Looking for a Vincent Price movie to watch – for who does not feel like watching a Vincent Price movie any old time of the day? – it was decided that The Big Circus would be the one as it was something different than the normal horror type pictures that he was known for. Unbeknownst, it also featured quite the stellar cast with Victor Mature starring and Red Buttons, Kathryn Grant, Rhonda Fleming and Peter Lorre also appearing. So now, the expectations of this film being any good were immediately raised to a definite possibility. Turns out this film about a struggling Big Top was highly entertaining and quite captivating.
The previously mentioned Big Top in the film is called the Whirling Circus, named so after Victor Mature’s character, Henry Whirling. He is having a bit of financial difficulty as his livelihood had recently been split in two with half of the circus now becoming a rival to his own. Needing cash, he goes to the bank for a loan and ends up getting saddled with an accountant and a press agent to make sure that the bank can make good on its investment. Things seem well, even though Red Buttons character wants to make cuts to the circus and Whirling cannot seem to get past the idea of a woman press agent. But as they make their way from city to city, little things start going wrong like fires happening and lions being let out of their cages. They know there is sabotage going on, but unless they can catch someone doing it red-handed, they just have to keep going and do the best that they can. Things go from bad to worse though when torrential rains hit and then even more treachery which leads to the death of one of the characters. But like all good dramas, it all works out in the end.
Now while wanting to see Vincent Price, it was actually Peter Lorre who turned out to be one of the most interesting characters in the film as the clown Skeeter. They both played supporting roles in the film to Mature and Fleming, but Lorre has always had that magnetism that draws you into whatever character he happens to play. What that quality is, who is to know, but whenever he is onscreen you cannot help but want to see more of him. Price, who was not his usual great self, just seemed to be going through the motions at times and actually seemed bored. Strange as it may seem, seeing Price in this film was actually a bit of a letdown due to his attitude. It could have been the way the character was written, but compared to everyone else; he was a bit of a let down.
Mature on the other hand was charismatic as Whirling the carnival owner, who seemed to be larger than life at times. True, he is a bit of a chauvinist and a bit sexist, and it was wrong then as it is wrong now, but when watching the movie you have to remember it was a different time with different attitudes. Thankfully things have changed in the intervening years, but it does not detract from the film being a well-made drama. There were times when his character would almost seem to overpower the others in certain scenes, but that could be attributed to his personality rather than Mature’s performance.
While it would have been nice to see a few more of the acts perform, and perhaps a few less clowns, the film was solid from start to finish. The only surprisingly weak spot was the usually dependable Price, but even at his worst he is usually better than most. The film was big and bright, had some great music and featured expert direction under the helm of Joseph M. Newman who also filmed the sci-fi classic, This Island Earth and Fort Massacre featuring the wonderful Joel McCrea. If you like anything to do with the circus or any of the stars within, give this film a shot, you will not be disappointed.
4 out of 5