This Henry Hathaway directed feature for big budget specialist, Samuel Bronston, is surely the rarest of all John Wayne films made from 1960 onward till his final role as The Shootist in 1976. My reasoning is simple, it never seems to appear on TV despite Duke films being played repeatedly since the dawn of time and as for home video, I had to snag a blu ray edition from Amazon UK. Here in North America the film has been all but absent on home video and television. It’s last release was on VHS tape as far as I can recall and that’s the only reason I think I’ve ever seen it.
I have no idea who owns the North American rights to the film but thankfully Anchor Bay has put it out on blu ray overseas allowing me to upgrade from that VHS edition with the faded, washed out colors. The blu ray edition should be commended for brining out the colors caught on camera by Duke’s long time director Hathaway. The pair first crossed paths working together back in 1941 on The Shepherd of the Hills and would go on to do a number of films together culminating with True Grit netting Duke that long overdue Oscar.
A circus movie this may be but Duke looks as if he’s just walked off the set of McLintock and ready to start filming The Sons of Katie Elder. He’s strictly in his cowboy getup for much of the film wearing his Red River belt buckle for those with an observant eye. Duke’s a circus owner who also doubles as the headman in the wild west show. He’s decided to take the big top tent overseas to tour Europe against the wishes of Lloyd Nolan who serves as his ramrod and conscience all in one. No sense starting a Duke movie off on a downer when Nolan alludes to his past and that “she” might turn up if they go overseas. No, it’s time to get on with the show and have Duke on top of a stagecoach doing some fancy trick shooting for the paying customers.
And just who is that divinely gorgeous gal in the coach playing Duke’s adoptive daughter? It’s a fiery Claudia Cardinale who I’ll admit to having a crush on pretty much my whole life. She’s the superstitious type and every time she sees a bad omen from here on in, Duke’s about to experience a major setback in his dream tour of Europe. Animals, trapeze artists, clowns, you name it, Duke piles them into a ship which promptly overturns in the Madrid harbor putting Duke and his troupe out of work. He may be down but he’s not out. Time for Duke to quit feeling sorry for himself and hire on to another circus till he can break out on his own once again.
That won’t be long in this story credited to Philip Yordan (fronting for the blacklisted Bernard Gordon) and Nicholas Ray. Duke goes about recruiting acts of his own including a tightrope walker/clown played by Richard Conte. John Smith has been along since the beginning as an upstart cowboy act and Claudia wants to shed the clown makeup and girl in distress scenarios to become a trapeze artist as her mother and father were.
Yes there is a backstory of her parents to deal with and it’s her mother that will become the haunting part of our story. Played by Rita Hayworth, she’s a washed up trapeze star who has been hiding in a bottle of self pity since her husband fell to his death years ago. Scandal followed and the story intimates that she was having an affair with Duke and fled the spotlight. From there Duke raised Claudia as his own. I know I know, how does that explain Claudia’s thick accent? Damned if I know but I really don’t care cause as I said earlier, I’ve had a major crush on the lady since my teenage years.
Of course Rita will reappear in Duke’s life but under an alias so as not to let Claudia know her true identity. But then one mustn’t forget that Conte’s brother was Rita’s late husband and for years he’s believed that she either intentionally let the man fall to his death or that he committed suicide after learning the truth of Rita’s love for Duke. Yeah there’s a soap opera in here but I found it to be just the right pitch against the story of the big top acts and Duke’s struggles to keep the show on the road.
There’s a fair bit of trivia associated with the filming of Circus World, most notably the filming of a fire that got way out of hand which almost led to John Wayne being seriously injured or worse. It’s also been reported by several writers that it was on this production that Rita Hayworth may have begun showing signs of the dreaded Alzheimer disease that would eventually claim her mind and ultimately her life. Among the names at one time or another associated with the project were Frank Capra as director, David Niven in the Lloyd Nolan role and Rod Taylor as the upstart cowboy. I’ll agree that the Nolan role wasn’t up to Niven standards but that doesn’t stop Nolan from once again delivering a top notch performance in support of the leading man. Such a fine character actor.
Trivia bit connecting Lloyd and Rita. On stage back in his early years Nolan played the lead role of Biff Grimes to great acclaim in One Sunday Afternoon (aka The Strawberry Blonde). No Nolan never appeared in any of the filmed versions of the play but it’s Rita Hayworth who played the famed Strawberry Blonde in the 1941 version opposite Jimmy Cagney’s Biff. A great film and one I love to recommend. As for this Rita film, it would prove to be the nail in the coffin for Bronston’s big splashy productions that had begun with John Paul Jones followed by King of Kings, El Cid, 55 Days at Peking, The Fall of the Roman Empire and finally Circus World.
Wrapping up this spotlight on Circus World and it’s troubled production, I’ll reaffirm that if you like John Wayne then you’ll like the film as a whole. I haven’t seen 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth lately but if I recall that was one of the more overrated films of it’s day looking back and shockingly a Best Picture winner. Maybe I’ll revisit it to see if I prefer Heston and company over Duke’s entourage.
Feel free with the comments if you’ve seen both of the circus epics.