Clowning Around with Doris Day
If you look at the career of Doris Day, by the end of the 50s she was reinventing herself with a series of romantic comedies putting behind her those musicals which formed much of her early movie career. Yet right slap bang in the middle of these romantic comedies is "Billy Rose's Jumbo" another musical which whilst it has it's moments is for the most rather dull, obvious and quite frankly at just short of 2 hours is way overlong. Basically it doesn't quite work and although watching the various circus acts in the background delivers a few entertaining scenes none of the stars Doris Day, Jimmy Durante, Stephen Boyd or Martha Raye can save "Billy Rose's Jumbo" from being ultimately less than memorable.
Pop (Jimmy Durante) and Kitty Wonder (Doris Day - That Touch of Mink) are the owners of Wonder Circus, a travelling show which in between falling to pieces and Pop's addiction to gambling is struggling to keep going. There only saving grace is Jumbo, a well trained elephant which audiences love and so does rival circus owner John Noble who whilst stealing half of Wonder's acts also wants him. Out of nowhere Sam Rowlins (Stephen Boyd), a tall dark, handsome stranger shows up looking for work and having shown his talent at wire walking finds himself becoming part of the Wonder Circus with Kitty becoming smitten by him. What no one knows is that Rowlins is in fact John Noble's son.
Despite being based on a Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur play "Billy Rose's Jumbo" almost has a feel of someone building a musical around one of Day's romantic comedies with part of the storyline revolving around her falling for and being duped by a tall handsome stranger. As such there is a very obvious side to "Billy Rose's Jumbo" with all the pseudo romance between Kitty and Sam and it doesn't take much to work out where things will end up by the time the curtains come down, so to speak. Accompanying this romance is what should be the main storyline of the Wonder's Circus and it's struggle to keep going, but strangely it ends up playing second fiddle to the romance and doesn't really grab you when it is the main focus.
What does grab you are the various circus performances and death defying stunts which are on show through out the whole of "Billy Rose's Jumbo". Although they are part of the reason as to why it ends up scraping in just under 2 hours long they end up being the best bits. Watching various tumbling acts, wire walkers and so on really highlights how talented circus performers truly are. The comedy scene featuring a clown wire walking is just brilliant and highlights something which is missing from entertainment these days. And although it's looked down upon these days watching Jumbo, the elephant from the title, perform is truly magnificent be it a subtle wink or sort of skipping along.
Of course being an MGM musical there are various musical moments which interweave with all the circus performances and storyline. But for the most none of them are that amazing or memorable with Doris Day and Stephen Boyd almost going through the motions as they deliver various songs. The only song which ends up memorable is "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" which maybe more to do with it being the only one I have heard elsewhere.
As for the performances well between them Doris Day, Jimmy Durante, Stephen Boyd and Martha Raye are all great talents yet none of them shine in "Billy Rose's Jumbo". Yes Doris Day looks lovely and sounds lovely when she sings but her character is weak the same can be said of Durante who provides a touch of amusement with his comedy shtick but never sets alight his various scenes. Sadly they end up playing second fiddle to the wonderful circus performers who provide the supporting cast.
But whilst there is plenty which is wrong with "Billy Rose's Jumbo" it does bring the circus to the screen quite brilliantly and as such is semi entertaining.
What this all boils down to is that "Billy Rose's Jumbo" is by no means a great musical but also not a terrible one, more just very tired and routine. The songs are for the most unmemorable as are the performances from the main stars. But the various circus acts which get there moment in the limelight make it fun, especially the elephant which performs tricks on command.