Jumbo (Blu-ray Review)13 Jan, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Doris Day, Stephen Boyd, Jimmy Durante, Martha Raye.
Burdened by a title that probably meant almost as little to the 1962 masses as today’s, MGM’s Christmas release from half-a-century ago (plus one year) was supposed to be a year-end Big One because it paired Doris Day at the end-side peak of her career opposite a score of Rodgers and Hart standards. Instead, it only cornered the limited market for Stephen Boyd musicals — though, truth to tell, one of the least dynamic movie leads of the era is passably OK here and not really the problem with a costly miss that has enough compensations to make me welcome its Blu-ray release.
These would be the tunes (which include perennial heart-melters “My Romance” and “Little Girl Blue”), the chance to see co-stars Jimmy Durante and Martha Raye cavorting in something pretty close to career twilight and, of course, Day herself — though at 38 she was pushing it in a lead role found her once again in “hot tomboy” mode, which was otherwise in her wheelhouse. The film’s release title was Billy Rose’s Jumbo, but the name of Rose — he was a key figure in the stage version of Carmen Jones as well — is kind of a needless appendage here, and the movie’s title was eventually shortened to simply Jumbo. In any event, you’ll see no references to this showman James Caan later played in the mostly listless Funny Girl sequel called Funny Lady. Instead, the backdrop is a kind of flea-bitten circus (albeit flea-bitten in lush MGM-musical terms) where Day-dad and circus owner Durante keeps losing what cash flow the enterprise has by indulging his weakness for the crap table. The business concern’s chief asset is Jumbo himself — an elephant — and maybe this was a box office problem, too. Have elephants ever been commercial gold outside of Tarzan or Sabu vehicles?
Boyd ostensibly hires on to help the family, though he has something unsavory up his sleeve — not that he’s very happy about being put into a position that his family ties have forced him to take. The Sidney Sheldon script, a culprit here, takes a lot of time to set up the conflict; this is one of those musicals where you don’t get much music for the first 40 minutes, which certainly frustrates, given the Rodgers and Hart pedigree. Durante was enjoying something of a renaissance at the time what with his (at least mildly) charting recordings of September Song and Make Someone Happy, and it is lovely to see him with Raye amid fairly chunky roles for both, even though the material they’re given isn’t top flight. The musical numbers, and especially the signature tunes, are weighted in the movie’s second half – a needed narrative boost and a kind of prelude to a climactic jumbo production number that makes no storytelling sense but is something to see for its elaborate costume changes.
A lot of big league talent was involved here — Busby Berkeley himself (more twilight) was second unit director — and the film’s production values make it one of those Blu-rays that are disproportionately fun to watch in relation to the overall success of the movie. From a purely historical point of view, Jumbo also scores some points because its box office failure when Day was the industry’s No. 1 female star contributed to MGM cancelling its plans for an Irving Berlin-Vincente Minnelli opus (Say It with Music) and, it has at least been said, the studio’s to cast Day in the movie version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, which Debbie Reynolds headlined and Jumbo’s Charles Walters directed. So as it stands, this was Day’s last musical, and hearing her sing a couple of the perennials here is, well, worth the price of admission.