Doris Day finds the elephant in the room in... Billy Rose's Jumbo (1962)

In 1935, showman Billy Rose staged a gigantic show appropriately titled Jumbo at the New York Hippodrome. Rose wanted the best, hiring Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur to write the script, George Abbott to direct, Jimmy Durante to star, Paul Whiteman to conduct, and Rodgers and Hart to write the score. With over a dozen circus acts and about 1,000 animals in the cast, Jumbo was posed to be a smash. Except it wasn't. The show ran for just five months and Rose had a hard time recuperating the costs, mainly because the show was so big that it kept absorbing any profit that it could have made.

In 1943, MGM bought the rights to the show, with Arthur Freed planning to turn it into a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney vehicle. Later in the 1940's, it was thought that Garland and Frank Sinatra would give it a go (!!!). Then in 1947, Jumbo was supposed to be longtime choreographer Charles Walters's directorial debut, but instead he was given Good News. In 1952, after Singin' in the Rain, Stanley Donen was attached to direct Jumbo with Red Skelton, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O'Connor as his stars, but that only got so far as pre-production. Ten years later, Chuck Walters finally got his mittens on the film, seeing it as a welcome return to the old-fashioned musicals he missed doing. With screenwriter Sidney Sheldon, they rewrote the script with their new cast in mind, allowing the film to be tailor-made for stars Doris Day, Martha Raye, Stephen Boyd, and Jimmy Durante, who came back to the screen after a ten-year absence to play Day's father.

To prove that this is a prestige picture with ties to the theatre, the film begins with an overture before the opening credits. Once the credits are done, we see a stage with the curtain down. Sam Rawlins (Boyd) comes out and gives us a little song about bringing the circus back to the audience. He then exits,
the curtain goes up, and we see a traveling circus setting up. One of its best attractions is Jumbo, a beloved elephant. While washing her horse, Kathryn "Kitty" Wonder (Day) notices one of the new workers using Jumbo to move a wagon, something their prized pachyderm is never supposed to do
because he is the circus's star. Kitty confronts the worker, but when he calls the elephant an idiot, she tells Jumbo to "cool him off," which means dumping him in a nearby pool. "I quit!" he protests. "Too late! You're fired!" Kitty retorts. You see, Jumbo is one of the family, just like all of the other animals in the circus. If you can't treat them right, you don't belong there. I'm sure Doris Day loved that part of the script. She's been championing the rights of animals for decades.

Kitty takes Jumbo to rehearsal, but that's cut short when she spots her father (Durante) sneaking by. Nothing escapes Kitty, who only has to take one look at Pop to realize that he's been at another crap game. Pop has a bit of a gambling problem, often taking the circus's till and losing it. He's acquired debts in many states, but Pop is such a
darling, Kitty lets it slide. Heading back into the tent, we see how much Kitty loves her circus. She goes by many of the performers and joins in on their acts. There are a lot of things that she does that you can tell aren't really Day. It's hidden well, but you just know that MGM wouldn't let Day do these stunts. You can watch the routine here.

Kitty's fun is interrupted when three men show up, demanding the money that Pop owes them. Kitty is well-practiced in stalling debt collectors, though, and she promises that the circus will be sold out tonight, so they'll be sure to get their money. The men are hesitant, but they agree to come back later that night. Pop is thanking Kitty
when he is stopped by Lu (Martha Raye), the circus's fortune teller. She wants to know where he was last night -- she cooked him a twelve course dinner after all! When he didn't show up, she had to eat it herself (girl after my own heart). Pop apologizes, but he gets in more trouble when he forgets that today is their 14th anniversary... for their engagement. Pop tells her he'll make it up to her by cooking her dinner tonight. She's glad, until he mentions that Jumbo will be there too. See what I mean about Jumbo being part of the family?

In her dressing room tent, Kitty is told by one of the clowns that two other clowns just quit. Could she fill in? Sure, why not. While looking for her big red nose, Sam, the man from the beginning, stops by asking for a job. Not realizing she still has the nose on, Kitty asks him some questions, but decides he isn't
right for them because it sounds like he doesn't stick in one place for too long. I love how seriously Day treats the scene, all while she has this silly thing on her face. She offers Sam a meal, but he'd rather have a job.

That night, the circus goes into high gear. They have a parade (which includes Martha Raye dressed up as a sexy lion...? It's weird), and then the show begins. Pop does a funny routine on a tightrope, and again, I highly doubt it's Durante, but the editing and camerawork works well enough that it isn't super obvious. While changing
costumes, Pop and Kitty are told by two more acts that they're leaving -- the John Noble Circus is offering them money, which the Wonder Circus hasn't been able to do in a while. Pop is furious, but Kitty understands, although she isn't thrilled about it. Back in the big tent, Jumbo does his act and it's pretty impressive stuff for an elephant.

After Jumbo, it's time for the Great Mantino, a man who walks the high wire with a piece of cloth enclosing his head to blind him. Mantino doesn't show up when his name is called, however, worrying Kitty and Lu. Finally, he appears, but when he takes off his mask at the end of his performance, it's Sam! Kitty demands to know what he thought he was doing and he reveals that Mantino quit for the Noble Circus. When she points out that he could've been killed, he shows the two holes he put in the mask for his eyes. Reluctantly, he's hired.

To celebrate, Pop takes Sam to a crap game, taking the show's $800 in ticket sales with him. When some of the musicians start to quit, Kitty goes to the ticket booth to get them money to entice them to stay, but she sees that Pop has already made off with the cash. She rushes to town and finds him and Sam, but it's too late -- their $800 has
become $50. She tricks Pop into going back to the grounds and takes the dice into her hands to win the money back. Sam doesn't believe she can do it, but she lets him know that she's been rolling dice ever since she was little. She soon wins all $800 back, learning during the carriage ride home that Sam switched out the dice to give her loaded ones. He realized that Pop had been given ones that would make him lose, so he planned to give him the loaded dice to fix what he had lost. Kitty is thankful and their contentious relationship becomes a little less heated.

Back at the grounds, Kitty gives the musicians the money she owes them and asks them to keep it quiet so she can use the rest of the cash to pay off debts. Unfortunately, one performer sees the money and excitedly shouts, causing everyone to hound Kitty for their share. Over dinner, she talks to Pop and Lu about trying to hire new acts to replace the people who have left, but Sam informs her that everyone she mentions has gone to John Noble's circus. Pop is enraged, so Sam asks what his problem is with Noble. Apparently the guy has been poaching all of these acts because he wants Jumbo, and we all know how Pop feels about Jumbo -- there's no way he's letting Noble get his precious elephant.

Just then, Pop's creditors arrive for their money. Once again, it's up to Kitty to assuage them. The men are in no mood to hear it, though. They call in the marshall to serve Kitty with a writ that says she has to shut down the circus until they get their money. In a brilliant moment, Kitty bats her eyes and begs the men to let the circus continue, invoking the joy that the show brings to children. When one of the collectors calls her out, she drops the act and goes "Alright, so you hate children!" She then starts to cite a penal code that allows them to stay open when that same creditor tells her that his brother is the local judge. Luckily, Pop and Lu save the day. They rush in, claiming that Jumbo has gone crazy. Everyone runs around as if they're really in danger, making the creditors and the marshall flee. Looks like it's time to pack up and head on to the next town.

As the circus is on the road, Kitty, Lu, and Pop chill out in their tiny mobile house; it's pretty neat. It even has a little porch with a white picket fence! Kitty asks Pop if he finds Sam a little suspicious. With all he can do, why wouldn't he go to a bigger circus where he would get paid more? Speaking of the devil... Sam runs up and jumps on
the porch. He knows of a side road where the creditors aren't likely to find them. After he and Pop go off to tell the guy leading the caravan, Lu takes Kitty's hand to read it, which Kitty scoffs at. Lu thinks Sam might be a good catch for Kitty, but she brushes it off. She's thought about marriage, sure, but the circus moves so often, she's never really
been given the chance to find someone. The two women lament about their love troubles with the song "Why Can't I?". Martha Raye could certainly be a robust and comical singer, but she had a really good voice, one that sounds great on ballads. Part of why I like this film is because it kind of reins Raye in. She could be the craziest, most over-the-top performer, but here, she is able to be funny without aggravating the hell out of me.

Over at John Noble's circus, we finally meet our villain, played by Dean Jagger. The surprise here is that Sam is actually Noble's son! Noble sent him to infiltrate the Wonders' circus, where he can pay off the Wonders' bills secretly and have the creditors sign the debts over to Noble so he can steal the circus right out from under Pop and Kitty. However,
Sam has started to enjoy working there. The Wonders aren't bad people and they don't deserve to be tricked. Noble starts spouting about how they're building the Greatest Show on Earth for the world to enjoy; Sam points out that's the same thing that Pop wants. The father and son clearly aren't very close, but Sam agrees to keep spying.

Back at the Wonder Circus, Sam pays off the man who delivers the hay. When Kitty asks him how he managed to placate the guy, Sam lies that he just used his charm. He then walks away before Kitty can say anymore, frustrating her. She talks to Lu and mentions that he's been avoiding her for
a while now and she can't figure it out. Lu encourages her to keep at it, so she offers to help him rig the tightrope. He tries to avoid her by swinging to another platform, but our gal Kitty isn't deterred. "Where did you learn to fly?" he asks. "My mother taught me," she replies. When Sam makes a remark about leaving the Wonders, Kitty asks if he's
going to Noble and tells him it would be a mistake if he did because Noble is only interested in money. She then slips on the platform and Sam grabs her. Just as he is about to kiss her, he stops himself and jumps to the net below. Although nothing really happened, Kitty is ecstatic because she can tell she's getting closer. At the show that night, her happiness spills over into her routine as she rides her horse and does all sorts of tricks during "This Can't Be Love." (Again, it isn't Day 100% of the time, but you can pretend it is.)

The next day, Pop convinces Lu to do the dangerous human cannonball act. I love Durante so much here. It's hilarious when Lu's helmet shoots out but she doesn't, leading Durante to say "I disintegrated her!" Over at the carousel, Kitty is having no luck trying to fix it so Sam takes over. Unaware that her
face is dirty from working on the gears, Kitty is happy to see Sam in such a great mood. When he starts to whistle a tune, she asks him what it is and is told it's "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." Her parade is instantly rained on when she glances in the carousel's mirror and notices the dirt.

Unwilling to leave things like that, Kitty goes to her tent and changes into her prettiest frock. Sam definitely notices how lovely she looks, but he tries to stay stoic so as not to betray the Wonders any more. He turns down her offer to drive her to town and asks her to hand him a screwdriver as he starts up the
carousel. Before Kitty can jump off it, however, he begins to sing along with the carousel's music, which happens to be "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." It's easily my favorite number in the whole film. Stephen Boyd had to be dubbed, but the vocals match him really well so it's not too jarring. Sam and Kitty
are adorable and the number is staged interestingly. Right when the scene becomes really intimate, with Kitty and Sam close to a kiss as he sings the line about the most beautiful girl wearing a pink dress like the one Kitty is wearing, the carousel winds down and the music stops. Thinking the moment has passed, Kitty looks disappointed, but Sam surprises her by restarting the carousel and finishing his song. They share a little dance and then Sam helps Kitty onto the carriage to take her to town -- only he slaps the horse and sends the carriage along without him. It quickly crashes and Kitty becomes covered in mud, which Sam finds hilarious and she finds mortifying. I'm so sad that this scene isn't online. You can listen to the song here, though, as sung by James Joyce, the man who dubbed Boyd.

That night, Kitty tells Lu all about it while they begin a circus act that has them lifted them into the air using their teeth and opening their costumes to reveal giant butterfly wings that glow in the dark. This film is filled with so many bizarre, yet genuine, circus acts, it's unreal. The rainstorm raging outside rips open the big tent, causing the
ropes that hold up the rigging for the "butterflies" to become stuck, forcing the crew to get the catch net. Sam guides the men and helps the women get down, except for Kitty, who is still stuck after Lu's jump rips the net. Sam goes up to get Kitty through a risky maneuver, but the two manage to get down safely.

Down on the ground, a crowd gathers around Pop, who is trapped underneath a fallen post. Lu runs to him sobbing and Pop plays up the melodrama as much as he can. "If I had to do it over again, we'd get married tomorrow," he tells Lu. He soon eats those words when Jumbo lifts the post off of him and reveals he hasn't been injured at all. Seeing that he's fine, Lu is overjoyed that they're going to finally tie the knot. Whoops.

Recovering from her near-death experience, Kitty is standing on the outskirts of the circus grounds and staring off into the distance when Sam appears with his arms open for her to run into. They both admit that they were terrified they were going to lose one another and they finally kiss. Sam tells
her that he has to take a train tomorrow to take care of some business, but when he comes back, he wants them to get married. All of these lovey dovey feelings lead Kitty to sing the wonderful "My Romance" as they cling to each other. It's pretty sweet, I gotta say.

At the train station the next day, Sam is told that the trains aren't running because the storm washed out a bridge. He commissions a plane instead, which isn't super safe since this is during the early days of air travel, but Sam's in a hurry -- he's got to tell his dad he is quitting and staying with the Wonders. Unfortunately, when Sam gets to the Noble circus, he is told by the family accountant that his dad has just left to go take over the Wonders' circus. Sam tries to hurry back, but that dang plane is having mechanical issues.

Meanwhile, it's time for Pop and Lu's wedding. Pop is a nervous wreck, but when Lu enters the tent in her wedding gown, he is stunned. "Look at that girl!" Pop exclaims. "A vision! And all this time I thought she looked like George Washington!" He then does his own special reprise of "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" and it is the cutest
thing in the world. I just want to hug Jimmy Durante every time I see this scene. (Sadly, it isn't online, but you can hear it here.) This loveliness, however, is ruined when the tent starts to be torn apart. Kitty, Pop, and Lu go outside to find John Noble and his crew snatching up everything. He breaks the news that he has $30,000 in bills signed over to him for collection and he is repossessing the whole circus, including the employees. He then asks where Sam is and casually reveals that Sam is his son before taking off.

Kitty is devastated and Pop is furious. "It's not so bad for me. I only lost a circus. But you, kitten. How could he do this to you?" he sweetly says. Lu comforts Kitty while Pop puts on a smile to inform his employees that their circus is dissolved. He lies that he was able to get Noble to buy him out and that he is
planning on taking his share to settle down on a farm. When one of the guys asks him about Jumbo, Pop says he'll hide him ("I got a friend in Detroit with a basement!"). This leads to a hilarious moment as Pop tries to sneak off with Jumbo. When one of Noble's men sees him and demands to know where is he going with "that elephant," Pop spreads his arms to conceal Jumbo and innocently asks "What elephant?" Durante's execution is perfect.

That night, Pop, Lu, and Kitty sit helplessly in their house while Noble's men try to get Jumbo on the truck. The poor elephant refuses to leave, though, and Pop breaks down and cries. Kitty can't take it anymore and goes to say goodbye to Jumbo. She pleads with him to go with Noble ("We don't want you to get hurt, baby") and tells him she loves him. It's heartbreaking to watch for an animal lover like me.

With no circus and the betrayal of Sam, Kitty is feeling her lowest. She wanders into the big tent, which hasn't been taken yet, and the emptiness of it is almost shocking. We're so used to seeing this tent filled with performers and audiences that it feels wrong to see it like this, as it's supposed to be.
Vulnerable, Kitty sings "Little Girl Blue" and the direction here by Charles Walters is just fantastic. Day does a phenomenal job with the song (as always), and everything is done exactly how it should be. You can check out the scene here.

I also appreciate how Walters transitions this scene into the next one. He pulls the camera back to let us see the vastness of the tent, the size of Kitty becoming smaller to symbolize how isolated she feels in this moment, and then it cuts to the next morning in the exact same spot, only this time the tent
is gone. The daylight seems harsh after the darkness of the previous shot, and it's the first time we see the bare grounds without the circus there to fill the space. It emphasizes how much of a loss Kitty, Pop, and Lu are feeling without their beloved circus.

Inside her tiny house, Kitty is sleeping when she is woken up by a sound from outside. Wearing one of their show costumes, Lu and Pop come marching onto the grounds playing little toy trumpets; they refuse to be depressed over recent events. "We could have a trio!" Lu says. "Yeah, but where can we find a tree?" Pop asks. Kitty thinks
they're silly, but they're right -- the show must go on! We're treated to a montage of the three of them doing various things to keep themselves afloat: Kitty gives riding lessons (I guess Noble didn't take her horse), Pop throws knives at Lu, Lu tells fortunes and sometimes pretends to be a tattooed lady...

During this time, Sam has been trying to find the trio and finally does. He begs Kitty to listen to him, to which she responds with "I listened to you once and you stole a circus." Ouch. Sam tells her that he left his father and he completely understands why Kitty is angry with him. He asks to come back and says that he needs all of them, and it looks like they need him too if they want to build their circus back up.

The Wonders and Lu don't want to admit that he's right, so he gradually sucks them in with "Stardust, Spangles, and Dreams," a tune all about the joys of the circus. When Sam reveals he brought them Jumbo, all is forgiven. For the rest of the song, we're given a lengthy montage of the new Wonder Circus gaining momentum. Sam and Kitty are back together and all becomes well again. Originally, the film wasn't going to end like this. I'm not sure what they had planned, but when Chuck Walters thought about the number "Stardust, Spangles, and Dreams," written by Roger Edens, he realized that it was the perfect way to end the story.

Doris Day and Walters had worked together before with Please Don't Eat the Daisies. "Chuck was just in his element making that film," Day recalled. "He loved every minute of it, and we all felt that excitement." I probably sound like a broken record by now, but I love Walters's directing. He does such a great job with this film, wonderfully capturing the space of the circus and its atmosphere. He does all of these nice bird's-eye view shots from the ceiling of the big tent to instill in the viewer just how high up the action is, as well as shots with the camera looking up, and he uses close-ups tremendously.

Day is terrific in this movie. Kitty is amazing, with her ability to do any act in the circus and her enjoyment at helping the show in any way she can. Just look at how casually she stands while on a thin bar a hundred feet in the air! She is fearless, yet not afraid to be vulnerable. Day adored working with Sydney, the elephant that played Jumbo. For two months before production started, she built a bond with the pachyderm, later calling the experience "love at first sight." Jumbo would be Day's last film musical.

I'll be honest: I didn't have a clue who Stephen Boyd was when I first saw this film. (You may know him as Messala from 1959's Ben-Hur.) I really enjoy Boyd in Jumbo. I was afraid that he was going to be a stiff, bland partner for Day, but they actually work well together. He does a marvelous job of
portraying how conflicted Sam is; he loves Kitty, but he can't show it out of fear of hurting her more and because he promised to help his father. It's a lot of subtle work, which could easily go unnoticed. Boyd was nominated for a Golden Globe for this film.

Referencing the musical aspect, he reportedly said "I'll try anything once, like any good Irishman." Chuck Walters later said he didn't think Boyd was quite right, possibly because he had to be dubbed for the songs, but I politely disagree. The irony is that Boyd had left the epic Cleopatra after delays caused by Elizabeth Taylor being ill. He was replaced by Richard Burton...who was Chuck's original choice for the role of Sam. Fun fact: after completing Jumbo, Boyd starred with Gina Lollobrigida in Imperial Venus, a French-Italian film about the love affairs of Napoleon's sister, Pauline Bonaparte. It became the first film to be banned by Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for male nudity, thanks to a suggestive scene where Boyd was naked, but covered by a sheet. The movie was never released in America.

There were two major things that Chuck Walters had to fight for when it came to Jumbo: the casting of Martha Raye and the talents of Busby Berkeley. As I wrote about in my posts on Walters and one of his films with Esther Williams, Easy to Love, Chuck wasn't a director who exactly relished doing the large spectacles that Berkeley was an expert at. He didn't quite know how to organize everything, so he would call in Berkeley to help. On Jumbo, the studio resisted, arguing that Buzz was too old, he was a drunk and he would cost them too much money. Even Day was reluctant to have him onboard. Chuck had to promise her that "Buzz would do all the pre-shooting work, like getting the wagons in place, but when the cameras rolled, it was all mine." Jumbo would turn out to be Berkeley's last film. He died at the age of 80 in 1976.

To achieve seamless editing, Walters had his lead actors attend many weeks of "circus school" at MGM in order to learn the basics, such as trapeze technique. If the actors knew what they were doing, it would be easier to cut to the professionals taking their place without it looking too obvious that we weren't actually seeing Day and Co. Despite everyone having a blast creating the film, it lost money at the box office. Although Chuck loved that it was old-fashioned, many people think that was the problem -- moviegoers were thrilled by the freshness of shows like West Side Story, and Jumbo wasn't the type of musical that sold anymore. (Of course, The Sound of Music would test that theory in three years.) Regardless, Jumbo remains an entertaining family-friendly flick that will likely put a smile on your face at some point, whether it be because of the delightful Day, the dastardly mustache of Dean Jagger, or the sight of Jimmy Durante in a sparkly pink leotard.



























With love,
Michaela

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This is my entry for the At the Circus Blogathon. You can read the other contributions here.

Comments

  1. Stephen Boyd was also the star of Fantastic Voyage, a sci-fi classic in which a submarine-like vehicle is miniaturized and injected into a scientist to try to repair internal damage. This one sounds interesting enough, although I still have an aversion to musicals in general.

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    Replies
    1. Interesting! I'd like to see more of Boyd's work.

      I can understand avoiding musicals. They're not everyone's cup of tea and with musicals it's hard to tell what people may like. For example, my sister loves Kiss Me Kate but she hates Funny Face.

      Thanks for reading!

      Delete
  2. I loved this movie when I was a kid. I had a thing for circus movies so I guess if I saw it, I loved it! I really felt the emotional ties in the movie and for years would never miss it when it aired on TV.

    A couple of Stephen Boyd faves: The Best of Everything and Island in the Sun

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's great! It's a wonderful movie for kids.

      Thanks for the recommendations! I've been meaning to watch The Best of Everything.

      Delete
  3. The screenshots you added are marvelous! It's been a while I don't watch a Doris Day movie and this one sounds like a perfect choice for a rainy weekend! Thanks for presenting this movie to me.
    Thanks for joining us, Michaela, it was great to have you among our guests!
    Kisses!
    Le

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! I always have bit of a problem with wide-format films because I feel like my screenshots make things look tiny thanks to Blogger's size restrictions, so thanks for complimenting them!

      Delete

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