As everyone knows, posh boys in silent films love nothing better than to marry bareback riders, trapeze artists and the like. In this case, a surgeon with daddy issues falls for an acrobat with double daddy issues. Seems to me that everything could have been solved with some therapy sessions.
She was an acrobat’s daughter…
The circus! It’s all fun and games until someone gets the brilliant idea of working without a net. This is the central problem in Christine of the Big Tops, a poverty row circus melodrama produced by Banner Productions, which only existed for a few years and seems to bear no relation to the later sound production company of the same name. (These small studios come and go so quickly through movie history that they make my head spin. Let me know if you have any additional details.)
The story revolves around Christine (Pauline Garon), a child of the circus whose parents were killed in trapeze accidents. She is cared for by two foster fathers: Hagan (Otto Matieson), another trapeze artist crippled in a fall, and Barman (Robert Graves), the owner of the circus.
While Hagan takes his paternal duties seriously, Barman is basically waiting for Christine to be legal so he can marry her. This ickiness bothers both Hagan and Christine but not enough to make them try to leave the circus. In fact, Christine has started to train on the trapeze and Barman, hoping to ingratiate himself with his adopted daughter/potential fiancée, is allowing it.
As he always does, Hagan uses his day off to seek a consultation with a surgeon in order to see if his body can be stitched back together. Today, the surgeon is the famous Dr. Hastings (John Elliott). As the doctor is out for the time being, Hagan waits and witnesses a little family drama unfold. Mrs. Hastings (Martha Mattox, playing an uncreepy role for a change) welcomes home her son, Bob (Cullen Landis), from his very first surgery. He seems shaken and it soon comes out that he panicked at the operating table and his father had to step in the save the patient.
Bob is humiliated by his failure and Dr. Hastings returns home to make sure his son feels the full sting of his disappointment. Bob’s posh fiancée, Doris (Betty Noon), decides that maybe she doesn’t want to be hitched to a failure and dumps him on the spot.
Hagan knows that the circus is looking for an in-house doctor; no fancy surgery, just patching up cuts and bruises. He makes an offer to the shell-shocked Bob, who accepts.
It’s only act one but even if I didn’t write another word about the film’s plot, I’ll bet you would still be able to guess what happens next. Bob falls for Christine, Barman is jealous and tries to get rid of him, Christine is injured in a trapeze fall, good thing she’s dating the doc, etc. etc. etc.
Okay, so the story is one we have seen dozens of times, does this film have anything else to recommend it? Well, yes, as a matter of fact.
The film’s single biggest asset is that, in what was no doubt a cost-cutting measure, the action takes place inside a real circus. Instead of a smoothed out Hollywood reproduction, we get the dusty genuine article. There are a few issues with this (some background figures stare openly at the camera and the stunts lack polish) but it is an overall plus.
Director Archie Mayo clearly understood that the setting was the film’s biggest asset because he takes pains to showcase it wherever he can. The result is a film that looks a lot more expensive than it probably was. It manages to escape the chintzy look that marred many poverty row productions.
Mayo’s start as a director was pretty typical. He began directing comedy shorts with titles like Toostie Wootsie, Dandy Lion and Beaches and Peaches before moving up to off-brand features and finally studio work. He’s probably best remembered for his stint at Warner Brother, particularly The Petrified Forest and the KKK expose The Black Legion, both featuring meaty roles for an up-and-coming Humphrey Bogart.
It’s easy to see why Warner Brothers wanted him. Christine of the Big Tops doesn’t break new ground but it has a satisfying grit to it. While they were instrumental in launching the talkie revolution and the subsequent musical craze, Warners came to specialize in muscular talkies that packed a punch. Grit was their stock in trade and Mayo could deliver.
As is typical on lower budget fare, the cast is a hodgepodge. Pauline Garon is probably most notable as May McAvoy’s replacement in Adam’s Rib after the actress balked at wearing skins in the caveman sequence. (It’s a long story, here’s my review.) Garon was a WAMPAS Baby Star of 1923 along with Eleanor Boardman, Laura La Plante and Jobyna Ralston but she never enjoyed the same level of success and remained firmly planted in B territory with occasional forays into A supporting roles. (The writer of her Wikipedia profile seems to think that her career stalled in 1928. In my opinion, it never really started. Much is made of the WAMPAS thing but only about a third of the Baby Stars ever went on to anything big.)
Garon is pretty forgettable as Christine, largely due to the fact that she mugs wildly and overplays the simpering girlish thing. Naiveté is all well and good but it seems rather doubtful that a girl raised in a circus who constantly has to fight off the advances of her adopted father would be quite so innocent.
Leading man Cullen Landis was another fixture of silent cheapo productions and he does well enough, though he is a bit bland. Otto Matieson (probably best known for his part as a very, very pre-Code Joel Cairo in the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon) does his usual “stand back and look worried” routine for much of the film. Robert Graves oozes sleaze as Barman, which is what the part calls for, I suppose.
The performer who comes off the best is Betty Noon as the heartless society girl, Doris. She only has one film credit to her name, which would be a shame, but it was not unusual for performers to change their names mid-career. Modern databases usually catch Lucille LeSueur transforming into Joan Crawford but more obscure shifts tend to fall through the cracks. (Edith Allen to Hedda Lind and back again, anyone? Who? Exactly.)
Finally, I have to say that I enjoyed Martha Mattox in her part as Bob’s proud mumsey. She only has two brief scenes, one at the beginning and one at the end of the picture, but she makes an impact I would have liked to have seen more of her.
Christine of the Big Tops is pretty much a standard melodrama of the 1920s but it gets extra points for its realism and clever use of a real circus setting to make its budget stretch. It won’t exactly open your eyes to the glory of Pauline Garon but it’s a light and pleasant enough journey.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Where can I see it?
Christine of the Big Tops was released on DVD by Grapevine.
This would be excellent to see especially since it takes place at a real circus and one can see how dangerous it probably was with all those people crammed into a big tent. The older lady needs some food! Did i say I love your reviews and style of writing?:)
Thank you! Yes, Martha Mattox’s skeletal frame helped considerably when she was called on to play creepy housekeeper roles, her specialty.
Ha! The creepy stepfather in love with stepdaughter thing makes me think of Laugh Clown Laugh (1928). The basic set up is very similar.
Yeah, I’ve only run into one “normal” foster dad storyline in this month’s viewing. But every single heroine has had dead parents. It seems the average lifespan of parents working in a circus is about 5 years once their daughter is born. 😉
It seems pretty common as a trope, even in some modern fare like Robin’s usual backstory in the Batman multiverse, where his acrobat parents get it in a freak accident.
Rule for Cinematic Survival: Do not have remarkable children! Even mediocre ones (looking at you, Han) seem to be a risk
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