Wednesday, June 5, 2019

TinselTales: Goodbye Cruel "World!"

Many a movie venture has undergone a series of behind-the-scenes dust-ups or catastrophes, but a few seem to have such a vast number of issues going on that they are practically career-enders! Such is the case with Circus World (1964), a bloated Samuel Bronston production which couldn't seem to get its bearings and which squandered an interesting cast while also proving to be the death knell of a few cinematic movers and shakers.

Originally intended as a project for director Nicholas Ray (then called "Circus") and to star John Wayne, it eventually fell into Frank Capra's hands. He seemed an unlikely choice, having typically helmed movies that contained sentimental stories of the common man getting out from under an oppressive situation, though he may have welcomed the change. He and Wayne were also friends, with the western star having long wanted to be directed Capra. He spent six months in pre-production before tangling considerably with Wayne's close pal and pet screenwriter James Edward Grant.

Grant (on the right, with composer Dimitri Tiompkin in the middle) had penned Angel and the Badman (1947), Sands of Iwo Jima (1949, which had netted Wayne an Oscar nomination), Hondo (1953), The Alamo (1960) and other Wayne screen ventures. he had a formula for Wayne's success which clashed with the approach Capra wanted to take and after a period of being at loggerheads with Wayne's network of close associates, Capra departed the production. Apart from one documentary short in 1968 Capra, a three-time Oscar-winner, never directed again.

Enter Henry Hathaway, a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense director known for his intolerance of diva-like star behavior and an impatience with performers who didn't seem to be cutting the mustard. He had directed The Duke as far back as The Shepherd of the Hills (1941) as well as in Legend of the Lost (1957) and North to Alaska (1960) and would later guide Wayne to the Oscar with True Grit (1969.) He had just stormed off the set of Of Human Bondage (1964) swiftly citing an inability to work with Kim Novak.

But directorial shakeups weren't the only issue. Cast as Wayne's right-hand man in this sprawling story of life under the big top was David Niven, who'd previously costarred in Samuel Bronston's similarly tumultuous 55 Days at Peking (1963) alongside a warring Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner, among other on-set calamities. After a rewrite diminished his role, he departed the production and was replaced with busy character actor Lloyd Nolan.
As Wayne's co-owner and fellow stunt rider in the western-themed portion of the circus, Rod Taylor was enlisted. He'd enjoyed the hit The Time Machine (1960) and was coming off the fairly prestigious Alfred Hitchcock thriller The Birds (1963.) However, when he arrived in Spain for filming, he found that his role was also far more a supporting part than a costarring one as he'd initially believed. So he too was out!

Smith is seen to the right with Karen Sharpe.
Wayne had worked with a young actor on one of his big hits The High and the Mighty (1954) named John Smith. He liked Smith enough to place him under personal contract and for a time controlled his career. With Taylor suddenly out and with Smith just having finished a four-year run on the popular TV western Laramie, Wayne brought his former protegee to Spain to fill the role.
This Japanese promotional piece is focused on Robert Fuller, but we can only focus on Smith's "fuller" pants! God bless the typesetter for not moving the pink lettering over another millimeter to the left.
As his leading lady in the film, Wayne was thrilled to land the sultry dancer and pin-up queen Rita Hayworth, who had proven adept in both noir-ish thrillers like Gilda (1946) and colorful musicals like Cover Girl (1944) and Down to Earth (1947) among many other movies. Off screen for three years, and often in romantic turmoil, Hayworth had seen her screen career dissipate since 1958's Separate Tables. Her character didn't turn up until one hour into the epic and, at first, was portrayed as a rather disheveled, dilapidated woman.

Seen here on set in contemporary clothing, the forty-six year-old proved to be difficult to deal with. She was reportedly demanding, unpleasant to the crew and, to Wayne's particular dismay, couldn't remember her lines during scenes. It was later speculated that the Alzheimer's disease which marred her later years was already taking hold as early as this time, though no one knew it. Though Hayworth worked up until 1972, the bulk of her parts were in low-budget foreign projects or lesser-known independent films.

Richard Conte also appeared as an aerialist-turned-clown and was given precious little to do in the story line except to provide one emotional moment for Hayworth. Much of his screen time was devoted to being upstaged by a little girl who walks a tightrope.

A bright spot came with the casting of Wayne's adopted daughter (and Hayworth's real daughter in the movie), Claudia Cardinale. She was coming off a banner year with 8 1/2, The Leopard and The Pink Panther all having been released in 1963. While she possessed a thick Italian accent which went unexplained in the script, she was energetic, vivacious and extraordinarily pretty. She and Hayworth made a believable mother-daughter pairing, too, though the much-muddled script had a tendency to switch gears with considerable ferocity.

The worst bit of career crushing came with the aforementioned Smith. Always considered an amiable, serviceable performer who'd played both nice guys and jerks (and who demonstrated positively painted-on pants during Laramie), Smith was willing and eager to work on a big, splashy production for the man who'd produced King of Kings (1961) and El Cid (1961) and the spectacular (but unsuccessful Fall of the Roman Empire (1964.)

However, practically upon arrival, director Henry Hathaway took a dislike to him and made his life hell on set. No one has ever really pinned down what went wrong or why someone who'd made enough of an impression on John Wayne to warrant a personal contract somehow bothered the director that badly, but it was ugly. And after the movie wrapped, Hathaway vowed that Smith would never work in another movie.

That nearly came to pass. It was two years before Smith faced a camera again, in the minor western Waco (1966) with fifth billing. His only other movies were the dreadfully low-rent Blood Legacy (1971) with a passel of other actors past their best sell-by date and a small role in the Disney film Justin Morgan Had a Horse (1972.) He believed he was blacklisted by Hathaway. Though it's been noted that he retired after appearing on his old Laramie costar Robert Fuller's series Emergency! in 1972, he actually continued to land TV spots up until 1978 when he finally gave up attempting to act professionally. He died in 1995 of cirrhosis of the liver following a lengthy period of heavy drinking, though he did manage to make several appearances at western nostalgia shows. He was only sixty-three when he died.

Smith had been born Robert Errol Van Orden and though he initially thought about a career as an aeronautical engineer, he ultimately decided to pursue acting. He'd been singing since the age of thirteen and even appeared as part of the choir which had been featured in both Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary (1945), both starring Bing Crosby. He got a job in the MGM mail room where he was spotted by the successful, but notoriously predatory, agent Henry Willson.

Sampling the wares (in this case Guy Madison)?
It was Wilson, who gave the world Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Guy Madison, Rory Calhoun, Troy Donahue, Chad Everett, Van Williams, Dack Rambo and others, who led young Van Orden to adopt the incredibly commonplace name of John Smith, in order to be the only actor with such a moniker. In a publicity stunt, John Smith became his legal name at Thanksgiving time with an actress claiming to be Pocahontas Crowfoot on hand to help carve a turkey.
Different sorts of wishbones were Willson's usual stock in trade...
Smith was married for four years to actress Luana Patten (1960-1964) and reportedly fathered a child with another woman at some point. Yet, as one of Willson's Boys, he was surely pressured into taking part in some sort of shenanigans as virtually all of them did in order to make it in the biz. Was it this distinction that somehow got Hathaway's back up? It's doubtful since he'd worked with many of Willson's hunky clients over the prior years. For what it's worth, Hathaway married at twenty-one and switched wives after twelve years in 1932, remaining wed another fifty-three years and adopting a son along the way.

It's lesser-known, and I'm not validating or denying - merely sharing, that some writers believe that John Wayne was the object of his director-mentor John Ford's sexual lust and that the close, but often contentious, even sadomasochistic, relationship between them was riddled with repressed (or even explored) sexual implications. Certainly Ford (and Wayne) always kept a fine piece of young male eye candy on hand in practically every picture, though there's no reason to think that it wasn't also box office insurance. And Wayne worked closely with many a gay actor, though, again, in Hollywood that is hardly uncommon!
Aggressive masculinity as compensation?
One audacious book not long ago had Wayne carrying on with career-clawing Nick Adams (!) prior to his 1968 death. So there is an outside possibility that the long "unknown" reason why Smith and Hathaway clashed has something to do with the director's perception that Smith was some sort of bad influence on The Duke in a similar vein, or that he even liked the man himself, but was rebuked. Why was the reason so hush-hush forever after?! Usually someone spills the beans eventually. This time we'll most likely never know. It is also possible that all of the homosexual speculation around Wayne is posthumous payback for his lifelong sociopolitical viewpoints which often differed from the majority of gay film fans and writers. (Right there is a sort of paradox in that gay writers want to "smear" someone straight by branding them as gay?! But that's a whole 'nother story.)
Wayne was loyal lifelong to "Pappy" Ford, despite harsh treatment at times.
Producer Bronston did not emerge from this unscathed either. Having been a successful (if quite daring and tenuous at times) producer of mammoth spectacles, the failure of Roman Empire and this film all but sent him out of the business. When he was visiting Bronston prior to dropping out, Rod Taylor noticed missing artwork in his home, as if he was selling off personal possessions to bankroll the project! Its failure led to only sporadic film production on a far smaller scale in the following years (five projects over a two-decade span.)

One aspect of Circus World that appealed to me was that it climaxed with a huge fire under the big top. My love of cinematic disaster meant that I just had to see this (hard to find) film at some point. It is a spectacular sequence (and that damn tent along with its benches seems to ignite as if the carnies putting it up doused the place with Zippo lighter fluid!)

One more casualty of this film was John Wayne's health. He didn't know it yet, but he was suffering from lung cancer as a lifelong five-pack-a-day smoker. Filming for five straight days on a set that was truly burning led to severe eye inflammation and smoke inhalation that greatly advanced his ill respiratory health. What's more, he insisted on doing a fair amount of his own stunt work and during one miscommunication he narrowly escaped death when the fiery canvas above him came careening down before he was anticipating it! At the end of 1964, he had to have a cancerous lung removed. He resorted to chewing tobacco and later cigars in order to sate his desire for tobacco.

But what I didn't know was that a fiery cataclysm was not the only disaster depicted in the movie. Early on there is a massive shipwreck in which a huge boat carrying all the circus animals and equipment teeters over onto its side, spilling hordes of people into the water!

This was an unexpected treat, to see Wayne, Smith and Cardinale struggling to reach safety and to save as much of their enterprise as they can before the tub goes all the way under! A foreign Blu-ray release of Circus World presents the film, such as it is, quite beautifully. So I will end with some demonstrative shots from the movie in all its widescreen splendor. The big top wasn't the only thing that got burnt during its production, but even so it contains some nice images for those interested.
Any way you can bend I can bend better...
The movie has teeming hordes of extras, all in period costumes. No CGI here...
Ooooh! Shades of The Poseidon Adventure and Titanic!
That's Cardinale clowning around in the red-striped pants.
That's it till next time!


Gingerguy said...

This one wasn't on my radar but as usual ties in with many things that interest me.
I'm with Hathaway, the only thing I want to see regarding Kim Novak and human bondage is anything that would prevent her from acting.
Rod Taylor might have dropped out but that picture is divine.
Rita looks so pretty here. TCM recently showed "Seperate Tables" and everyone is so good in that, including Rita and David Niven.
As we speak I am reading the book on Henry Wilsson. It goes on about how unattractive he was, he's no Gable here but not Quasimodo either. He sure could pick 'em though. The book is very interesting and better written than I expected. Of his stable of discoveries it's so hard for me to picture Dack Rambo in this era as I know him mostly from his reign on night time soaps of the 80', but that moniker has Wilsson written all over it.
I love the fur coat on Pocohantas!
If you like your Circus with a little disaster take a look at the recent live action Dumbo. It's CGI heavy but so bonkers that I actually liked it. I usually stay far away from John Wayne films but have recently reevaluated him after watching "The Quiet Man" again. This movie is an interesting mess, thanks for highlighting it.

Gregory Moore said...

Another rare archaeological "dig" by Poseidon! Never even heard of it. Re. the handsome John Smith: Have you read Richard Lamparski's last two books? They're called "Manhattan Diary" and "Hollywood Diary"...and he really cuts loose. In his early books, he usually spoke in code about the seamier latter years of most of his subject--but not in these. In the Hollywood book, he dedicates a chapter to the washed-up, alcoholic mess that John Smith became and it is SO tawdry. The books are both EXCELLENT, and contain some fabulous filth, including certain celebrities he threw-down with, including Ilka Chase and Ethel "Tico Tico" Smith. Among my favorite celebrity books. SO...if you want to hear about Smith's final chapter, you need to read these books! He also claims that Arthur "The Street Singer" Tracy tried to get him to murder his mother-in-law!!

Poseidon3 said...

Gingerguy, that "Human Bondage" movie gets even worse, by my estimation, because it also stars Laurence Harvey! Never warmed to him at all as an actor. Of course I deliberately chose the sexiest Rod Taylor pic I could find that I haven't already posted somewhere here. LOL In my Dack Rambo tribute, I note how he and his twin Dirk were actually born Norman and Orman...! That's hard to believe, knowing how cosmopolitan Dack later seemed. I was raised on John Wayne. I don't like everything he did, but I do enjoy some of it (and, as I say, there is nearly always a Jeffrey Hunter, Fabian, Ricky Nelson, Montgomery Clift, Patrick Wayne or some such in that vein to help get the medicine down!)

Gregory! I am dying... I have read as many of those Lamparski books as I can get my hands on - I'm in the middle of one now that I hadn't had before! - but I had no clue that he'd suddenly let loose with heavy gossip! He was always so discreet and highly respectful in most of his articles in the books. I can hardly wait to get my mitts on this stuff. (I don't know if it "reads" here, but many, many of my Poseidon's Underworld individual tributes are penned in a style that reflects the way her wrote his! Mine are, of course, much longer, but the basic attitude tends to be similar with the occasional injection of my sense of humor.)

Gregory Moore said...

"Occasional injection....humor"?! I get more cackles out of your blog than from any single sitcom episode of the past 40 years! Richard Lamparski is from Detroit (as am I, though I hear he's still living, in Santa Barbara, California, likely around 90 years old. A friend who used to speak to him by phone (reportedly, he's somewhat reclusive now, though he enjoys speaking by telephone). I discovered his books before the age of 10 and read every one of them, repeatedly...and they remain the only extant interviews many of his subjects ever gave. These final (?) two books were released in 2010, by Bear Manor Media, which I'm sure you're familiar with, with their specialty being esoteric Hollywood. I got theme two "Diary" books when they first came out and have practically committed them to memory. Truly--if you are a fan of his earlier anthology series, these two are his crowning achievements. And he doesn't just "come out of the closet"...he kicks the door off the hinges! I also hear he's a very nice--and certainly an INTERESTING fellow--considering he met, well, EVERYONE! (the books are ten bucks on Kindle Books, too).

Poseidon3 said...

Thanks for all the extra info on Mr. Lamparski and his books! (And I'm glad you like my offbeat sense of humor, too!) :-D