The Big Show (1961) w/ Cliff Robertson and Esther Williams

This remake of House of Strangers and Broken Lance follows the favorite son of a circus owner (Nehemiah Persoff). Cliff Robertson is the leading man who must handle his envious siblings as they battle for power under the tyrannical hand of their father in The Big Show (1961).

Williams and Robertson in THE BIG SHOW

Esther Williams without a pool?

Esther Williams is on hand as Cliff Robertson's love interest. Despite her star billing, she is rarely on screen. The New York Times noticed this, calling it " the briefest role of her career."
Co-star Robert Vaughn, who plays Robertson's brother, sheds light on why that is in  his autobiography, A Fortunate Life.
"My first motion picture in a foreign location was The Big Show.... Filming would take place in Germany. In the strange ways of Hollywood thinking, the picture still had no 'star....' [Twentieth Century Fox Studios] spinning through its corporate Rolodex, was looking for a star that qualified at a ten-grand-a-week salary.
"The lucky star who met those requirements was everyone's all-time swimming beauty/star favorite, Esther Williams. But since there was no role in the script for her, she was simply written in as Cliff's girlfriend."

 Hollywood Today correspondent, Erskine Johnson recalls this in an interview during the filming in Munich,
"'I'm a spectator in this film, honey,' Esther explained in a way that explained she was playing a featured and not a starring role in her first movie in three years. 'I'm playing a rich American girl in Europe who falls in love  with a daring young man on the flying trapeze.'
Robertson "flips over Esther even if she is wearing furs and not a bathing suit."

The swimming star does wear a bathing suit in one brief scene when her character is on vacation. You expect there to be an extended shot of expert aquatic choreography, as you do in an Esther Williams film.

However, the star was an independent contractor now, having been unceremoniously released from her extravagant home studio, MGM, years before. So The Big Show acknowledges her swimming fame with one quick dip in a pool, then we're off to another scene.

Fun On Location

Though Esther doesn't get much screen time, Robert Vaughn does. The actor who plays a gunslinger in The Magnificent Seven here plays Cliff Robertson's chief antagonist, a brother who cannot stand the father's favoritism. There are any number of intense scenes of hostility between them. However, off screen the actors got along well. Vaughn discusses the fun they had on location in Germany.

Being near each other all day,
"...allowed Cliff, Esther, and me to get to know each other very well over many jars and meals  at Munich brauhäuser."

"Our star, the very witty, vivacious Esther, was in top physical condition and could drink a Volga boatman under the table, and she proceeded to do that with her costars, Cliff and me. Cliff usually retired first; I hung in there, but just barely."

Vaughn was smitten with the million dollar mermaid. However, the actress...
"...was at that time seeing Fernando Lamas, whom she later married, so there was no room for hanky-panky between the kid from Minneapolis and the world's aquatic love goddess. However, the thought did cross my drink-sodden libido more than once. Boy, would the guys back at North High School wish they had taken up movie acting for a living."

An Acrobat's Story

The stars may have had fun, but one of the technical advisers - an acrobat named Lee Stath- discusses a different experience in his book, She Flies Through the Air.

"Part of my job [on The Big Show] was, I don't know, technical director? I'm not sure. We all had impressive titles, though our contribution might be small. In one of the scenes, the girl flyer was to be shown in a close up, standing on the board with the trapeze in hand, preparing to swing off for her trick.
"No flyer would hold the bar snug against their chest....It was all wrong. One must lean out, stretch away from the board, and be at arm's length. I was quick to step in and point out this grievous error. I took the proper position, arching my back and leaning far out. 'Like this. See?' 'Silence!" cried the ogre [Director James Clark]. 'You...what's your name?'
" 'Listen, Mr. Catcher, I'm making this film for millions of enthralled patrons and [I don't care] if a few of you circus clowns snicker. Now get off my set.' I managed to keep a low profile until they finished the film. Yet I was sorry to see the end of that profitable fantasy. I never worked so long, did so little, and got paid so much. I lost a lot of my envy and wonder for the film industry through that experience." 


The acrobatics may not be accurate, but the drama feels real.

The New York Times critic enjoyed parts of the film. The "dank, Gothic melodrama (a trial and a murderous climactic fight)" isn't the critic's cup of tea. However, he praises its "unmistakably authentic look," and its "excellently staged sawdust numbers (the polar bear act is fascinating)."

Because you have fewer familiar faces,  because you are on location with actual circus tents and the real streets of Munich, this drama feels real. It feels as if you're eavesdropping on family squabbles.

The light love story here and there are a refreshing diversion, then its back to the grind. This is a show about a family where no one wants to join a different circus unless they have to do so. They really want more power over their careers.

The audience feels trapped and claustrophobic right along with the characters. This might be why the critic doesn't like the melodrama - it's inescapable. But that's great for the audience because you carry the same feeling as some of the family members - you want out. You begin to empathize with them.

The Big Show is fascinating for its location shots of Europe, which still had vestiges of the war just outside the set. (Robert Vaughn mentions touring these places in his autobiography.) It's a movie wrought with conflict. It's a film of family members bickering and people desperate to be top man. It's intense.

Have You Seen THE BIG SHOW? What did you think of it?

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