Monday, June 12, 2017

Ringling Drama that Never Makes it to the Screen: Can Barnum or Lillian Leitzel Make it Happen?

P. T. Barnum, the subject of a new movie, The Greatest Showman, about his life and showmanship, due out in December,  said to be raising a “buzz” in Hollywood, some hoping it will be another La La Land.   It's a musical!  The Broadway musical,  Barnum!, gave us at least a great score from Cy Coleman.  This new treatment will put the popular Australian actor Hugh Jackman in P.T.’s scheming shoes.  Jackman made a huge name for himself when he played the role of Curly in the brilliant Brit staging of Oklahoma.  If you like Rodgers & Hammerstein, it’s a must see. 

Coleman's Barnum! had little patience with historical accuracy, turning P. T. into a skilled low wire walker in order to symbolize the many gambles he took -- reaping acclaim from Tom Thumb to Jenny Lind, and then, in concert with James A. Bailey, the first three-ring circus, brought out by the partners in 1881. They called it The Greatest Show on Earth.  You may have heard, it recently bit the dust.

And so the idea of another Barnum musical disappoints me to a degree.  Such amusements  tend to place comedy over drama. I am still waiting for a great American circus film -- that is, a tautly dramatic one.

Now comes, also, another big top flick currently in production at Warner,  Queen of the Air, this one based upon the 2013 novel of the same name, about the lives of  1920s Ringling stars Lillian Leitzel and Alfredo Codona.  Margot Robbie, above, to play the tempestuous aerialist.  Here, the producers and writers have a chance to dig deep into tragedy, and as deep into circus atmosphere and conflict serving as a compelling context.  Can you think of a famous circus showman of the period whose life in the end was just as tragic?  Hint: think brothers.

Here is my Big Question:  How does a film maker, in dealing with that circus and that time period, recreate this:

In its favor, Warner is behind it.  Another promising sign is the film's producer,  Andrew Lazaar, who handled Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper.   This gives me hope for high drama.  There was plenty of that in and around the Ringling big top when Leitzel and Codona flew.  I'm hoping for the kind of  movie that can capture the epic atmosphere of the circus then, while daring to plumb the depths of Letizel and Codona story.

And so I wonder: Will either of these movies evoke the American circus in, let's say, Masterpiece Theatre fashion?

From other entertainment forms have come classic films. Ballet gave us, for example.The Red Shoes; movie making, Day of the Locust and Sunset Boulevard, to name a few.  So has  television (think Good Night and Good Luck, think Quiz Show).

Will the circus ever deliver, dramatically?  Other than the great flick, Trapeze, in my estimation a genuinely fine movie  --and, you might argue, Disney's long-ago Toby Tyler -- what has Hollywood given us?   Recently, it gave us the wretchedly sadistic, historically dubious, Water for Elephants (60% on Rotten Tomatoes).

Once again, I’m waiting for the Big One on screen.  And this time, please, hold the songs.


Anonymous said...

Jackman is Australian, mate.

Showbiz David said...

Thanks for the correction.