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In the early years of the 20th century, Matt Masters takes his rambling Wild West Show to Europe. His decision is prompted by his desire to find Lili Alfredo, who disappeared fourteen years earlier following the death of her husband, The Flying Alfredo. At the time it was believed that Alfredo dove to his death deliberately when he realized his wife loved Matt and not him. Toni, a beautiful trapeze performer, raised by Matt is actually Lili's daughter, and she is in love with Steve McCabe, one of the stars on Matt's show. Doing their first show in Barcelona, aboard a ship, the ship keels over and Matt loses his show. Now broke, he leaves for Paris with Toni, Steve and his long-time friend, Cap Carson, to seek a job with Colonel Purdy's Wild West Show. But a year later, Matt has rebuilt his own show. First to be signed is a remarkable 12-year-old wire-walker named Giovana, and her guardian, Tojo the Clown, whose real named is Aldo Alfredo, formerly of the Flying Alfredos. Continuing ... Written by
Les Adams <email@example.com>
Frank Capra began this project but left due to unhappiness with the script (Capra wanted to use his own script but 'John Wayne (I)' insisted that James Edward Grant be brought to rewrite it) and budget. See more »
While the film is taking place in 1901, there are several mistakes with the European flags. One example is the Finnish flag that is seen in the movie. Finland didn't achieved independence (and the flag) until 1918. See more »
"Circus World", generally known in Britain as "The Magnificent Showman" was one of a number of films on a circus theme made during the fifties and sixties as filmmakers sought to cash in on the spectacle and drama of the Big Top. DeMille's "The Greatest Show on Earth" is possibly the best-known, but "The Big Circus" is another well-known example. All three films are large-scale spectaculars and all three have for their central character the figure of the circus owner or manager, played in "The Greatest Show..." by Charlton Heston, in "The Big Circus" by Victor Mature and here by John Wayne. In each case this individual is played as tough but fair, with a deep love of the circus and its traditions.
Although the film was made in 1964, the action takes place at some unspecified date in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Most circus dramas involve the company touring America by train, but here Wayne's character, Matt Masters, decides to take his circus on a tour of Europe. Part of the reason is that he hopes to be reunited with his former lover, Lili Alfredo. This plot is perhaps a measure of the way in which the cinema was becoming more permissive in the sixties; it turns out that Lili was the wife of another man, one of the circus acrobats, who was killed in a fall which (it is hinted) may really have been suicide prompted by his wife's infidelity. At one time it would have been unthinkable for the clean-cut John Wayne to have been cast as a man involved in an adulterous affair, let alone an adulterous affair which led to the death of the cuckolded husband. Another important character is Toni, Lili's daughter whom she abandoned after her husband's death and whom Masters has raised as his own daughter.
The circus genre had its own conventions and clichés, and a number of these are recycled here. The European setting means that a shipwreck can replace the more traditional train crash as the disaster which threatens the business, and we also get the fall from the high wire or trapeze, the glamorous female acrobat whose love-life forms a mainspring of the plot, the dangerous wild beasts on the loose, a fire and the clown whose make-up hides some unexpected secret. (In this case that he is the brother of the dead acrobat. The script, however, does not make much of this disclosure. There is a vague implication have started the fire deliberately in revenge for his brother's death, but this implication is never followed through so we do not discover the truth of the matter).
Wayne is not bad as Masters, but this is not really one of his great films. His image was very much that of the strong man of physical action; he normally would play the cavalry officer leading his troops into action rather than the general back at the base, or the cowboy on the trail rather than the rancher back at the ranch. "The Magnificent Showman" is therefore a departure from his normal style, as Masters is the man on the ground giving the orders rather than the performer in the air entertaining the crowds. Heston, who could play both types of role, is rather better as the equivalent character in "The Greatest Show...".
Rita Hayworth as Lili was still strikingly attractive for a woman in her mid-forties, but again this is not one of her better films. I was rather surprised to learn that she was nominated for a "Best Actress" Golden Globe award. There is certainly little chemistry between her and Wayne, which suggests that the rumours about their off-screen clashes may have been true. (He was apparently angered by her heavy drinking). Claudia Cardinale looks gorgeous as Toni, but her foreign accent seemed wrong for the part; Toni may be Italian, or of Italian ancestry, on her father's side, but she has spent all, or most of, her life in America, so should really have an American accent.
Overall, "The Magnificent Showman" (I will use the British title with which I am more familiar) has some entertaining and exciting passages, but does not really say anything new about its circus theme which had not already been said in similar films. This lack of originality may have been one reason why the circus genre fell from favour in the seventies and eighties, although there have been occasional revivals since in films like "Water for Elephants". 6/10
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