Cast & Crew
Joseph M. Newman
After the acrimonious break-up of the Borman and Whirling Circus, Henry Jasper "Hank" Whirling seeks a bank loan to continue with his own company. Bank head Jonathan Nelson grants the loan with the provision that meticulous accountant Randy Sherman and shrewd publicist Helen Harrison accompany the Whirling Circus on tour to protect and maximize the bank's investment. At the circus' winter quarters in California, Hank quickly frustrates Randy and Helen's efforts by hiring new acts without consulting them and sending out his own press releases. Hank's sister Jeannie begins working as Randy's secretary and reveals that her brother has arranged a press party for the circus' opening show.
Dismayed by the information, Helen hastily invites several press contacts to the party while Randy fumes about the lavish, expensive preparations. On opening night, the circus' key performers, the Flying Colinos, a trapeze act featuring Hank's long-time friend Zach Colino, his wife "Mama" and young flyer Tommy Gordon, warm up the audience. Leaving the main tent, Randy comes upon a lion wandering about freely and rushes to tell Hank. The lion enters the big top, terrifying the audience until Hank maneuvers it under the trapeze net which Zach then drops onto the beast. When a cynical reporter asks if Hank staged the event, Helen intervenes to insist the situation was not prearranged and demands the journalists not report it. Afterward, Hank thanks Helen, who accuses him of indeed staging the incident until a circus guard informs Hank that a former animal trainer for the Bormans was responsible.
The Whirling Circus tour begins and after several successful shows, Randy informs an outraged Hank that he has cut costs by firing forty men whose work of putting up the show tent can be handled by a new machine and one or two men. Later that evening, sparks from the new machine set fire to several bales of hay near the animal cages. When the fire spreads faster than the animals can be led to safety, Hank drives a jeep into the burning bales to push them away. Unharmed, Hank angrily tells Randy that he is terminating his association with the bank. When one of the children from town tells the circus owner of seeing a stranger tampering with the machine with a hacksaw, however, Hank examines the machines. Upon discovering that it was sabotaged, he suggests that the Bormans have planted a saboteur within the circus. On the train that evening, Jeannie mediates between Hank and Randy and the men apologize to each other for their continual business misunderstandings.
Their truce is short-lived, however, when Randy suggests several cost-cutting measures, prompting Hank to storm away. The Whirling Circus tour is brought to an abrupt halt when torrential rains flood several states along their route. While Hank frets over the success of the Borman Circus on the East Coast, Randy receives a telegram from the bank notifying him of their intention to foreclose on Hank for failing to pay the latest loan installment and that they are considering an offer by the Bormans to buy Whirling Circus. When Randy tells Hank that he is unsure if he can arrange the loan extension, Hank leaves for New York without explanation, placing the perplexed Randy in charge of the circus. Resuming their tour, the circus reopens and Randy is stunned to learn from Zach that all the acts had invested in the circus to revive it after the break with the Bormans.
When Randy finds Skeeter, the lead clown, too drunk to perform, he warily takes his place, winning the approval of the other performers. Jeannie confides in Randy her plan for a stable life away from the circus after she has realized her dream of performing on the trapeze. She admits training secretly with the Colinos, as Hank has forbidden her to perform since their mother died in a trapeze accident. Hank then returns to reveal he has canceled the remainder of the tour except for Buffalo, and arranged a special appearance in New York to precede the Borman Circus. When Hank asks Helen to arrange a publicity stunt for their New York appearance, she flippantly suggests that Zach wire walk across Niagara Falls. Zach takes the idea seriously and Helen is horrified when Mama heartily approves. Jules Borman, head of the Borman Circus and the man who has been behind the previous acts of sabotage, learns of the stunt from his spy at Whirling and orders another interference.
A few nights later as the Whirling trains travel east, the first train suddenly derails, injuring several performers and killing Mama. Devastated by Mama's death, Zach loses his nerve and in Buffalo falls from the wire into the net, then pleads with Hank to call off the Niagara Falls stunt. Hank responds by insulting his old friend, who becomes so angry that he agrees to do the wire walk, vowing to kill Hank afterward. Helen criticizes Hank's callousness, but Hank tells her if Zach gives up his profession he is as good as dead. The next day, Zach makes the dangerous walk across the Falls successfully.
The enormous success of the stunt is overshadowed, however, by news of a transit strike in New York and Randy's discovery that the foreclosure papers are being delivered that night. Meanwhile, Hank visits long-time friend, entertainer Steve Allen and arranges to have news of the circus' New York show broadcast on Allen's weekly television program. When the bank's agent, Mr. Lomax, arrives that evening, Hank disguises himself as a band member to avoid being served and later, Randy and Skeeter lock Lomax in an empty cage. Unknown to everyone, Jeannie plans to debut with the Flying Colinos. Just as the act goes on, the police report to Hank that fingerprints from the wrecked train reveal the wheels were sabotaged by Tommy, who spent several years in an insane asylum before joining the circus.
Horrified, Hank reaches the big tent just as Tommy purposely fails to catch Jeannie, who manages to grasp one of the thin tent ropes to prevent her from falling. Zach rescues Jeannie, then turns on Tommy after Hank reveals he is the saboteur. Terrified, Tommy races to the top of the tent only to fall to his death. After Nelson arrives to congratulate Hank on paying off the loan with the money from the broadcasting deal, Zach and Hank are reconciled. Jeannie then announces she is romantically involved with Randy and Helen declares she intends to remain with the circus, thus winning Hank's sincere approval.
Joseph M. Newman
The Young Hugo Zacchini "human Cannonball"
Dick Walker's World Famous Lion Act
The Flying Alexanders
Ronnie The Lewis Trio
The Jungleland Elephants
Tex Carr And His Chimpanzees
Dick Berg's Movieland Seals
Lowell J. Farrell
Robert R. Hoag
Paul Francis Webster
The Big Circus
To open the film, Ringmaster Hans Hagenfeld (Vincent Price) announces a "Parade of the Nations," a dull and unspectacular march of animals and performers which plays out under the movie's opening credits. The opening song (by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster) is inoffensive 1950s pop which assures the listener, "There's nothing as gay as a wonderful day at The Big Circus!" A montage of newspaper headlines (and even a cover of Life magazine) spells out the financial troubles of the Borman and Whirling Circus. In a circus wagon accompanied by Skeeter the Clown (Peter Lorre) and other performers, circus owner "Hank" Whirling (Victor Mature) stops at a bank in town to try and secure a loan for his ailing business. Banker Jonathan Nelson (Charles Watts) is sympathetic and when Randy Sherman (Red Buttons) of the bank's loan department argues against giving Whirling a loan following his split from the Borman brothers, Nelson decides to send Sherman along with the traveling circus to keep an eye on the investment. Sherman brings along Helen Harrison (Rhonda Fleming) to act as the new press agent for the circus; she proves to be another thorn in the side of Whirling. The film introduces drama in the lives of the performers: Skeeter is an alcoholic (although a jolly drinker in the tradition of most 1950s movies dealing with the topic); Hank's sister Jeannie (Kathryn Grant) wishes to be a performer; and all is not well with the team of aerialists made up of Zach Colino (Gilbert Roland), his wife Maria (Adele Mara), and young Tommy Gordon (David Nelson). The greatest threat to Hank's circus is a mysterious series of acts of sabotage -- a lion is set loose at a press party, a fire breaks out and threatens the lives of the animals, and a train wreck kills two people and strands the circus.
The Big Circus was blasted by the critics, in particular Bosley Crowther of the New York Times. Crowther reminded his readers that there was nothing subtle about a circus, and if they keep that in mind, "...then you can better be prepared for the beating you are going to have to endure when you take the kids to see Irwin Allen's The Big Circus....Apparently, Mr. Allen, who wrote the story and produced the film, was more concerned about a quantity of clichés than he was about the quality." Crowther does not spare director Joseph M. Newman, who he says "...wasn't concerned about anything except getting the picture finished, which must have been quite a chore. In CinemaScope and color, which is almost too violent to endure, he simply throws it at you and leaves all to the dominance of weight."
Charles Bennett, the co-screenwriter of The Big Circus, had a long career as an actor, playwright and primarily, a screenwriter. After his play Blackmail was adapted to film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1929, he began a long relationship with the director which included the adaptation for The 39 Steps (1935) and the screenplays for Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), and Foreign Correspondent (1940). He collaborated with Cecil B. DeMille on the films Unconquered (1947), The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944), and Reap the Wild Wind (1942). Just prior to writing The Story of Mankind with Allen and beginning an almost exclusive relationship with the producer which closed out his career, Bennett wrote the screenplay for the highly regarded thriller Night of the Demon (1957), directed by Jacques Tourneur.
The Big Circus proved to be the final film performance for actress Kathryn Grant. (A subsequent release featured her voice performance in the feature-length UPA cartoon 1001 Arabian Nights , but given the long process of producing animation, her part was probably recorded well before her appearance in the Irwin Allen picture). The uncommonly stunning brunette from Texas entered films in 1953 and soon scored unbilled walk-ons in big budget movies such as Rear Window and Living It Up (both 1954), but was seen to better advantage in supporting parts in low-budget crime films like The Phenix City Story and Cell 2455 Death Row (both 1955). Columbia Pictures was clearly grooming Grant for stardom, and following a memorable turn in the comedy Operation Mad Ball (1957) she appeared as Princess Parisa in their classic fantasy The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). In 1959 Grant landed an important supporting part in Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder, but after that film and The Big Circus she retired to raise a family with crooner Bing Crosby, who she married in 1958 (she was 30 years his junior). Throughout the 1960s and until Bing's death in 1977 she could be seen as part of the Crosby Clan in numerous Christmas specials and orange juice commercials on television.
Following the production of The Big Circus, producer Irwin Allen switched to science-fiction style adventures with such films as The Lost World (1960), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) and Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962). Allen then moved his brand of juvenile science fiction to television, and produced four hit shows for 20th Century Fox: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968), Lost in Space (1965-1968), The Time Tunnel (1966-1967), and Land of the Giants (1968-1970). Allen returned to feature films in a big way with The Poseidon Adventure (1972). That film - featuring an all-star cast put in harm's way by a series of contrived perils - revived the formula that the producer/showman had previously exploited with films like The Big Circus and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and made Allen the "Master of [the] Disaster" movie subgenre.
Producer: Irwin Allen
Director: Joseph M. Newman
Screenplay: Irwin Allen, Charles Bennett, Irving Wallace (screenplay); Irwin Allen (story)
Cinematography: Winton Hoch
Art Direction: Albert D'Agostino
Music: Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter
Film Editing: Adrienne Fazan
Cast: Victor Mature (Henry Jasper 'Hank' Whirling), Red Buttons (Randy Sherman), Rhonda Fleming (Helen Harrison), Kathryn Grant (Jeannie Whirling), Vincent Price (Hans Hagenfeld), Gilbert Roland (Zach Colino - the aerialist), Peter Lorre (Skeeter), David Nelson (Tommy Gordon), Adele Mara (Maria 'Mama' Colino), Howard McNear (Mr. Lomax)
by John M. Miller
The Big Circus
The New York Times review erroneously lists the film's running time at 149 minutes. Hollywood Reporter news items indicate that The Big Circus was originally set as a Columbia production. Producer Irwin Allen was to have produced and directed it for Columbia. The Big Circus was shot on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot in Culver City, CA. According to Hollywood Reporter, M-G-M's mascot, Leo the Lion, was brought out of semi-retirement to appear in the film as the lion set loose to terrorize the "Whirling Circus" audience. A December 1958 Hollywood Reporter item mentions that Harpo and Chico Marx were in negotiations to appear in the film. A January 1959 New York Times article indicates that Meredith Willson was in discussions to write a song for the film. The same article notes that "Zach's" Niagara Falls stunt was actually performed in the 1850s.
Hollywood Reporter news items add the following actors to the cast: J. Edward McKinley, Nesdon Booth, Dick Rich, Eden Hartford, Anne Dore, Darlene Daye, Patty Saunders, Jacqueline Snyder, Audrey Allen, Audrey Saunders, Vera Lee, Valentine Oumansky, Vickie Dairs, Diane Davis and Edythe Udane, but their appearance in the completed film has not been verified. Although Victor Mature is not credited onscreen as one of the film's producers, several contemporary sources, including copyright records, list it as a "Saratoga-Vic Mature" production. The Big Circus marked the final motion picture appearance of Kathryn Grant, wife of singer Bing Crosby. Modern sources indicate that aerialist Fay Alexander doubled for Gilbert Roland.