Before watching the movie:
Much like State Fair, I get the idea this is is a movie that’s more about taking the audience to an event than actually telling a story. In this case, bringing the circus to an audience that doesn’t have a circus in town right now. I thought this was a musical, but it doesn’t appear to be. It is a Cecil B. DeMille epic however, and it makes perfect sense to pair a circus with a director known for massive crowds and setpieces. I’m not really sure a story about a circus can really be an “epic” in any sense but the spectacle and runtime though.
After watching the movie:
In the face of declining profits, Brad, the manager of the Ringling Bros. Circus, books the great Trapeze artist Sebastian in order to force his bosses into keeping his crew working all season. However, Sebastian, a prima donna and ladies’ man, only works the center ring, which Brad had already promised to his girlfriend, rising star trapezist Holly. Whom Sebastian immediately puts his sights on as his next conquest, and offers to surrender the center ring to, but Brad refuses to move the big draw, provoking Holly to declare a war of one-upmanship against Sebastian and pushing both of them to yet more dangerous stunts at 40 feet in the air. And the parade goes by. Meanwhile, there’s a clown in the troupe who won’t talk about his past or take off his makeup. And the parade goes by. Also the elephant trainer won’t take no for an answer from his lovely assistant. And the parade goes by.
A significant percentage of this movie is pretty much just footage from the circus. I couldn’t say if DeMille specifically staged and directed the actual circus people or if they just pointed a camera at them while they did their jobs. It’s probably the former, since the camerawork doesn’t feel much like a documentary, but there was probably minimal staging.
Among the actual circus people is actual Emmmett Kelley, who doesn’t get to do much, but does get to do some sad sack clowning. He’s the only name I actually recognize, but John Ringling North plays himself and it’s pretty clear he’s one of the Ringling family that owned the circus (I’m not clear who owns the merged Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey now).
The plot would have made a great 90-minute movie. I think Holly and Sebastian are doing their own stunts, at least partially. However, it’s very obvious that Buttons is not. The elephant trainer subplot seemed a bit disconnected for most of it, but joined up eventually.
I think I would have been more interested in a DeMille-produced documentary about the operation of the circus. Those segments of the work that goes into putting on the show and moving it again were the most interesting, and it would completely fit to have long segments of just acts, rather than feeling like they’re holding up the plot. Fantasia is just about the only experience movie that I can think of without a plot, but there were a lot of movies made in the middle of the century that seemed to feel obligated to provide a plot to justify taking the audience to places they clearly already wanted to go, and this is definitely one of them.