BILLY ROSE'S JUMBO: Blu-ray (MGM/Euterpe-Arwin Productions 1962) Warner Archive Collection
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s supremacy in the realm of popular musical entertainment came to a sad farewell with Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962); a badly mangled attempt at rekindling the majesty of Rodgers and Hart’s 1935 Hippodrome stage spectacular. In point of fact, the studio had been in steady decline since the unceremonious deposition of founding father, Louis B. Mayer in 1950. Yet, under Mayer’s replacement, Dore Schary, MGM continued to produce some very fine musical masterpieces. Regrettably, by 1962 the era that had fostered such immense creativity at the studio was no more, or at best, well beyond its mass implosion and exodus that reduced MGM’s once galvanic workforce and star system to a mere trickle of its former self.
Despite its pedigree, Billy Rose’s Jumbo remains an underwhelming repository for some of the brightest musical/comedy stars working in front of and behind the camera from that bygone vintage, hopelessly mired by MGM’s severe cost-cutting measures that effectively reduced the lavishness of the stage version into a mere and often garish pantomime; the studio’s edict to shoot every inch of the production on its own back lot further impeded by a complete lack of ‘in-house’ production value to convincingly pull off the enterprise. In terms of its source material, Billy Rose’s Jumbo is a movie that so easily should have bested Cecil B. DeMille’s Oscar-winning The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). Instead, it comes across as the penitent poor cousin to the aforementioned, apologetically selling its wares.
It might have worked, particularly since the film is blessed with the star presence of Doris Day (in very fine voice), old-time hams Jimmy Durante and Martha Raye (exceptionally funny in spurts), and handsome leading man, Stephen Boyd (proving he could also carry a tune, but otherwise rather wooden and lacking any sort of on-screen chemistry with his leading lady). Add to this enviable mix a myriad of Rodgers and Hart melodies - most instantly recognizable - and Jumbo ought to have earmarked the resurrection of the MGM musical. That the finished film never quite emerged from under its own rather baseless ennui therefore remained something of a mystery. Most certainly, it was a tragic last act for a studio that had once prided itself on making the best musicals in the business.
There are several reasons why Jumbo doesn’t work. First, it’s an old property – a veteran ‘stardust and spangled’ fluff piece from an era when plot-less but joyful and tune-filled razz-a-ma-tazz was the norm in popular entertainments. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as the case may be) that chestnut was forever plucked after the social consciousness debut of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Broadway musicals thereafter took on more ballast even if their Hollywood counterparts continued to rely on the aforementioned light-hearted fare to fatten their respective coffers. Obviously, during the darkest days of the Great Depression and Second World War the Hollywood musical filled a void. But after the advent of television, audiences increasingly stayed home and the musical waned in popularity. After all, why venture into the cold to see a Bing Crosby or Jane Powell at the local Bijoux when they could just as readily be found warbling tunes on the Ed Sullivan Show in the comfort of one’s own living room? Add to this, an unexpected downturn in the musical genre’s popularity and Jumbo seems like an even more ill-advised prospect for the splashy sixties 70mm treatment.
As a movie, Billy Rose’s Jumbo really does lack focus; Sidney Sheldon’s screenplay relying much too heavily on Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s original threadbare plot, but jettisoning much of the stage show’s subplot, now merely designed to string along its cavalcade of songs. The impetus of the stage show had been the ‘relationship’ between each of the human characters invested in the circus and that impressive pachyderm known as Jumbo. The movie somehow flubs this scenario; investing itself in the wily theft of one travelling sideshow by another devious showman hell-bent on possessing Jumbo for his very own. Apart from a few brief appearances, the elephant employed to play this famed title character is rarely seen throughout the movie; director Charles Walters finding it increasingly difficult to showcase all of that gray tonnage as the center of attention. We are therefore left with the aforementioned plot of espionage and a substandard love story between Kitty Wonder (played by Doris Day), the daughter of this mixed up menagerie and her rather obstinate and occasionally caustic would-be suitor, sun-shiner Sam Rawlins (Stephen Boyd); and an even more interminable running gag between Kitty’s commitment-shy father, Anthony ‘Pop’ Wonder (Jimmy Durante) and his fortune teller/gal pal, Lulu (Martha Raye).
Finally, Jumbo lacks the peerless attention to detail that virtually all MGM musicals had in spades throughout the studio’s heyday. Anyone with even a smattering of knowledge about the studio’s back lot will be able to spot Lot 3’s Monterey and Western streets barely re-dressed for this shoot and looking rather unkempt. The scruffiness of these well-worn sets is compounded by the lack of extras hired to fill their vastness. The circus parade, as example, is little more than a straggler’s line of meandering extras. Jimmy Durante’s Grand Marshall expounds details about his menagerie of acts to the cheering onlookers, including a fat lady and hippo that dances like a Russian ballerina, but that we – the audience - never get to see. Even Jumbo does not make an appearance in this parade. (Perhaps he had the day off!) And Walters and his cameraman, William H. Daniels have shot this feeble processional without flourish or poise – either straight on from a static crane or tracking it from the side. Indeed, the inventiveness one expects from an MGM musical is completely absent in Jumbo. Even the musical sequences, arguably the film’s plat de résistance are tepid and watered down – the last to be staged by master builder Busby Berkeley, whose usual visual verve is nowhere to be glimpsed throughout the movie.
In all, Jumbo fails to grasp the important key elements that make any movie musical click; relying on the cast and 70mm projection to sell the show as high art. It doesn’t work – or rather, does, in limited fits and sparks, but never enough to engorge the senses with the visceral charm, immediacy and excitement of a real travelling circus come to town. Doris Day is utterly charming and quite the comedian. Her best moments come too late to save the show; belting out the attention-grabbing ‘This Can’t Be Love’ astride her white steed, trilling the utterly quixotic, ‘My Romance’ and finally emoting with earnestness the heartbreaking, ‘Little Girl Blue’. This trio of ballads gives the ear something magical to listen to. But the grandness that ought to have come in between these more introspective moments is missing.
The aforementioned ‘Circus is On Parade’ sequence utterly lacks pomp and circumstance, as does ‘Over and Over Again’ – a prelude done in rehearsal. The love ballad ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World’ is problematic too in that Stephen Boyd – while in very fine voice, extolling the virtues of Day’s obvious beauty – finds absolutely nothing to muster up half as much affection for our winsome heroine, showing the most joy only after she has tumbled into a grimy vat and ruined her pink taffeta dress. The moment – either dramatically substandard or comically wicked - is entirely undercut by the storm sequence that immediately follows it, with Boyd’s two-faced cad performing a daring rescue of the usually self-reliant Kitty after a gash in the big top’s tarp renders her escape from the trapeze perilous. And then, of course, there is the woefully mismanaged finale to consider; set to the lugubrious ‘Sawdust, Spangles and Dreams’ and featuring Pop, Kitty, Sam and Lulu performing various acts while the iconic Jumbo languishes in mere backdrop.
Our story opens with the Pop Wonder’s circus preparing for another show in another town. Kitty Wonder (Doris Day) has just finished washing her prized stallion, Beauty when she spies her father (Jimmy Durante) attempting to sneak back into the show. Pop confides in Kitty that he’s managed to take the $300 box office from their previous engagement and turn it into a ‘cool thirty cents’. His chronic gambling losses have put a strain on the company’s morale. In fact, neither the performers nor the creditors have been paid in months. Kitty stalls the Marshall (John Hart) and Deputy Sheriff (Robert Williams) from pursuing foreclosure proceedings with some fast talk about being sold out for the pending night’s performance. In the meantime, a dark horse appears on the horizon – a strapping sun-shiner named Sam Rawlins (Stephen Boyd) who is at first ignored by Kitty, but later proves his medal by subbing in for ‘The Great Mantini’ on the high wire. Unbeknownst to either Kitty or Pop, Sam is the son of John Noble (Dean Jagger, utterly wasted in a nothing part) – an enterprising, big time showman who is slowing buying up the Wonder Show by paying off its creditors’ bills while simultaneously draining the circus of its top-flight talent. Sam pretends to be a loyal employee, working the angle from the inside. But his heart is not in it. Moreover, he seems to have some serious issues with his own father – both as a businessman and patriarch.
On another tarmac, the circus’ fortune teller, Lulu (Martha Raye) is desperately pursuing Pop for her own. After all, the pair has been engaged for fourteen years. Surely a wedding can’t be too far off! And Lulu is mindful that Sam is a good match for Kitty – something Kitty has already figured out for herself. But Sam isn’t easy to get to know. In fact, he can be downright odious toward the belle of the circus; baiting Kitty with hints of promise the one moment, then delighting in the failure of her rather obvious attempts to hook his interest. The mood between Sam and Kitty changes (and for the better) after a perilous thunderstorm tears into the big top during Kitty and Lulu’s high wire act. Trapped atop some collapsed rigging, Kitty clings for her life and Sam performs a daring rescue. Afterward, the two share a rather passionless embrace on the outskirts of the damaged tent, Sam explaining that he must go away for reasons he cannot disclose, but promising to return before the Wonder Show moves on to its new venue.
Kitty is trusting. In fact, Sam’s intent is to stop his father from absorbing the Wonder Show lock, stock and barrel. Regrettably, Sam’s plane is grounded and John Noble arrives the next day during Pop’s wedding to Lulu to begin dismantling his life’s work. Pop is destroyed, his anguish reaching a fevered pitch as he hears Jumbo’s grunts and cries, refusing to be loaded onto a flatbed by men attempting to have him transported back to Noble’s circus. Kitty is wounded by Sam’s betrayal. Upon his return she admonishes him severely. But Sam explains that he has left his father to come back to her. Sam further proves his merit by revealing to Kitty, Pop and Lulu that he has somehow managed to have Jumbo returned to them; the movie ending in a rather haphazardly staged and heavy-handedly edited finale to the tune of ‘Sawdust, Spangles and Dreams’ – a fractured anthem to the nomadic life of a carny and presumably performed at New York’s famed Hippodrome Theater.
Billy Rose’s Jumbo misfires on so many levels that it’s rather perplexing to discover it having made the transition to Blu-ray even as a Warner Archive Release, particularly when there are so many other worthy contenders in Warner’s MGM/WB musical milieu still missing in action. These include such noteworthy films as The Band Wagon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Brigadoon, Bells are Ringing, Calamity Jane, The Student Prince, For Me and My Gal, The Great Ziegfeld, Rosalie, May Time, The Merry Widow, Royal Wedding, That Midnight Kiss, High Society, Silk Stockings, Till The Clouds Roll By, Good News, Show Boat, The Harvey Girls, Holiday in Mexico…and on and on. Any one of these aforementioned would have been a more valiant contender for the full blown 1080p treatment than Billy Rose’s Jumbo!
Ultimately, the corporate decision to release Jumbo ahead of the pack must rest with the fact that many – if not all of the aforementioned – require considerable restoration work to ready their transfers for the Blu-ray format. But Jumbo doesn’t present itself all that well in hi-def as one might expect. Overall, the quality of this transfer is quite good and, at times, even signifying the very best Blu-ray is capable of delivering. Many of the sequences, and virtually all close ups look positively stunning in 1080p with rich, vibrant colors, superbly rendered contrast and a solid smattering of grain accurately reproduced. But there are also glaring instances of image softness scattered throughout and occasionally some sequences in which the grain structure seems excessively granulated, with momentary lapses in color fidelity.
Arguably, these are infrequent and do not distract from the whole. But when each anomaly appears it is fairly obvious. I can’t say that I was all that impressed with the 5.1 DTS audio either. Dialogue is very strident sounding throughout, particularly during the first half of the movie. The songs and underscoring come to life in fits and sparks and effects – particularly the thunder clasps during the storm – have some spatial aggression. However, this is a very uneven aural experience.
We get three extras; a trailer, a Tom and Jerry cartoon short (delightful!) and a vintage Vitaphone musical short (less so). This disc contains 33 chapter stops, none of them accessible except by toggling through them in sequential order using your remote control. Badly done! One of the immediate pluses of the digital format – beginning with DVD – was that unlike VHS one could find and watch a favorite scene at a moment’s notice using conveniently placed chapter stops. In more recent times it has become fashionable to remove this feature from both the DVD and Blu-ray formats. Dumb! Really dumb!
Bottom line: if you are a devotee of Billy Rose’s Jumbo you will enjoy this disc. Personally, the movie left me flat and watching it in hi-def did not improve my overall admiration for it either. Not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)