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3 Ring Circus

3 Ring Circus(1955)

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teaser 3 Ring Circus (1955)

3 Ring Circus (1954) was the twelfth film for the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (not counting their cameo in Road to Bali [1952]), but it was the first on which significant differences started to emerge between the two.

Their longtime producer, Hal B. Wallis, had developed the project with screenwriter Don McGuire, an old friend of Lewis's. Originally entitled Big Top, it was set in the circus world and had a part for Lewis as a clown, a character he had wanted to play ever since seeing Charlie Chaplin's The Circus (1928). But both Lewis and Martin had serious reservations about the script. Lewis felt there weren't enough scenes featuring the two of them together, observing that "when you have a Martin and Lewis picture without the 'and,' you don't have much." Martin thought his role was too secondary, and he didn't appreciate that he was to play even more of a heel than usual. Both also felt that Wallis was starting to hand them cookie-cutter scripts, with the same formula and little room for experimentation, especially for Martin.

They were so unhappy that they didn't show up to work on the scheduled first day of production, making Wallis livid but finally forcing him to arrange script meetings to try and address the stars' concerns. Lewis set to work with McGuire on a rewrite, but they had trouble beefing up Martin's part properly. "No matter how hard we tried," Lewis later recounted, "we just couldn't find much for Dean's character to do in the story... There was no getting around the fact that this was a circus picture and I was playing Jerrico the clown." Martin later said, "there was no sense in me being in that picture at all."

Martin and Lewis were also moving apart more generally in their artistic concerns. Martin wanted to continue supplying broad laugh-fests as efficiently as possible with plenty of time off to play golf while Lewis wanted to inject more pathos into his work, a la his idol Charlie Chaplin.

Lewis biographer Shawn Levy later wrote: "The tension between the two stars was only part of the trouble on an absurdly off-kilter set. Dean and Jerry had announced to [director Joseph] Pevney that they wouldn't do an iota more than what was required of them; Jerry actually refused to say, 'Thank you, sir,' at the end of a scene because it wasn't in the script. Another time, Dean showed up at three in the afternoon, did one scene, and left, saying, 'That's all you're gonna get from me.'"

Joseph Pevney, meanwhile, laid much of the blame for the troubles on Wallis: "He didn't care about anything but getting things done as quickly and as cheaply as possible. He didn't give a damn about the final result, just as long as he had something to release." As an example, Pevney said that Wallis at first only approved the construction of one circus ring, as a way to save money. Pevney complained that this would come off as a poor production value and make it difficult to achieve depth and interesting angles. He finally persuaded Wallis to build a proper three ring circus, and that became the film's new title.

Pevney remembered Dean Martin as "very pleasant to work with. He was a lot of laughs, and he was a good guy... He did his job, and that was it. But I inherited a very poor situation. The guys were not happy. The germ of the warfare was already present when I took over."

Meanwhile, the film's two leading ladies, Joanne Dru and Zsa Zsa Gabor, clashed repeatedly on the set, and Gabor had her own drama happening off the set. At the time she made this film, she was going through a divorce with George Sanders and carrying on a tempestuous affair with jet-setting international playboy Porfirio Rubirosa. After she arrived in Phoenix for a few weeks of location filming, "Rubi" flew out in his private plane to see her--even though he had just married wealthy heiress Barbara Hutton. His trip was meant to be secret, but the tabloid press got wind of it and started hounding Gabor at her hotel, and the couple had to sneak around. "Not even one of the richest women in the world could hold him," Gabor recounted in her memoir, "because he wanted nothing else, he wanted only one thing--me. He had come back after the insults, after the stories accusing me of using him and myself only for publicity--after all this, he had come back to me."

The breathless tabloid speculation about Rubirosa's "secret" trip was so rampant that even Jerry Lewis teased Gabor about it. She wrote that one morning he arrived on set, "full of bounce. He kissed me on the cheek and leaped on a box and grabbed a microphone. He clapped his hands for attention. 'Good morning, everybody!' he shouted... 'And Rubirosa, good morning to you wherever you are!'" A week or two after this episode, Rubirosa and Hutton separated and soon thereafter divorced.

Regarding her part in 3 Ring Circus, Gabor said, "I played a temperamental trapeze artist: I wore black tights, long black stockings, high wooden shoes. I was always ill at ease in this costume: I have too voluptuous a figure for such attire."

The picture opened on Christmas Day 1954 as the second Paramount movie, after White Christmas (1954), to be released in the new VistaVision camera process. Ironically for the troubled production, critical reception was positive, with The Hollywood Reporter saying Lewis "has learned to blend pathos with his slapstick." The film was re-released in 1978 as Jerrico the Wonder Clown.

Despite their burgeoning troubles, Martin and Lewis soon went to work on their next film, You're Never Too Young, which was released in August 1955. It was followed by three further films over the next year and a half before the duo finally ended their act.

By Jeremy Arnold

Gerold Frank, Zsa Zsa Gabor: My Story
Shawn Levy, King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis
Jerry Lewis, Dean and Me
William Schoell, Martini Man: The Life of Dean Martin
Nick Tosches, Dino

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