JumbocoverGrade:  B-
Entire family:  Yes
1962, 123 min., Color
Not rated (would be G)
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features:  C-

In the early 1900s, when Billy Rose’s Jumbo is set, there were over 100 circuses operating in the U.S. But by 1962, the year this extravagant musical was released, there were only a relative handful of traveling circuses. That form of entertainment had one foot in the grave, so it’s probably a case of unfortunate timing that a romanticized and heavily nostalgic movie about the circus was made when the institution hadn’t been gone long enough for anyone to miss it.

Although it bombed at the box office, Jumbo now offers a wonderful look at the colorful circuses that provided the only entertainment for small towns all across America.  The entire first act of this 123-minute film is geared toward parades, rehearsals, and performances, so it’s a lot like going to the circus. The more you enjoy watching circus acts, the more you’ll enjoy this movie. But even people who aren’t fans of the circus will appreciate the colorful spectacle, the ornate and detailed circus wagons, the unique and inventive costumes, and the versatility of the circus troupe as they rise to every occasion. 

Jimmy Durante came out of retirement to play Pop Wonder, whose gambling problem makes the Wonder Circus unable to pay its bills. And Doris Day, who was a huge star at the time, plays his daughter, Kitty—a bareback rider who, like everyone else, pitches in when they’re down a clown, an aerialist, or a barker.

JumboscreenBased on a 1935 musical play, Jumbo offers the familiar threat of takeover by a larger, more professionally run circus as the main plot, and a double romance providing subplot interest. Fortune-teller Lulu (Martha Raye) wants Pop Wonder to make an honest woman out of her, while a new and mysterious circus hand (Stephen Boyd) provides the love interest for Day. All of them sing songs written by Rogers & Hart, the most recognizable of which are “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” “My Romance,” and “This Can’t Be Love.”

Jumbo feels like three different movies, though. The first big section is like going to the circus; then there’s a brief wave of sadness and drama that washes over everything and everyone; and finally there’s a finale that goes on way too long and we’re back to watching performance again—only this time it’s the four principal actors singing “Sawdust and Spangles and Dreams” ad nauseum.

If you can overlook that ending (hey, you can always go “Ta Da!” when it feels over and shut the movie off) and a sad section in which Day is singing a weepy ballad and then up pops a cheery section in the middle of it all, Jumbo is a musical that’s worthwhile. Nostalgia and romance often feel a little sappy, especially to teens and ‘tweens, but the depictions of circus life here are so fascinating and rich that it all evens out. Call it the wholesome, light and fluffy alternative to the dark and brooding Water for Elephants.