know it as his trademark boundless energy is front-and-center, and his timing is as sharp as ever. The movie revives Durante's show-stopping line from the 1935 show, with Pop Warner unsuccessfully trying to hide Jumbo from various creditors and police officers. "Where are going with that elephant?" one demands. Pop Warner, seemingly oblivious to the 10,000-pound beast behind him, asks "What elephant!?"
Both Durante and Day are doubled in their circus acts, and while the sharpness of the Blu-ray reveals this pretty clearly, the doubling is nonetheless expertly done, leaving many viewers wondering just how much circus performing the two actors actually did.
Billy Rose's Jumbo (Rose's name was contractually obligated to appear in the title) was part of the glut of circus movies belatedly made after the critical acclaim and commercial smash of Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). There were few immediate follow-ups, but later on came Irwin Allen's surprisingly entertaining The Big Circus (1959), the deliriously sadistic Circus of Horrors (1960), the vastly underrated Circus World (1964), which succeeds in many ways Jumbo does not, as well as lesser films like Circus of Fear (1966) and Berserk! (1967).
Video & Audio
Billy Rose's Jumbo was filmed in CinemaScope and originally printed by Metrocolor. The image is pretty sharp here with decent color, though it the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio that really gives this presentation the boost it needs. The Blu-ray rejoins for the first time since its original engagements the film's overture, though it's nothing special and there's no intermission, entr'acte, or exit music.
Supplements include an original trailer and two shorts: Yours Sincerely (1933), featuring a Rodgers & Hart score, and the Tom & Jerry cartoon Jerry and Jumbo (1953). My colleague over at Blu-ray.com, Michael Reuben, suggests only the trailer is high-def native, that the two shorts are merely upconverted from standard-def, but to my eyes while this appears to be the case with Yours Sincerely, the Tom & Jerry short sure looks like an HD transfer to me.
Not great but almost entirely pleasant with a couple of standout scenes, Billy Rose's Jumbo is a lesser but still fondly regarded MGM musical, one of the last films of its kind, and Recommended.
* I'm not certain, but strongly suspect this was the elephant owned for a time by MGM director George Sidney, who befriended and kept an elephant he met while making Jupiter's Darling (1955) at his Beverly Hills home.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.