For many film fans, Christopher Plummer will best be remembered as Captain von Trapp, from The Sound of Music. A poised and serious man, Captain von Trapp is a leader who stood his ground, even if that meant leaving behind everything he and his family have ever known. In the 1981, made-for-TV movie, When the Circus Came to Town, Christopher portrays a character who is seen as a leader. But this time, the leadership role is much different. For The Charismatic Christopher Plummer Blogathon, I wanted to go off the beaten path when it came to Christopher’s filmography. If it wasn’t for this event, I never would have heard of this television film. When I read the synopsis for When the Circus Came to Town, the story sounded heart-felt and somewhat inspirational, as it revolves around a woman who joins a circus in order to seek a change in her life. But is my entry for the blogathon as “razzle-dazzle” as the circus appears to be? Keep reading the greatest review on earth in order to find out!
Things I liked about the film:
The acting: While watching When the Circus Came to Town, I kept wondering if Christopher Plummer had ever been cast in a Western. That’s because his portrayal of Duke, the circus ringmaster, felt reminiscent of the cowboys who are unfazed by their lifestyle. When Duke and Mary, portrayed by Elizabeth Montgomery, meet for the first time, Christopher’s tone of voice and the way his character speaks to Mary are nonchalant and matter-of-fact. His whole demeanor exudes a “been there, done there” attitude, a man who has been on the road for far too long. But when Christopher needed to turn on the charm, he effectively brought showmanship to his character. The film’s very first scene is a perfect example of this, as Christopher carries his character with charm and confidence.
As I mentioned in the introduction, When the Circus Came to Town revolves around Mary, a woman who joins a circus in order to seek a change in her life. Elizabeth portrayed this character, showcasing Mary’s transformation from a quiet woman who tried not make waves to a confident lady who was not afraid to take a leap of faith. At her father’s funeral, some of the attendants were asking Mary questions. Overwhelmed by the uncertainty of her future and frustrated by other people answering questions for her, she excuses herself from the conversation. But before she leaves, Mary answers every question given to her at the reception. The way she answers these questions is matter-of-fact, with a sharpness in her tone of voice. This scene seemed like foreshadowing, confidence ready to burst forth in Mary’s heart.
When Mary was interested in joining the circus, she met Louie, one of the circus’ clowns. Portrayed by Tommy Madden, Louie had a charismatic and easy-going personality. He even had a good sense of humor, allowing nothing to stand in his way. Louie was the kind of friend an audience member would wish they could have in their life, a one-in-a-million kind of person. Tommy’s on-screen chemistry with Elizabeth was pleasant! This made me look forward to Louie and Mary’s interactions, as these characters appeared to get along well with each other.
The dialogue: Dialogue in made-for-TV movies can be hit or miss. Sometimes, characters’ conversations sound like they came directly from real-life. Other times, the dialogue can make viewers think, “No one talks like that”. In When the Circus Came to Town, there were times when the dialogue was more profound than I expected. When Mary first meets Louie, she confesses how she ran away from home. After Louie jokingly asks her if she’s too old to run away, Mary says in a sad, serious tone, “I had to wait for everybody to die so I could do it”. Up until this point in the story, Mary has felt she hasn’t lived life on her own terms. She has either put the needs of others before her own or she, simply, went through life’s motions. This has made Mary question who she really is and what she truly wants out of life. Her aforementioned quote, to me, spoke volumes. It also showed how much thought went into the dialogue.
A peek behind the circus’ curtain: When any industry is prominently featured in a story, a film’s creative team has an opportunity to give the audience a chance to glimpse some of its realities. One of these realities is showing a behind the scenes look at what it takes to make that industry work. The titular circus in When the Circus Came to Town sometimes displays the practice, care, and determination it takes to make something like a circus appear effortless. Mary’s first job was cleaning the animals’ cages. While the job itself wasn’t showstopping, it was an important one. This also highlights how every role is a necessary one, especially since it takes so many people to put on a show.
What I didn’t like about the film:
Christopher Plummer and Elizabeth Montgomery’s on-screen chemistry: Elizabeth and Christopher did a good job with the acting material they were given, as their individual performances were strong. Unfortunately, their on-screen chemistry was weak. The way Duke was written was part of this problem. The circus’ ringmaster was a womanizer who was a little too friendly with the alcohol. Duke was also a more static character, not displaying a strong desire to change his ways. This left me wondering why Mary would try to attract Duke’s attention, especially since Louie had the better personality?
No overarching plot: Like I said in the introduction, When the Circus Came to Town’s story revolved around Mary joining the circus. However, that part of the story is the hook, the part that encourages the audience to become interested in the film. What this movie was missing was an overarching plot, the part of the story that keeps the audience invested. Once Mary joined the circus, the script bounced around between Mary, Louie, Duke, and Jessy, the circus’ accountant. There was one part of the story that addressed the circus’ financial woes. Even though this could have served as an overarching conflict/plot, it was introduced in the last twenty-eight minutes of the movie. To me, this was a missed opportunity.
A limited distribution of character development: When the Circus Came to Town had the same flaw Top Gun: Maverick did: there was a limited supply of character development. In my point where I talked about no overarching plot, I said the story bounced around between Mary, Louie, Duke, and Jessy. These four characters received the most character development in the story. The other characters, especially those from the circus, either didn’t receive any character development or just enough for the audience to become familiar with them. When a film has a larger cast, I know it can be difficult to give each cast member and their character attention. Personally, I think there was not enough time to address all these characters and stories.
My overall impression:
Ringmasters have, sometimes, referred to their circus as “the greatest show on earth”. This bold statement has signified the circus company’s confidence and satisfaction in their final product; the show itself. That aforementioned quote can’t be said about When the Circus Came to Town. This is not a bad film, as it does contain strengths. Some of these are the acting performances and the profound dialogue. If I had to be honest, though, this story would have worked better as either a multi-part mini-series or a television show. The 1981, made-for-TV production featured so many moving parts. An hour and thirty six minutes is, in my opinion, not enough time to address all of that. Reflecting on When the Circus Came to Town and The Sound of Music, Christopher Plummer was cast as a leader. Out of his projects I’ve seen, this seems like pure coincidence. However, I’d like to point out Christopher’s portrayals in both When the Circus Came to Town and The Sound of Music highlight his acting versatility.
Overall score: 6 out of 10
Have you seen any of Christopher Plummer’s films? Are there any you’d like me to review? Please tell me in the comment section!
Have fun at the movies!