Sunday, December 29, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: HONOLULU (1939)

Comedies about mistaken or switched identity go all the way back to the Ancient Romans and the Menaechmus brothers, but the most familiar iteration of the plot might be Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, which has been adapted, revised, and parodied so many times that even Barbie and Mickey Mouse have had a go at it. The 1939 musical comedy, Honolulu, clearly draws from this much-visited well of inspiration, although in this case neither of the identical strangers could be considered a pauper, since one is a movie star and the other owns a Hawaiian pineapple plantation. Honolulu doesn't break any new cinematic ground, especially in its dated racial stereotypes, and its plot is feather light, but it's as frothy a concoction as any sweet tropical treat, and fun performances from Robert Young, Eleanor Powell, and Gracie Allen make it well worth the short time it takes to watch.

Robert Young plays movie idol Brooks Mason and plantation owner George Smith, who exchange places so that Mason can relax in Hawaii while Smith gets some cosmopolitan polish in New York. On the boat over to the islands, Mason meets dancer Dorothy (Eleanor Powell) and courts her as George Smith, only to find his romantic plans complicated by Smith's off-and-on fiancee, Cecelia (Rita Johnson). Chaos ensues, especially as "Brooks Mason" is repeatedly mobbed by fans and "George Smith" is jailed for theft, but the biggest challenge is getting both men paired up with the right partners before the wrong George says "I do" to Cecelia at the altar.

Robert Young has the most to do in the picture, since he plays not one but two protagonists, but Eleanor Powell gets top billing, and her dance numbers are really the movie's chief attraction. The Hawaiian hula sequence, which is the most famous bit, is really a terrific performance by Powell, and her duet with Gracie Allen, who plays her sidekick, Millie, is also great fun. Powell's tribute to Bill Robinson, done in blackface, proves more troublesome for the modern viewer, but it makes an interesting counterpoint to Fred Astaire's similar performance of "Bojangles of Harlem" in Swing Time (1936). In between Powell's dance routines, Robert Young provides comedy and some semblance of a romantic plot, although the best doppelganger gags occur early in the film.

You won't get much Hawaiian atmosphere from the sound stage sets, but Honolulu makes up for its phony backdrops with a chance to see Burns and Allen on the big screen. The comedy duo made quite a few shorts and a couple of features together throughout the 1930s, but Honolulu would be the last movie to star both of them, and we have to wait until the very end to see them actually in a shot together. Allen has a lot more screen time than her wisecracking spouse, and she's a riot, especially during a shipboard sequence when a costume party inspires her to dress up as Mae West and perform "The Leader Doesn't Like Music" with The King's Men dressed as The Marx Brothers.

Eddie Anderson and Willie Fung both get relegated to their usual comic relief roles as stereotyped domestics, but at least the movie credits both actors for their work. Don't miss Sig Ruman and Ruth Hussey in small roles; Hussey plays the leading lady in the movie scene that opens the picture. Director Edward Buzzell also made Marx Brothers films like Go West (1940) and Esther Williams vehicles like Neptune's Daughter (1949). See more of Eleanor Powell in Born to Dance (1936), Lady Be Good (1941), and Ship Ahoy (1942). Robert Young also stars in The Canterville Ghost (1944), The Enchanted Cottage (1945), and Crossfire (1947).

You can find Honolulu and several other Eleanor Powell movies currently streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE (1947)

Most holiday movie viewers are familiar with a handful of classic pictures that get a lot of airing this time of year, especially It's a Wonderful Life (1946), but there are actually quite a few seasonally appropriate movies that attract admiration from serious fans. It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947) is not as celebrated as other Christmas classics, but it's a favorite with the classic movie crowd nonetheless, largely because of its lighter take on the well-worn holiday themes of generosity, reformation, and hope. This domestic comedy about a hobo who changes the lives of everyone around him also offers viewers some great performances from lesser known stars, particularly Victor Moore and Charles Ruggles, as well as a chance to see a young Alan Hale, Jr. before his Gilligan's Island days.

Victor Moore stars as Aloysius T. McKeever, a homeless man who moves into a business tycoon's New York mansion when the owner vacates the premises for the winter. Generosity inspires him to invite the newly evicted Jim (Don DeFore) to join him in the house, but both men are surprised when the owner's daughter, Trudy (Gale Storm), turns up, although Trudy adopts a false identity in order to convince them to take her in. Soon the house gains several other occupants, much to McKeever's consternation, while Trudy's father, Mike (Charles Ruggles), and mother, Mary (Ann Harding), also move in under assumed identities at Trudy's insistence.

The action takes place in the last several weeks of the year, with Christmas playing a large part in the story, but really you could watch the movie at any time. The message, however, takes on a particular resonance during the holidays, when the parallels to A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life become clearer. McKeever, a strange angel indeed, is an agent of redemption and renewal who works his peculiar magic on Mike, Mary, Trudy, and Jim, helping each to gain a new perspective and attain the things that really matter in life. Jim, whom we meet early on, has a George Bailey quality about him; he's full of plans and frustrations, but he needs some intervention - divine or otherwise - to set him on the right path up from his low point. Mike is our Scrooge, a rich man who has lost sight of himself and his family in pursuit of more and more money. Divorced from his wife and somewhat estranged from his daughter, Mike has created a lot of unhappiness in the people around him, but he ends up eating a pretty big slice of humble pie during his incognito residence in his own home.

Most classic movie fans will recognize Victor Moore from his supporting role as Fred Astaire's sidekick in Swing Time (1936), and It Happened on 5th Avenue really puts him in the spotlight. He reflects all the facets of his character's complex personality, and like most great clowns he is both funny and deeply sad. Don DeFore and Charles Ruggles both play it more or less straight against Moore, but Ruggles also has a plum role that lets him explore different moods and emotions. Of the lot, Ruggles has the most dynamic character to play, and his best scenes are those with Ann Harding. The rekindled romance between the older O'Connors has more depth to it than the love affair blooming between the younger couple, and once Trudy's mother shows up much of our attention shifts to Mike and Mary. It's a treat, though, to see Alan Hale, Jr. in a supporting role as one of Jim's wartime pals, even if he doesn't have that much to do.

It Happened on 5th Avenue earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Story, but without big name stars or constant television airings it has never become a really well-known holiday classic. That makes it a great choice for anyone looking to get beyond the usual menu of holiday fare before the season officially ends, and it would be an excellent New Year entertainment if your plans involve a comfy spot on the couch. See more of silent film veteran Victor Moore in Gold Diggers of 1937 (1937), Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), and Ziegfeld Follies (1945). Look for Charles Ruggles, often credited as Charlie, in Trouble in Paradise (1932), Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), and Bringing Up Baby (1938). Don DeFore stars in Romance on the High Seas (1948), while Ann Harding appears opposite Leslie Howard in The Animal Kingdom (1932). Director Roy Del Ruth made the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon and other pre-Code pictures like Blonde Crazy (1931) and Lady Killer (1933) before moving on to comedies and musicals like Du Barry Was a Lady (1943).

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas from Virtual Virago!

Merry Christmas, Season's Greetings, and Happy Holidays to everyone who takes the time to visit here at Virtual Virago! Hope your holiday is filled with good friends and classic movies. May 2014 be a great year for all film buffs, book lovers, and LEGO fans!

Whether you're watching It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, White Christmas, Die Hard, or Scrooged, Christmas is a great time to remember all that the movies do to enrich our lives. It's a genuine pleasure to be part of a community of people who love and appreciate film, not just the classics but all movies. You make the internet a better, nicer, and more knowledgeable place.

I'm looking forward to sharing another year of movies with all of you!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Christmas Movie Blogathon: THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (1992)

This post is part of the Christmas Movie Blogathon hosted by Family Friendly Reviews. Check out the links for all of the related posts!

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol has been adapted for the big screen many times, and almost all versions have their merits, but as both a former English Literature professor and a Muppet scholar I have to admit that The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) is far and away my favorite take on the classic holiday tale. Despite its alterations for the sake of its furry, feathery, and felt-made cast, The Muppet Christmas Carol is surprisingly faithful to the spirit of the original text, and it goes one better than many more traditional adaptations with its inclusion of a Dickensian narrator and its representation of the three Christmas Ghosts.

Michael Caine takes the lead role as Scrooge, playing a rather demented and imposing version of the old miser, while the Muppets fill most of the supporting roles. Kermit the Frog plays long-suffering Bob Cratchit, with Miss Piggy as his loyal if temperamental spouse, and Fozzie Bear appears as Fozziewig, Scrooge's generous old employer. Statler and Waldorf split the Marley role into a duo (Jacob and Bob), and other familiar Muppet characters make appearances throughout the picture. The Great Gonzo lives up to his name as Charles Dickens, who narrates the story with the help of Rizzo the Rat. The collected cast of human and Muppet players goes through a more or less familiar version of the story, with songs and comedy added to bring the text in line with the usual Muppet style.

Several elements of this version stand out. First, Gonzo's performance as Charles Dickens is one of his best roles, combining the wry narratorial voice of the original story with the Muppet's inherent weirdness for a startlingly funny but effective commentary on the action as it unfolds. "I know this story like the back of my hand," Gonzo boasts to Rizzo. When pressed to prove it, he then covers his eyes and begins to describe his hand instead of telling the story. Rizzo is, as always, a hilarious sidekick to the blue daredevil; Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire had already perfected their comic chemistry with the two characters by the time this film was made, and their dialogue together makes for the movie's most quotable lines. More importantly, Gonzo's presence returns to the story something that is missing in most adaptations. We get back lines like, "He was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge!" and "Darkness was cheap, and Scrooge liked it." Dickens' narrator is a crucial part of the story's humor and appeal, but most versions lose him in the dramatic revision.

The Ghosts are another outstanding element of the Muppet adaptation. Specially created for the film, the Ghosts are strikingly faithful to Dickens' descriptions of them, especially the luminous Ghost of Christmas Past, who floats hauntingly thanks to a special shooting technique that involved the puppet being filmed in a tank of oil. The Ghost of Christmas Present lacks Ignorance and Want hidden beneath his robes, but his forgetful good humor and size make him a delightful presence, combining elements of both Father Christmas and Christ. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is so scary that Gonzo and Rizzo abandon the picture until the finale, but the film's creators make the right call by keeping the gravitas and foreboding of those scenes. Taken together, the Ghosts are not only marvels of puppetry innovation but also compelling realizations of Dickens' figures, more spectral and miraculous than human actors because the medium liberates them from mortal constraints.

Like many family friendly adaptations of the story, The Muppet Christmas Carol does shift the focus of Dickens' text by casting its primary figure, Kermit, as Bob Cratchit. This encourages us to see ourselves in Bob and to see him as the story's central figure (the Mickey Mouse version does the same thing). Michael Caine, however, does such a terrific job as Scrooge that we never lose him among the Muppets, and that helps us to keep our attention where it's supposed to be. Dickens never wanted us to see ourselves as Bob Cratchit; his story depends on us understanding that we are Scrooge, selfish and querulous even in the face of our own salvation. Caine revels in Scrooge's meanest lines, but he also conveys nostalgia, regret, and tenderness in the character, all emotions that have to exist within him already in order to be called forth by the Ghosts' visitations. Bob is an object to rouse Scrooge's dormant pity, but A Christmas Carol isn't his story; he has no dynamic narrative arc to pursue. For contrast, you might watch Kermit taking on the George Bailey role in It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (2002), which revises It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and prefigures the plot of The Muppets (2011) in quite a few ways.

For more literary Muppetry, you might try Muppet Treasure Island (1996), which features Tim Curry as Long John Silver. Brian Henson, who directed both adaptations, is of course the son of Muppets creator Jim Henson, who died in 1990. The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first feature made after his death, which gives it a certain bittersweet quality for lifelong Muppet fans. Head back to The Muppet Movie (1977) for the first big-screen Muppet adventure, or flash forward to The Muppets (2011) to see what Disney is doing with the characters now. Muppets Most Wanted, the newest Muppet movie, is due out in 2014.

Can't get enough Muppet-inspired criticism and commentary? I really am something of an expert on the subject. Check out Kermit Culture: Critical Perspectives on Jim Henson's Muppets and The Wider Worlds of Jim Henson. Both books were published by McFarland and are available in paperback and Kindle editions on Amazon. If movie reviews are more your thing, try Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching, which is also in both paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Disney Report - December 2013

Depending on how you feel about Disney, Walt Disney World might be considered a gold mine for classic movie fans, since it contains rides, tributes, and swag devoted to films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. Disney films are probably the only classic movies some people ever see, and plenty of children get their first experience with  "old movies" in front of a TV where some grand old Disney classic is playing.

I'm a lifelong Disney fan, and this month we made another trek to the Land of the Magnificent Mouse to spend a week mugging with characters and flying around on Dumbo. We head to Orlando every two or three years, which is enough time for there to be something new every trip. Here's a rundown of the recent additions we encountered on our December 2013 trip.

New Fantasyland - Sure, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid are too recent to be classics in the strictest sense, but it has been 22 years since Belle fell for her hairy prince, and 24 years have passed since Ariel wished for those feet! The new section of Fantasyland celebrates the Disney renaissance of the 1990s with some gorgeous new attractions. Ariel has a high-tech ride with some very spiffy animatronics, and Belle has an elaborate meet-and-greet that features some eye-popping technology. Be Our Guest takes the Disney restaurant experience to a whole new level, and the food is pretty darn good, too. Overall, the new section is a great addition to Fantasyland and shows how much progress Disney has made in improving its experiences, even if the recently rolled out Magic Bands are creating some problems throughout the park (we didn't use them, so I can't really speak to that aspect of the park experience).

Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom - Disney has introduced interactive games in several parks to keep folks busy while they wait for their Fastpass times on rides, and SotMK seems to be the big hit of the bunch. You can get free packs of starter cards and then use them to battle Disney villains throughout the Magic Kingdom; the technology and theming for these encounters are top-notch, with Disney using otherwise dead space in some very creative ways. If you get hooked, you can buy booster packs of cards in the park or online at the Disney Store. Judging from the huge binders of cards folks were toting around, this game really has a addictive appeal for card-collecting types. There's also a home game you can play with the cards when you aren't tooling around the Magic Kingdom.

Test Track - What happened? The corporate sponsor changed, and it feels like all the humor and charm in this already rather flat attraction has fizzled completely. We never loved the old Test Track, but the new version made us positively nostalgic for it. At least you still get the high speed experience at the end.

Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party - This was our first time doing a special seasonal event, and we really enjoyed it. The park was not at all crowded, we snacked on "free" cocoa and cookies, and we got great character encounters with special characters who aren't usually out. If you want to meet the Disney princes or the Seven Dwarfs, then this is the party for you. (Note: These events also have special Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom cards!)

As always, I had a ball on The Great Movie Ride at Hollywood Studios, although the Kid tells me she was not impressed with their version of Gene Kelly. Our favorites continue to be classic rides like The Haunted Mansion, The Jungle Cruise (currently the "Jingle" Cruise with seasonal jokes), and Pirates of the Caribbean. I missed Snow White's Scary Adventures, but the princess greeting hall that replaced it seems to be jam-packed at all hours, and hopefully the new Dwarfs coaster will open soon to bring that film back into action in the park.

One of the biggest pleasures of this trip was having photos made with the characters. The Kid decided to hunt autographs and photos this time, after several years of pin trading, and we all loved interacting with the hilarious characters. Chip & Dale tried on the Kid's bracelet, Tigger stole her autograph book, and the Wicked Stepmother and Stepsisters from Cinderella had us cracking up at their antics. If you're only in the parks for the rides, you're really missing a lot of the fun, and we were glad we stopped to visit with Mickey, Goofy, and the rest of the colorful inhabitants of the parks.

What's your favorite Disney film or Disney theme park experience? Let me know in the comments!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

My Christmas Movies

Every film buff has a favorite Christmas movie, a picture that is such a part of the holiday that it just isn't Christmas without it. Plenty of us even have lists of such movies, and I'm no exception. As we head into the holidays, these are the movies - both classic and more recent - that I'll be watching to get into the holiday spirit.


Sure, it's the obvious choice, but for me the Jimmy Stewart classic is a holiday necessity because I often feel down during the Christmas season, and George Bailey's story reminds me that Christmas is a hard time for a lot of people. Besides, it has such a fantastic cast, and every year as I watch more classic movies I appreciate the actors more, from Lionel Barrymore and Thomas Mitchell to Beulah Bondi and Gloria Grahame. 


I love pretty much everything about this musical, but I'm especially fond of Danny Kaye and the movie's depiction of soldiers' lives after the war. "Snow" is a beautiful tune (they should play it on the holiday radio stations more often), and Mary Wickes is such a hoot as the nosy housekeeper. The drag performance of "Sisters" by Crosby and Kaye cracks me up, and the finale's salute to Dean Jagger's character always gets me right in the old ticker.


My taste in Christmas Carol adaptations tends toward the bizarre, and this is certainly one of the weirdest and funniest versions. I just can't resist Carol Kane's sadistic sugar plum Ghost of Christmas Present or David Johansen's hilarious cab driver Ghost of Christmas Past - "Niagara Falls!" It even has Robert Mitchum in it! I don't love everything Bill Murray has done, but this picture and Groundhog Day are right up there with Ghostbusters in the comedian's canon. I laugh, I cry; it's better than Cats.


As the co-editor of two books about Jim Henson, I'm definitely a Muppet fan, and this twist on Dickens is such a fun outing for the familiar cast of characters. Gonzo, my favorite Muppet, gets an especially good part as Charles Dickens himself, and the Ghost puppets represent some of the Henson group's most beautiful creative designs. Michael Caine is a delight as Scrooge, even if he experiences his essential change of heart rather too quickly to be as mean as he's supposed to be. When I saw this movie in the theater after its original release, it made me sad because Jim Henson had died in 1990, and this picture was the first to appear after his passing. Today, its bittersweet quality has softened, but like the original story it remains a sentimental experience.

What movies make your Christmas holiday complete? Let me know in the comments!


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951)

As a longtime devotee of Lewis Carroll, I'm well aware that Disney's Alice in Wonderland (1951) takes some liberties with its source material, but it remains one of my favorite classic Disney films nonetheless. It's certainly one of the weirder Walt pictures, thanks to Carroll's strange characters and penchant for Victorian nonsense, but it paints a vibrant, memorable picture, and it also offers some fiendishly catchy tunes and a number of great voice performances from classic character actors like Sterling Holloway and Ed Wynn. More importantly, Alice in Wonderland breaks away from Disney's princess in peril tradition to depict a determined heroine making it through her adventures all by herself, without a single prince in sight.

Like Carroll's original story, the Disney adaptation follows the adventures of young Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) as she chases the White Rabbit (Bill Thompson) into Wonderland. Once there, Alice encounters all sorts of odd inhabitants, including the grinning Cheshire Cat (Sterling Holloway), the Mad Hatter (Ed Wynn), and the Caterpillar (Richard Haydn). She also makes the acquaintance of the murderous Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton), who invites Alice to play croquet but also threatens to cut off her head. Alice wants to return home, but first she must stand trial before the Queen's court and confront her strange adversaries.

Carroll's two books, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, revel in in-jokes and clever wordplay, and most of this gets streamlined or eliminated in the Disney film, although the core story about a girl's adventure remains the same. Alice is grappling with the strangest adventure of all, that of growing up, and to her the world of adults is as bizarre and incomprehensible as anything Wonderland has to offer. Like Wendy in Peter Pan, Alice stands on the edge of leaving childhood behind, but unlike Wendy Alice doesn't have to play second fiddle to any boys. She must navigate complex social rules, conquer etiquette, and learn to deal with false friends. That might not sound as exciting as fighting pirates or slaying a dragon, but for Alice it turns out to be quite a challenge, and her reward is not a prince but a reclamation of herself and her place in the real world. In an era when most Disney heroines passively waited for their princes to save them, Alice's story makes a very refreshing change.

Aside from its proto-feminist heroine, Alice in Wonderland offers plenty of charms in its bouncy tunes and crazy characters. "A Very Merry UnBirthday," "I'm Late," and even "Painting the Roses Red" have an infectious energy that makes them irresistible earworms (don't let your kids watch the picture if you aren't prepared to listen to them sing the songs for days afterward). Kathryn Beaumont, who would also provide Wendy's voice for the 1953 Peter Pan, gives Alice a very proper English accent without laying it on too thick, but the veteran character actors steal the show, especially Sterling Holloway as the mischievous Cheshire Cat. Ed Wynn, Verna Felton, and Richard Haydn are joined by Heather Angel, Thurl Ravenscroft, J. Pat O'Malley, and The Mellomen as some of Wonderland's other residents, and hardcore Disney fans will have no trouble recognizing most of their voices.

Alice in Wonderland has been adapted many times both before and after the 1951 Disney version, with the most recent big screen treatment also coming from Disney in 2010. For the sake of comparison, you might also have a look at the 1985 and 1999 TV movies, although the 1933 version might appeal more to classic movie fans, since it features W.C. Fields as Humpty-Dumpty and Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle (Sterling Holloway is in it, too, but in this earlier outing he plays the Frog). Brooke Shields plays Alice in a quick but crazy adaptation on a 1980 episode of The Muppet Show, and that's a fun one if you can track it down. Listen for Verna Felton as unpleasant matriarchal types in Dumbo (1941) and Lady and the Tramp (1955) and as the sweeter Fairy Godmother in Cinderella (1950). Don't miss Ed Wynn in Mary Poppins (1964), and be sure to appreciate Sterling Holloway's distinctive rasp in Dumbo, Mickey and the Beanstalk (1947), and, of course, the original Disney stories about Winnie the Pooh.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: DUMBO (1941)

Disney classics are probably the one group of “old” movies that many people see even if they aren’t particularly enthusiastic about film. After all, these movies surround us throughout our lives, thanks in part to relentless Disney marketing. They inspire theme park rides and countless toys, harried parents trot them out to entertain moody toddlers, and they have become such a part of American childhood that you’d worry about a kid who doesn’t know who Dumbo is. With familiarity, however, comes apathy, if not actual contempt. We might easily take a movie like Dumbo for granted, especially because even the very youngest viewers seem attracted to it, but this 1941 animated feature can speak just as eloquently to a thoughtful adult who is willing to give it some time and attention.

You probably know the story. Dumbo is a baby elephant born into the circus, where his oversized ears become a source of embarrassment and endless abuse. As much as his mother loves him, she cannot protect him from the cruelty of others, and eventually she winds up imprisoned. Poor Dumbo, alone and frightened, has to find his own place in the circus, but he gets some help from a tiny mouse named Timothy and a flock of friendly crows. When Dumbo finally discovers his talents, he’s ready to confront those who mistreated him and take pride in his unique identity.

It seems like a simple story, and it is simply told, but there’s a lot of heartbreak and soul-searching in Dumbo. Anyone who has ever been teased or bullied will recognize the psychological damage that Dumbo endures. His mother’s peers criticize and reject him, the circus patrons mock and provoke him, and the clowns assume that nothing they do to him matters because “elephants ain’t got no feelings.” Dumbo is the individual as outcast, the lonely soul cast adrift on a cold sea. Neither his innocence nor his youth protect him. Difference marks him as the object of scorn and derision, and thus the little elephant stands in for all of the oppressed. His moment of terror and sacrifice, high on the burning circus platform, might as well be a crucifixion.

Think that’s reading too much into a children’s film? Look at Dumbo’s cinematic peers. Like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, he is a silent everyman, sweet-natured but suffering. Compare him to the iconic martyr in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); clown makeup takes the place of shorn hair and a straw crown. Despite his appeal to preschoolers, Dumbo is a deep character, embodying existential and spiritual questions of the most profound nature. His happy ending is hard won, and maybe even at odds with his essence, but that’s the one place where the story defers to its audience’s desire for poetic justice. Before that triumphant finale, Dumbo will break your heart, and that’s what makes it such a powerful and enduring film.

Forgive the stereotyped crows (at least they sing well), and listen for Disney voice regulars Sterling Holloway and Verna Felton as Mr. Stork and the elephant matriarch. Dumbo won an Oscar for Best Musical Score, and it should have won Best Original Song for “Baby Mine,” which could wring sentimental tears from a turnip. For more circus stories, see Chaplin’s The Circus (1928), the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus (1939), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), and Jumbo (1962).