BOOTLEG FILES 420: “3 Ring Circus” (1954 comedy starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It is the only Martin and Lewis film not on DVD.


You may sometimes ask yourself: Why is it that certain films have never been released in home entertainment channels? There are several reasons, ranging from legal disputes on the ownership of the films, problems clearing music rights, the need for expensive digital restoration of source materials, and the perceived lack of consumer interest in some titles.

None of this, however, seems to explain the absence of “3 Ring Circus” from home entertainment release. This 1954 feature is notable as the only production in the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis canon to be unavailable on DVD.

Paramount Pictures has never offered any public explanation for not releasing the film on DVD – the studio has put all of the Martin and Lewis films on DVD except for “At War With the Army” (which is in the public domain and available on many cheapo labels) and “Money From Home” (which was outsourced to the independent Legend label, for no clear reason). Jerry Lewis never made any public comment regarding the film’s MIA status, though perhaps this is one production that he would just as soon not talk about.

By the time “3 Ring Circus” rolled around into pre-production, the Martin and Lewis team were showing signs of fraying. In their film work, Lewis was the dominant figure – to the point that Martin often seemed like a supporting character rather than an equal partner in comic crime. For his part, Martin was beginning to gain recognition as a distinctive solo talent – his recording of “That’s Amore” was a major bestseller and he reportedly received inquiries about starring in the film versions of “The Pajama Game” and “Guys and Dolls.” But Martin was contractually obligated to be part of a team, to his chagrin.

Lewis, however, seemed tin-eared to Martin’s agitation. For “3 Ring Circus,” he brought in his pal Don McGuire to write the screenplay. There have been conflicting reports of what happened next, but it appears that Martin violently balked at his role within the screenplay. Supposedly, Martin sarcastically asked why he was being cast, because his part was (in his view) so insubstantial.

The Hollywood tabloid press caught wind of Martin’s unhappiness and the entertainment news headlines were full of reports that Martin and Lewis were going to split up. Even Groucho Marx got into the act, sending public letters to the comics urging them to stay together. Numerous rewrites of the screenplay were created before Martin would express some degree of satisfaction with the project, but the tension between Martin and Lewis increased substantially. It is a shame that the volatility that took place off-screen was not captured on camera, because the finished film turned out to be one of the most enervated comedy films ever made.

One of the problems with “3 Ring Circus” was, of all things, the setting – a circus is, on its own terms, a comic exaggeration of reality, and inserting comedians (especially those who thrive on surreal humor) into that setting seems to create a weird effect where the laughs are strangely diluted. Chaplin’s “The Circus,” for example, was one of his weakest features, while the Marx Brothers’ shapeless “At the Circus” is recalled today only for Groucho’s classic song “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” The sawdust setting also found W.C. Fields off his mark in two so-so circus films, the 1928 silent “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” and his 1938 “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man,” Danny Kaye’s film career went into a tailspin with his failed circus comedy “Merry Andrew,” and Paul Reubens saw his zany alter ego’s film career shrivel up with the dismal “Big Top Pee-Wee.”

Indeed, the only genuinely memorable circus films either use the big top environment for warped psychological thrillers – most notably Tod Browning’s “The Unknown” and “Freaks” – or for pure hokum, such as Cecil B. DeMille’s Oscar-winning “The Greatest Show on Earth” and the Burt Lancaster-Tony Curtis “Trapeze.”

With “3 Ring Circus,” Martin and Lewis are soldiers who are newly discharged from the Army and eager to find civilian jobs. Lewis wants a circus career, while the shiftless and penniless Martin tags along. They wind up at a financially troubled circus, and the film then breaks into the usual Martin and Lewis formula: Dean gets to woo the pretty gals (in this case, Joanne Dru as the circus manager and Zsa Zsa Gabor as an aerialist) and sing a couple of tunes, while Jerry gets himself into all sorts of crazy shenanigans.

The problem with “3 Ring Circus,” however, is typical of all of the Martin and Lewis films: they are totally lacking in the feral spontaneity that made the team’s live performances so energetically funny. Sequences where the duo get caught up with a malfunctioning frozen custard machine or perform a bouncy song about a magical puppet (“Hey Punchinello”) are contrived and completely uninspired, and it is not cynical to imagine that neither star actually had his heart in making those sequences work.

But where “3 Ring Circus” really goes off the tracks is when Lewis’ character takes on the persona of a circus clown. Martin reportedly claimed that Lewis fancied himself as Chaplin’s heir, which appears to be the case as the screeching Lewis goes into the woeful pantomime routines of a bedraggled clown. But Lewis lacked Chaplin’s physical dexterity and split-second timing, and the film’s most controversial moment – with Lewis, in clown make-up, trying to make a polio-crippled child laugh – is utterly embarrassing because of the funnyman’s inability to differentiate between pathos and exploitation. Lewis, of course, did not see the error of his ways and would repeatedly return to the clown persona later in his career, most infamously in his unfinished debacle “The Day the Clown Cried.”

“3 Ring Circus” has some distractions to keep the bored viewer occupied: Zsa Zsa Gabor is actually amusing and sexy as the self-obsessed aerialist, while the always-reliable Elsa Lanchester turns up as a bearded lady. “3 Ring Circus” was also the second film shot in VistaVision, Paramount’s proprietary widescreen process. Unfortunately, the sequences designed to take full advantage of the widescreen are completely ruined when viewed on today’s small screens.

“3 Ring Circus” was a box office hit, but in 1955 the film’s producer, Hal B. Wallis, was sued for $65,000 by a pair of writers who claimed “3 Ring Circus” ripped off a screenplay they submitted to Wallis. It is unclear how that case was ever settled. The film was re-edited and re-released in 1978 under the title “Jerrico the Wonder Clown,” but it was only booked for screenings in the kiddie matinee circuit.

In the absence of a DVD release, Martin and Lewis fans can catch “3 Ring Circus” on YouTube – the visual quality is adequate, and the site’s fast-forward feature helps speed the viewer through the film’s many dull patches. The title can also be located via collector-to-collector sites. But unless you are a die-hard Martin and Lewis fan, this is one big top romp that can easily be missed.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. movieirv says:

    The film is not on DVD because music rights that are not afforable to clear at this time–or, perhaps, anytime.

  2. Hey pallies, likes thanks Mr. Hall for this very informational reflection on that least known Martin and Lewis flick, “Three Ring Circus.” Never was, never will be anyone as cool as the King of Cool…oh, to return to the days when Dino walked the earth. Know that your prose is bein’ shared this very day with all the pallies gathered ’round ilovedinomartin.

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