Billy Rose’s Jumbo

Doris Day, Jumbo
The last great MGM – and Doris Day – musical

During the 1930s and 1940s, MGM’s output of musicals was vast. Warner Brothers was not far behind, but clearly MGM was the studio that was known for having the highest production values and the greatest musical stars, from Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Gene Kelly to Fred Astaire, Howard Keel, Ann Miller and Jane Powell. Not until 1948 did Warner Brothers produce a star on par with the MGM superstars. They hit paydirt with a brand new personality, big band singer, Doris Day, after borrowed Metro star, Judy Garland could not fulfil the obligation to star in “Romance on the High Seas”. Day tested and was then cast in the lead role and the rest, as they say, is history.

Years later, after playing Ruth Etting in MGM’s spectacular Love Me or Leave Me in 1955, Doris returned to the lot to make Julie in 1956, The Tunnel of Love in 1958 and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” in 1960. She seemingly found a semi-permanent home at Universal, but returned to MGM again in 1962 to film the big, splashy circus musical, Billy Rose’s Jumbo.

Jumbo: The last great MGM (and Doris Day) musical

Doris Day returned to MGM in 1962 to star in Billy Rose’s Jumbo.

Jumbo is a wonderful film, artistically and technically. Miss Day was the perfect choice to play the lovely Kitty Wonder, co-owner of the Wonder Circus. The circus is near bankruptcy, due to the compulsive gambling by her father, Pop Wonder and a threatened takeover by the rival Noble Circus is planned. Owner, John Noble, plants his son, Sam, among the Wonder clan to obtain inside information in order to hasten the proposed coup. He reluctantly falls in love with the beautiful young co-owner, later feels guilty about his dad’s underhanded tactics and decides to break with the Noble plan.

Noble (Dean Jaggar) is successful in his efforts and the Wonder Circus is shut down with all of its assets, including it’s star attraction, the incredible elephant, Jumbo, confiscated. Heartbroken and defeated, Kitty, her father and his fiancée, Lulu, decide to rebuild the business from the ground level starting with two sticks and a blanket which is equivalent to dancing for pennies on a street corner. They receive an unexpected visit from Sam who miraculously produces Jumbo and together, the four performers, with renewed confidence and ambition, roll up their sleeves and embark on a new journey.

Jimmy Durante, Doris Day, Stephen Boyd, Martha Raye in, "Jumbo".

Jimmy Durante, Doris Day, Stephen Boyd, Martha Raye in, Jumbo.

From the opening Circus is on Parade number, this musical is magical. Doris Day is in great voice throughout the film and performs the majority of the Rogers and Hart standards. Busby Berkeley, the genius behind MGM’s greatest 1930s musicals, acted as Second Unit Director on the movie, which was to become his last screen effort. His choreography on Over and Over Again brought back the marvel of his mathematically complex, extravagant musical routines of yore.

After a rainstorm in which Kitty, an aerialist, is almost killed, but rescued by Sam, she sings the lovely ballad, My Romance to him. The camera lingers lovingly on Doris’ face, which is partly shadowed by the dark. As she and Sam turn and start to walk, she continues to sing as she rests her head on his shoulder. They stop and she finishes the song just in time to kiss her lover passionately. Very beautiful.

Stephen Boyd sings “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” to Doris Day.

Stephen Boyd sings “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” to Doris Day.

Sam (Stephen Boyd) after Kitty dresses in her Sunday best to impress him, sings The Most Beautiful Girl in the World to her. The song is later reprised by Pop (Jimmy Durante) as he prepares to marry Lulu (Martha Raye) in a comical, but touching bit. Miss Raye duets with Doris on the lamentable Why Can’t I? and Day gets to sing two Rogers and Hart classics, This Can’t Be Love and Little Girl Blue. The latter is a dramatic presentation performed among the deserted tents after the loss of the circus and the beloved, Jumbo. This is more of a scene than a musical number. It is set in shadows of blue with varied dramatic camera angles, which add to the impact of the song’s lyrics. Doris sings with moving conviction and ends the song fighting back her tears.

With Day, Durante and Raye, one would expect some comedy and slapstick. Ever resourceful, Durante attempts to shoot Raye out of a cannon, Day ends up in a puddle of mud ruining her ‘Sunday best’ and Durante, trying to hide Jumbo during the takeover (“Where are you going with that elephant?” Durante: “what elephant?”). Doris has a great scene in a pool hall during a crap game when she tries to win back the circus payroll her father has gambled away. The film ends with a spectacular production number, Sawdust, Spangles and Dreams in which the foursome don clown outfits and perform some traditional slap-happy routines. Raye and Day are especially deft.

Doris Day and Jimmy Durante take a bow.

Kitty  Wonder (Day) and ‘Pop’ Wonder (Durante) take a bow in Billy Rose’s Jumbo.

Unfortunately, Billy Rose’s Jumbo opened in New York at Radio City Music Hall during a newspaper strike and did not get reviewed by the all-important critics. As a result, the film did not do as well as it was projected. This failure was the only sour note during the spectacular run that Miss Day had at the box-office between 1959-66. (Although the film eventually made a substantial profit through rentals, DVDs and TV showings, including a $1million deal.)

Billy Rose's Jumbo, 1962Today, Jumbo is counted among the great circus films such as The Greatest Show on Earth, Trapeze, Carnival Story and Circus World. Charles Walters directed the picture with Joe Pasternak and Martin Melcher producing. Doris Day was nominated as “Best actress in a musical or comedy” at the Hollywood Foreign Press Awards but lost to Rosalind Russell for Gypsy. She did, however, walk away with the evening’s coveted World’s Most Popular Film Actress accolade again.

Ralph McKnight, New York

Jumbo is now available on Blu-Ray.

Other Reviews

A wonderfully warm-hearted MGM musical about circus rivalries, based on showman Billy Rose’s Broadway extravaganza that actually featured an elephant on stage. Star Doris Day delivers the lovely Rodgers and Hart songs superbly, especially the sublime My Romance”.

Unlikely co-star Stephen Boyd, still hot from Ben-Hur, also acquits himself surprisingly well, but then he does get to sing a lilting The Most Beautiful Girl in the World. However, the real joys are veterans Martha Raye and Jimmy Durante, whose “What elephant?” line from this movie has rightly become classic: watch to find out why.” – London Radio Times

Stephen Boyd visits Doris Day on the set of "Do Not Disturb".

Stephen Boyd visits Doris Day on the set of “Do Not Disturb”.

The Co-stars

Stephen Boyd was born William (Billy) Millar 4 July 1931 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His great passion for the art of acting often times got him into trouble with the executives in the movie industry. In the mid-seventies, towards the end of his life, he was quoted as saying: “I am sick and tired of acting. I want to make decisions at a production level. I have tried to fight the system and do things my way, but I haven’t been able to. Now I feel that whatever talent I may have had is gone. The time has come to move on.”

Stephen Boyd sadly died of a heart attack on 2 June 1977 while playing golf at the Porter Valley country club, one of his favorite past-times. He is buried at Oakwood Memorial Park in Tarzana, California. He once said: “They tried to make me a star, a leading man. Well, I’m not a star even though they thought I looked like one. I’m a character actor. When I’ve had the choice I’ve always opted for the character role. I’d rather be the pillar that holds up the star than the star himself.”

Stephen Boyd talks about Doris Day

Jimmy Durante was born James Francis Durante on 10 February 1893 in New York. His first wife Jeanne died in 1943. Rather like his Pop Wonder role in “Jumbo” he married his second wife, Marjorie Little after a 16-year courtship when she was 39 and he was 67. He died in January 1980 in Santa Monica, California.

Martha Raye was born Margaret Teresa Yvonne Reed on 27 August 1916 in Butte, Montana and died after a prolonged illness in October 1994. Martha Raye received a well-deserved Women’s International Centre (WIC) Living Legacy Award. IMDB

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