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It’s a wrap with 3 Ring Circus

Conjures images of The Wizard of Oz and a “gay Santa Claus”

3 Ring Circus: Contentious clowning from Jerry and Dean.
3 Ring Circus: Contentious clowning from Jerry and Dean.

As sure as a clown car comes to a stop, so does our March Madness tribute to big top movies, with Martin and Lewis in 3 Ring Circus.

3 Ring Circus (1954)

We open more or less where the team’s 1952 service comedy Jumping Jacks left off, with Pete Nelson (Dean Martin) and Jerome X. Hotchkiss (Jerry Lewis) being discharged from the army. It was Martin and Lewis’ twelfth film together, and the team was so hot that Paramount not only sprung for Technicolor, but also included VistaVision in the budget for the first time. But there was one other provision that the studio hadn’t reckoned on: by now, it had become apparent that Jerry was the center ring attraction, and while the duo never parted their mutual veil of contempt while the cameras rolled, the manner in which Dean figured into the picture — “There but for the grace of Jerry’s schtick go I” — frequently finds the King of Cool chilling in his pardner’s shadow. Martin’s participation was further curtailed when Paramount re-released the film in 1978 as part of a kiddie matinee series. Never one to pass up a chance to watch Martin and Lewis in 35mm, I was quick to attend. Imagine my shock when the retitled Jericho the Wonder Clown proved to be missing not only the opening scenes but also all of Dean’s solo numbers.

They fought a war together, but nothing prepared them for circus life. Jerry’s slow road to clowning begins by studying lion taming under the GI Bill. (“The only cats I like,” Jerry grumbles, “is my uncle Harry Katz.”) With nothing to show for himself but a stack of gambling debts, Pete hops his pally’s coattails, and despite a quick ascent to the role of circus manager — with a little help from Ring Mistress Jill (Joanne Dru) — his main function is getting out of the way of his partner’s comic convulsions. Dean’s big solo number, “It’s a Big, Wide Wonderful World,” crooned before a backdrop of caged animals, not only conjures images of The Wizard of Oz and a “gay Santa Claus,” it prefigures Dean singing to the penguins in the long-unseen holiday special, Dean Martin’s Christmas at SeaWorld. (My kingdom for a copy.) Jerry’s idea of sharing the spotlight here means that when it comes time for the duo to impersonate the tall man of the midway, Dean stands on Jerry’s shoulders, his head poking out of the king size overcoat. Truth be told, the biggest intentional laugh in the film is earned by neither Martin nor Lewis, but Wallace Ford’s omnivorous circus manager, Sam Morley. During his job interview, a starving Jerry’s hunger pains are hilariously amplified by Sam’s inability to speak due to the amount of food packed into his mouth.

The circus acts are, mercifully, kept to a minimum. The studio execs paying Dean and Jerry top dollar (and then some) demanded more than second-rate dog acts. Joseph Pevney was a contract director who, throughout the ‘50s, dabbled in just about every conceivable genre without finding firm footing in any. In his role as auteurist ringmaster, Pevney, like Martin, was instructed to follow Jerry’s lead. As directed, the frozen custard scene was built around Dean and Jerry shouting over the clientele to get a laugh. No pacing, no wit, just clatter and chatter while the custard machine spewed a rope of pudding. Jerry the Human Cannonball and Jerry in the dunk tank play out with predictable insipidity. And the only circus that would risk putting its star attraction in a dunk tank is a flea circus.

Rounding out the supporting cast are Elsa Lancaster as the Bearded Lady, Sig Ruman meaningfully rolling his “r’s” as lion tamer Colonel Fritz Schlitz, Philip Van Zandt as the crooked shell game operator, and Zsa Zsa Gabor — who made a more convincing Queen of Outer Space than she does the Queen of the Trapeze.

The clowns in Dumbo had more on the ball than Jericho. The passive/aggressive interplay between the two stars is funnier than any of the film’s secondary shenanigans. Jerry cautions his Pally, “I don’t know what you’re thinking, but don’t make any trouble.” When Pete’s gambling becomes a problem, it’s followed by Jerry’s inevitable bruised admonishment, “You’re not nice any more.” And how difficult must it have been for Dean to deliver the following with a straight face: “You’re a funny guy, a really funny guy. That’s something you can’t buy or make. Inside you there’s a bug that makes people tickle. One day it’s going to bust loose and something real nice is going to happen to the whole world.”

Lewis hosted his first MDA Telethon in 1952, and it didn’t take long for some of the schmaltz to begin overlapping into his movie work. Nowadays, an able-bodied actor cast in the role of a dystrophic child would no doubt raise eyebrows. Remember Sandy Descher, the mimi-scream queen in Them!? Surviving a pack of giant marauding ants proved no match for Jerry’s pay-attention-to-me pathos. As the girl with the braces on her legs who gets seated in the first row of the Orphan’s Benefit, she refuses to acknowledge any of Jerry’s effusive antics with so much as a smile. (In case you didn’t notice the braces, Descher was directed to reach down and scratch her leg.) The harder he tries, the further her chin is pushed into her fists. Only when Jerry begins to tear up does Descher break out a grin. It was here that the calculated pathos that would forever become an annual Labor Day tradition found its origins.

As indicated by the 1978 reissue, more than all of the vehicles that came before, 3 Ring Circus was the first Martin and Lewis vehicle geared exclusively for children. After their split in 1956, Dean wooed an adult fan base, while Jerry’s films, at least on the surface, appealed to younger viewers. It was also the first film in which Jerry flirted with clowning, an obsession that would follow him to the grave (and beyond). For his 1959 TV remake of The Jazz Singer, Lewis substituted clownface for Jolson’s burnt cork. In his supremely schizophrenic The Family Jewels, it’s evil Uncle Everett, chain smoking beneath layers of clown makeup, that Donna chooses as her surrogate father. (Or is it?)

3 Ring Circus shares more in common with Hardly Working than just its big top milieu. Both films were never released on DVD. When I asked Lewis about what turned out to be his last film as director, it went something like this:

Scott: Can we talk about Hardly Working?

Jerry: Sure.

Scott: Will it ever be released on DVD?

Jerry: No.

Which will make it to blu-ray first: 3 Ring Circus or Jerry’s notoriously unseen concentration camp romp, The Day the Clown Cried? There’s still a few years left to see if Jerry’s promise of a posthumous 2025 release comes true. For those clamoring to see Dean and Jerry’s three-ring outing, the wait is over. Stream it tonight on Amazon Prime.

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3 Ring Circus: Contentious clowning from Jerry and Dean.
3 Ring Circus: Contentious clowning from Jerry and Dean.

As sure as a clown car comes to a stop, so does our March Madness tribute to big top movies, with Martin and Lewis in 3 Ring Circus.

3 Ring Circus (1954)

We open more or less where the team’s 1952 service comedy Jumping Jacks left off, with Pete Nelson (Dean Martin) and Jerome X. Hotchkiss (Jerry Lewis) being discharged from the army. It was Martin and Lewis’ twelfth film together, and the team was so hot that Paramount not only sprung for Technicolor, but also included VistaVision in the budget for the first time. But there was one other provision that the studio hadn’t reckoned on: by now, it had become apparent that Jerry was the center ring attraction, and while the duo never parted their mutual veil of contempt while the cameras rolled, the manner in which Dean figured into the picture — “There but for the grace of Jerry’s schtick go I” — frequently finds the King of Cool chilling in his pardner’s shadow. Martin’s participation was further curtailed when Paramount re-released the film in 1978 as part of a kiddie matinee series. Never one to pass up a chance to watch Martin and Lewis in 35mm, I was quick to attend. Imagine my shock when the retitled Jericho the Wonder Clown proved to be missing not only the opening scenes but also all of Dean’s solo numbers.

They fought a war together, but nothing prepared them for circus life. Jerry’s slow road to clowning begins by studying lion taming under the GI Bill. (“The only cats I like,” Jerry grumbles, “is my uncle Harry Katz.”) With nothing to show for himself but a stack of gambling debts, Pete hops his pally’s coattails, and despite a quick ascent to the role of circus manager — with a little help from Ring Mistress Jill (Joanne Dru) — his main function is getting out of the way of his partner’s comic convulsions. Dean’s big solo number, “It’s a Big, Wide Wonderful World,” crooned before a backdrop of caged animals, not only conjures images of The Wizard of Oz and a “gay Santa Claus,” it prefigures Dean singing to the penguins in the long-unseen holiday special, Dean Martin’s Christmas at SeaWorld. (My kingdom for a copy.) Jerry’s idea of sharing the spotlight here means that when it comes time for the duo to impersonate the tall man of the midway, Dean stands on Jerry’s shoulders, his head poking out of the king size overcoat. Truth be told, the biggest intentional laugh in the film is earned by neither Martin nor Lewis, but Wallace Ford’s omnivorous circus manager, Sam Morley. During his job interview, a starving Jerry’s hunger pains are hilariously amplified by Sam’s inability to speak due to the amount of food packed into his mouth.

The circus acts are, mercifully, kept to a minimum. The studio execs paying Dean and Jerry top dollar (and then some) demanded more than second-rate dog acts. Joseph Pevney was a contract director who, throughout the ‘50s, dabbled in just about every conceivable genre without finding firm footing in any. In his role as auteurist ringmaster, Pevney, like Martin, was instructed to follow Jerry’s lead. As directed, the frozen custard scene was built around Dean and Jerry shouting over the clientele to get a laugh. No pacing, no wit, just clatter and chatter while the custard machine spewed a rope of pudding. Jerry the Human Cannonball and Jerry in the dunk tank play out with predictable insipidity. And the only circus that would risk putting its star attraction in a dunk tank is a flea circus.

Rounding out the supporting cast are Elsa Lancaster as the Bearded Lady, Sig Ruman meaningfully rolling his “r’s” as lion tamer Colonel Fritz Schlitz, Philip Van Zandt as the crooked shell game operator, and Zsa Zsa Gabor — who made a more convincing Queen of Outer Space than she does the Queen of the Trapeze.

The clowns in Dumbo had more on the ball than Jericho. The passive/aggressive interplay between the two stars is funnier than any of the film’s secondary shenanigans. Jerry cautions his Pally, “I don’t know what you’re thinking, but don’t make any trouble.” When Pete’s gambling becomes a problem, it’s followed by Jerry’s inevitable bruised admonishment, “You’re not nice any more.” And how difficult must it have been for Dean to deliver the following with a straight face: “You’re a funny guy, a really funny guy. That’s something you can’t buy or make. Inside you there’s a bug that makes people tickle. One day it’s going to bust loose and something real nice is going to happen to the whole world.”

Lewis hosted his first MDA Telethon in 1952, and it didn’t take long for some of the schmaltz to begin overlapping into his movie work. Nowadays, an able-bodied actor cast in the role of a dystrophic child would no doubt raise eyebrows. Remember Sandy Descher, the mimi-scream queen in Them!? Surviving a pack of giant marauding ants proved no match for Jerry’s pay-attention-to-me pathos. As the girl with the braces on her legs who gets seated in the first row of the Orphan’s Benefit, she refuses to acknowledge any of Jerry’s effusive antics with so much as a smile. (In case you didn’t notice the braces, Descher was directed to reach down and scratch her leg.) The harder he tries, the further her chin is pushed into her fists. Only when Jerry begins to tear up does Descher break out a grin. It was here that the calculated pathos that would forever become an annual Labor Day tradition found its origins.

As indicated by the 1978 reissue, more than all of the vehicles that came before, 3 Ring Circus was the first Martin and Lewis vehicle geared exclusively for children. After their split in 1956, Dean wooed an adult fan base, while Jerry’s films, at least on the surface, appealed to younger viewers. It was also the first film in which Jerry flirted with clowning, an obsession that would follow him to the grave (and beyond). For his 1959 TV remake of The Jazz Singer, Lewis substituted clownface for Jolson’s burnt cork. In his supremely schizophrenic The Family Jewels, it’s evil Uncle Everett, chain smoking beneath layers of clown makeup, that Donna chooses as her surrogate father. (Or is it?)

3 Ring Circus shares more in common with Hardly Working than just its big top milieu. Both films were never released on DVD. When I asked Lewis about what turned out to be his last film as director, it went something like this:

Scott: Can we talk about Hardly Working?

Jerry: Sure.

Scott: Will it ever be released on DVD?

Jerry: No.

Which will make it to blu-ray first: 3 Ring Circus or Jerry’s notoriously unseen concentration camp romp, The Day the Clown Cried? There’s still a few years left to see if Jerry’s promise of a posthumous 2025 release comes true. For those clamoring to see Dean and Jerry’s three-ring outing, the wait is over. Stream it tonight on Amazon Prime.

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