Sometimes I feel compelled to review movies not because I think anyone is going to run out and see them, but to prove to myself that they exist. I figure one day some poor soul will stumble upon them like I did and wonder to themselves, “Am I really seeing this or am I insane?” Such is the case with When the Circus Came to Town.
We all know that I brake for Christopher Plummer, so when I spied him in this circa 1981 made-for-television movie, I stopped in my tracks and settled in to watch. I had a vague feeling of deja vu, like maybe I actually saw it the first time it aired, but the overwhelming feeling was one of craziness: Christopher Plummer as the swinging smartass ringmaster of a circus? Really?
Indeed it’s true. When the circus comes to town, perennial good girl Mary Flynn (Elizabeth Montgomery) is instantly intrigued. She’s from a classy Southern family, and she’s spent her whole life doing the right thing, being proper, and taking care of her parents. Though she’s come close to starting her own life on several occasions, she never really found herself, and now, well, she wants to join the circus. She explains this to Duke Royal (Christopher Plummer) in rather grandiose terms. I can’t quote her little speech exactly, but it’s something along the lines of, “When I was little all I wanted was a puppy wearing a doll dress riding on the back of a pony and handing out lollipops. With sugar on top. That’s how much I want to be in the circus.” Ohhh, everyone knows what that’s like! How can he possibly say no?
And so Mary joins the circus. At first she’s relegated to cleaning out cages and picking up after the performers, but Mary’s got spunk. She’s not afraid to get right in Duke’s face and tell him what she wants, and he kind of likes that. She kind of likes him too, and who wouldn’t? He’s totally hot in the manner of someone who leaves his shirt unbuttoned practically to his belly-button, wears way too much cheap cologne, and picks up hookers. Okay, maybe he’s only hot because he’s Christopher Plummer, but I could see the attraction.
Unfortunately, Duke is married to Jessy (Eileen Brennan), but she’s kind of a nag, and he only did it to see what it would feel like to be married…sort of the old Britney Spears excuse. Jessy tells Mary she’d better shove off and watch out, because nobody’s putting their mitts on her man, but Mary is tougher than anyone expected. Pretty soon she’s befriended the other performers, gotten her own acrobatic act, and won the heart of one Mr. Duke Royal. Take that, Jessy! Nobody likes you!
After a few dates and a rare Christopher Plummer love scene, Mary and Duke are making plans to move in together. He’s planning on shutting the circus down, and maybe it’s time to settle in with a nice girl. This invokes the ire of Louie (Tommy Madden), a chronically ill midget who has also fallen head-over-heels in love with Mary. Duke and Louie scrap for awhile in his trailer, then Duke sits on the bed, smiles at Louie in a creepy, knowing way, and calls a truce. He realizes that Mary deserves better, goes back to Jessy, and everyone waves their fond goodbyes. Huh.
Ultimately, Mary returns home a changed woman. She has no more patience for her aunt’s fussy, prudish ways, and announces her plan to buy a whole new wardrobe and move to the city. The end. It’s a sweet little journey, even if the circus aspect turns it into a bit of a freak show, but it’s all amazingly flat. I can’t really recommend it, but if you stumble upon this anomaly when you’re flipping channels, I assure you, you’re not seeing things.