BluRay/DVD Reviews

BILLY ROSE’S JUMBO

By • Nov 4th, 2013 •

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I’ll bet they considered shooting this in Cinerama – MGM released its two narrative Cinerama films in ’62, and the scope and detail of JUMBO’S art direction would have looked wonderful wrapped around audiences. Not that it would have appreciably changed the impact of the film: I saw it back in ’62, and was intermittently bored and entertained. But it didn’t look as good then as it does now, in its phenomenal BluRay release.

Back in ’62 I wasn’t thinking “Gee, this is coming out ten years after the MGM Golden age of Hollywood Musicals has passed.” I just looked at it as a musical about the circus. And I don’t think I realized then how impressive that elephant was. I’d seen DeMille’s THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (which won the Academy Award for Best Film, and is now irrevocably and badly dated), which had elephants and clowns and pretty much the same stuff. Shortly after JUMBO would come Samuel Bronston’s CIRCUS WORLD (not yet out on DVD) with John Wayne, which had two tremendous set pieces – a circus ship capsizing and a fire under the big top – but was otherwise underwhelming. And that was true of JUMBO as well, and without the two big set-pieces.

Looking at it today, some re-thinking is due. My memory of the cast is practically the same as it was then, (with one surprising alteration). Doris Day gives a good performance – not surprising. Jimmy Durante (reprising his role from the stage production) and Martha Raye are theoretically canny choices for the second leads, but for some reason they’re just not very funny. Endearing, yes, but failing to come through with the laughs. And Raye, while compelling to look at, also seems rather masculine. Oddly enough, except for the third act where he feels stiff and delivers a song as if in pain, Stephen Boyd is quite good in his leading role, turning in perhaps the best performance of the batch. On the BluRay, the dubbed vibe about all their voices was distracting, though eventually I got used to it.

The circus acts are highlighted and fun (Busby Berkeley, who is credited with second unit work, may have had a hand in these mini-episodes). Jimmy Durante does a low-high-wire routine that was quite impressive (if in fact it was him doing it, or was it Otto Griebling – the stunt doubles are amazingly good at seamlessly covering for the actors when the action gets dangerous). The music is lush, including a restored prelude that had long been detached from the film, but the songs are mostly duds (‘Little Girl Blue’ is particularly bad; ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World’ is lovely) and that hurts the film’s flow. Also the third act wraps up in a chaos of complete illogic. A shame that the writers couldn’t have found a better way to resolve the story’s crisis: the last ten minutes are a disabling wound on a narrative level.

After all these worrisome assessments, the best comes last. This is a remarkable, utterly beautiful, demo-quality disc. It looked nowhere as good fifty years ago, and if it had, the film would have been a success. Whether a song works or not, whether or not a comic moment falls flat, the picture quality is so spectacular that you just glide past the rough moments by observing the lighting, the bold and subtle uses of color, and the joyous results of the art department’s obvious devotion to the project. You can tangibly feel all of those prop people, wardrobe designers, and lighting guys going beyond the call of duty. Kudos goes to the BluRay team who mastered this film: it’s transformed from being a mild musical to being a glorious keeper.

There are two supplements: a Tom and Jerry cartoon from the exact period, about a baby elephant called Jumbo, and a short subject that doesn’t seem to have any relevance to the feature.

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