Classic Movies

From the DVR: 3 Ring Circus (1954)


In July of 2013, I contributed an essay to a “Dynamic Duos in Classic Film” blogathon…and the subject(s) of my text was the immortal team of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, whose vehicles were among the many classic comedies responsible for my lifelong love of old movies…and making me the well-adjusted adult I am today.  (I may have to edit that last part out later.)  In the post, I discussed all of Martin & Lewis’ films save for two: Scared Stiff (1953) and 3 Ring Circus (1954); I left out Stiff only because I had previously posted a detailed piece on that remake of The Ghost Breakers (1940), and Circus got excised only because I wasn’t able to track down a copy to refresh my memory in time for the ‘thon (I had seen the movie only once—many, many moons ago).  “[F]or what it’s worth, I don’t remember it being very good,” I observed in the essay.  Having had an opportunity to re-watch Circus—it aired in April of this year courtesy of The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™, as part of a night-long feting of Zsa Zsa Gabor—I need to clarify that comment.  It’s not as terrible as I remember.  (But it’s still the weakest of the Martin-Lewis oeuvre, in my opinion.)

Pete Nelson (Dean Martin) and Jerome Hotchkiss (Jerry Lewis) have demobbed from the Army, and seek employment with the Clyde Brent Circus—Jerry’s already got a letter (thanks to the G.I. Bill) promising him a job as an apprentice lion tamer (he really wants to be a clown, and he’s banking on the lion taming position as a doorway to that).  The outfit is owned by ringmaster Jill Brent (Joanne Dru), who has her manager Sam Morley (Wallace Ford) assign the pair menial tasks like washing elephants and picking up trash.  Pete soon attracts the attention of trapeze artist Saadia (Gabor), the show’s star (and unfortunately, she knows it all too well), who quickly makes Pete her kept man…much to the jealousy of Jill, who’s become quite fond of Pete.

Jerry soon gets a promotion, too; he’s drafted to replace one of the clowns who’s taken ill—but he quickly runs afoul of Puffo (Gene Sheldon), the circus’ big draw in the clown department, who resents Jerry’s innate ability to garner laughs and love from the crowd.  (Puffo also has a bit of a problem where the bottle is concerned—I was calling him “Wino the Clown” after a fashion.)  When Puffo gives an “either-them-or-me” ultimatum to Jill, she gives him his walking papers and promotes Jerry to full-time made-up mirthmaker.  But the relationship between “Jerrico the Wonder Clown” and his pal Pete becomes strained, particularly when Jill leaves the circus after Pete refuses to shut down the lucrative gambling concession he’s initiated on the fairway.

3 Ring Circus is acknowledged by many to be the catalyst in what ultimately dissolved the partnership between Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.  If this were a courtroom trial, the movie would be Exhibit A—Circus is little more than a vanity showcase for Jerry with Dean merely along for the ride.  It was a troubled production, and the early script drafts (the screenplay is credited to Don “Congo Bill” McGuire, a pal of Jerry’s who would direct Lewis’s first solo film, The Delicate Delinquent [1957]) featured, in Lewis’ words, “ten minutes of my character, then ten minutes of Dean’s, before the two of us even met.”  There was a lot of re-writing (Jerry: “[W]hen you have a Martin and Lewis picture without the ‘and,’ you don’t have much”) but McGuire and Lewis were unable to get around Circus’ chief weakness (something that’s prevalent in both The Stooge [1953] and The Caddy [1953]): Martin’s character is an unlikable wanker.  “There was no sense in me being in that picture at all,” Dean would later observe of Circus.  (I sympathize with the guy.)

Elsa Lanchester in the hit Broadway musical Goodbye, Dignity!

The cast in Circus is solid for the most part; I’ll watch Wallace Ford in just about anything, and I have a soft spot for Joanne Dru cause she’s a fellow Mountaineer (shout-out to Logan, baby!); I kind of wish TDOY fave Elsa Lanchester had more to do (she’s wasted in a fleeting “bearded lady” bit) though Sig Ruman makes the most of his brief appearance as the lion tamer who puts apprentice Jerry through his paces.  Zsa Zsa plays…well, Zsa Zsa, really—she’s effective as the villainess of the piece but she wasn’t particularly laudatory about her participation (Gabor also didn’t get along with my Logan gal Joanne, and was two-timing husband George Sanders during production by dallying with Porfirio Rubirosa): “I played a temperamental trapeze artist:  I wore black tights, long black stockings, high wooden shoes.  I was always ill at ease in this costume:  I have too voluptuous a figure for such attire.”  (Reminds me of that joke of Martin’s in Scared Stiff: “Honey, if you’re an average girl I’ve been dating boys…”)

I wish I had a better screen grab of this…but Kathleen Freeman has a bit as a custard customer who winds up wearing the product.  (Is this the first time she and Jerry appeared together onscreen?  I’ll bet it is.)

What I found so amusing about Gabor and Gene Sheldon’s characters (Gene is Puffo the Clown) is that they are detestable prima donnas, and I’m curious to know whether this was the norm in the ol’ circus game (“That Emmett Kelly is a real dick!”) or if screenwriter McGuire had someone in Hollywood in mind.  Speaking of circus, the real-life Clyde Beatty organization stands in for the film’s fictional “Clyde Brent’; it wasn’t the only motion picture to use the Beatty big top as background in 1954—I’m thinking, of course, of Ring of Fear.  (Circus director Joseph Pevney complained to producer Hal Wallis when Wallis only sprang to build one circus ring for the movie, and finally the cheapskate capitulated to pay for the remaining rings.  That generosity ultimately led to the movie’s title—in pre-production it was known as Big Top.)

Because 3 Ring Circus figures mostly as a movie that gives Jerry Lewis carte blanche (a little French for his fans) to live out his fantasies as another Chaplin (he even mentions in Dean and Me [A Love Story] that “I’d wanted to play a clown ever since I’d seen my idol Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 picture The Circus”) the real laughs in this picture come few and far between.  The funniest moment for me arrives toward the end, where Jerry and the circus are performing at an orphans’ benefit…and try as he might, he can’t seem to make one little girl with leg braces laugh.  His inability to make the little handicapped girl chortle brings on the waterworks in “Jerrico” …and that’s when the little tyke starts enjoying herself in jovial mirth.  She probably wouldn’t think it was so damn funny if she was able to gaze into the future and the comedian’s legendary cinematic abortion The Day the Clown Cried (1972)—a film jokingly described by one of the Chapo Trap House guys as “if the Holocaust is happening to you, all you can do is laugh…if you can’t collaborate.”  (Seriously, the first thing I said when I saw that po-faced little tyke was “Clearly she’s not French.”)

The hilarious thing was that after I finished watching this movie I kept saying to myself “I’ve seen that kid somewhere.”  I know this is going to sound like I’m making this up, but I then went out to the living room and Mom was watching Them! (1954) from the DVR.  Bam!  I remembered it was Sandy Descher, the little girl who shouts out the movie’s title when a whiff of “formic acid” reminds her that some ginormous ants killed her fambly.

Sandy Descher as the little girl who figures out what many will learn in life: solo Jerry Lewis t’aint funny, McGee.  (I keep hearing Bob Hope in My Favorite Brunette (1947): “This kid’s gonna grow up to be a sponsor.”)

3 Ring Circus has yet to officially surface on DVD (there are a few Mom-and-Pop sources offering up a non-sanctioned print), and the reason for which depends on who’s being asked.  There’s speculation that it’s that old Digital Video Recording bugaboo of music rights (which is sort of odd, since they are only two musical numbers in this movie—It’s a Big, Wide Wonderful World and Hey, Punchinello [by the Buttons and Bows team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans]—and they’re both pretty meh), and the (always reliable) IMDb mentions that a pair of scribes, George Beck and Samuel Locke, filed an infringement lawsuit against Paramount and producer Wallis for not using their original script.  Others have posited that the sluggish sales of Paramount Home Video’s previous Martin-Lewis DVD collections scared Paramount away from releasing Circus (though this doesn’t explain why the movie wasn’t on those sluggish volumes in the first place).  If it’s an issue as to whether the proper film elements have survived, the print that was unspooled on TCM that night was darn right sparkly.  So if a DVD release isn’t in the cards, I hope Dean & Jerry fans grabbed this one for their collection.

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