1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Uncle Fester turns into a girl.
F Gwynplaine MacIntyre from Minffordd, North Wales
20 November 2004
If you want to see a movie about a boy who runs away to join the circus
and becomes a girl, here it is.
James Otis Kaler was an extremely prolific author of boys' novels, all
of which have vanished into obscurity except one: 'Toby Tyler', the
tale of an abused boy who runs away and joins the circus. 'Circus
Days', intended as a star vehicle for child actor Jackie Coogan, is
based on that novel ... yet radically alters the material. (Which may
explain why the film studio did not use the title of the original novel
-- still hugely popular in 1923 -- for this movie.) In 1960, 'Toby
Tyler' was remade by Walt Disney ... and again, the film radically
deviated from the novel. But these two film versions deviate from the
novel in very different directions.
SLIGHT SPOILERS. Young Toby (Coogan) is constantly beaten, whipped and
overworked by Eben Holt, his mother's sister's husband. When Toby
accidentally breaks Holt's chinaware, he is terrified that he'll
receive another flogging. He runs away, and lands up with a convenient
circus in which he gets a job as a concessionaire, selling lemonade and
The original novel got a whole chapter out of Toby's ordeal when one of
his customers slips him a bad nickel. In the Disney movie, that
incident is reduced to one line of dialogue. 'Circus Days' substitutes
a very implausible sequence in which Toby accidentally fills lemonade
glasses with petrol, and sells this to customers ... who don't notice
the switch until they drink it. Surely the colour and the fumes would
tip them off? A kindly circus clown (Cesare Gravina: a good performance
in a badly-written role) uses his own savings to help Toby get out of
trouble. Yes, circus performers always have lots of money saved up. The
movie gets even less plausible (and more offensive) when Toby gets
locked in the lion's cage. The beast lumbers towards him on all fours
... and turns out to be an African-American man wearing a lion's skin
and head (with 'yassuh' dialogue in the intertitles). Turns out that
the lion died, so they offered the job to Old Black Joe.
The bareback rider in the circus is pretty Jeannette, a girl about
Toby's age (played by an actress rather older). Toby's carelessness
causes an accident in which Jeannette sprains her ankle, and she can't
perform. No problem: the circus crew dress up Toby as a girl, and they
train him to do Jeannette's riding act. (With some very obvious stunt
doubling.) There's a very sick-making moment here when Luigi the clown
kisses Toby. It's bad enough that a man is kissing a boy, but the boy
is dressed as a girl and the man is costumed as a clown. I couldn't
help thinking of a certain gay serial killer who wore a clown costume.
Ugh! Plausibility is tossed into the sawdust when the circus boss
offers Toby $75 a week -- a HUGE salary in 1923! -- to continue his
equestrienne routine, and Toby turns it down.
Elsewhere in this film is an ingratiating performance by Nellie Lane,
of vast avoirdupois, as the circus's fat lady. She wears a bouffant
hairdo and an enormous headdress that almost make her head seem
proportionate to her huge body.
In the original novel, Toby Tyler did indeed become a bareback rider
... a *male* equestrian, under the name Monsieur Ajax. The Disney film
applied that name to a character not present in the novel: a boy
equestrian who is Toby's rival. The female impersonation angle was
devised for this Jackie Coogan movie, and is blessedly absent from the
novel and Disney's remake.
Was someone trying to groom Jackie Coogan for a career as a drag
performer? Shortly after 'Circus Days', he starred in 'A Boy of
Flanders', which also has a long sequence featuring Jackie passing as a
girl in public. 'Circus Days' is well directed by Edward Cline, and has
some good performances and photography. But Disney's version (for all
its changes) is far more faithful to the original novel. I'll rate
'Circus Days' 5 out of 10.
Add another review