Circus World (1964): Melodrama, Starring John Wayne, Rita Hayworth, and Claudia Cardinale, Directed by Capra and then Hathaway

Frank Capra began helming Circus World (aka “The Magnificent Showman”), one of the weakest both he as director and John Wayne as star have made in their respective careers. Henry Hathaway, who took over the production when Capra bailed out, could not improve much a story that was doomed from the very beginning.

In this tepid melodrama, Wayne plays Matt Master, the circus owner who takes his troupe to Europe, but experiences a disastrous setback, when the ship sinks in Barcelona’s harbor.  As a result, Masters offers his services to another circus, while building a new team for his future operation.


If you want to know more about John Wayne’s career and life, please read my book:

Masters participates in the Wild West acts, including one in which he sharp-shoots from atop of a stagecoach that’s under Indian attack.  Later on, there’s a ridiculous scene, in which Wayne (too old to do that) drives along Paris’ Champs Elysees before leaping onto the lead horse in the stagecoach team in an effort to bring it to a halt.

Masters cultivates friendships with Cap Carson (Lloyd Nolan) and Toni Alfredo (Claudia Cardinale), whom he has brought up as a daughter after the death of her trapeze artist-father and the strange disappearance of her mother Lili (Rita Hayworth).

As always, Masters refuses to acknowledge that Toni is a woman and not a girl anymore.  He’s particularly upset about the romantic interest that she shows in Steve McCabe (John Smith), his self-assured and strong rider, who’s good at imitating Matsers’ wink.  When McCabe observes with admiration how Toni exercises on a trapeze bar, wearing a skimpy sexy dress, Master gets angry, telling Steve: “Go ride your horse! Don’t you see she’s just a kid.”  To him, no circus performer is good enough for the lovely Toni.  There’s a semi-humorous scene in which Masters is having a serous chat with Toni over her superstitious beliefs; with his heavy frame he sits on her bed, which of course collapses.

Expectedly, we find out that Masters is still in love with Lili, Toni’s mother, and that one motive for the trip was to find her.  Which he does, in a shabby waterfront joint in Hamburg.  Offering her of his famous moralistic lecture, Masters tells Lili that she has “hocked her soul” and is now wallowing in self-pity, taking the easy way out of the responsibility of caring for Toni.

To bring mother and daughter together again, Masters offers Lili a job in the circus assuming a new name. It’s only a matter of time before Toni finds out the truth and the two women reconcile.

The climax of the movie is a set-piece of a big fire, which erupts out arbitrarily, sort of a way to make the plodding narrative seem more action-oriented and exciting and allowing Wayne to exercise some physical skills in a film that’s largely verbose and sentimental.

Early on, Frank Capra thought that, “In that big hunk of solid man, there was the depth and the humanity of another Mr. Deeds, a Mr. Smith, or John Doe.”  Capra apparently did not realize that when you took on Duke, you took on a small empire, and that part of that empire was a personal writer by the name of James Edward Grant.

When Capra asked Grant to write the script, the latter replied, “You’re outta your mind. No use writing anything until Wayne gets here.  Duke makes his own pictures, now.  So relax, fella.  When he gets here, he and I will knock you out a screenplay in a week.”  Capra was further disturbed by Grant’s attitude toward the screenplay: “All you gotta have in a John Wayne picture is a hoity-toity dame with big tits that Duke can throw over his knee and spank, and a collection of jerks he can smash in the face every five minutes.  In between, you fill in with gags, flags, and chases.  That’s all you need.  His fans eat it up!”

However, when Wayne showed up for rehearsals, he didn’t like the screenplay and demanded a new one written.  Capra decided to resign and, out of a sense of responsibility, recommended vet director Henry Hathaway, whom he described as “one of our best ‘get it done’ directors who took no guff from any actor,” as his replacement.  To his peer Hathaway’s query, “Why in hell are you walking out on the Duke?” Capra replied, “Hank, I’m not walking, I’m running.”  After working for six months, writing, casting, and auditioning circus acts, Capra fled Madrid, where the film was shot, with “the same relief one flees Siberia.”

Capra regretted the experience, because he felt, “I could have cowed the big Duke into giving his best performance.  I could have made a rousing hit out of ‘Circus World.”

Quite predictably, Hathaway could not save the film either, and Circus World turned out to be one of Wayne’s clinkers.