20 November 2004 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Uncle Fester turns into a girl.
If you want to see a movie about a boy who runs away to join the circus and becomes a girl, here it is.
James Otis Kaler was an extremely prolific author of boys' novels, all of which have vanished into obscurity except one: 'Toby Tyler', the tale of an abused boy who runs away and joins the circus. 'Circus Days', intended as a star vehicle for child actor Jackie Coogan, is based on that novel ... yet radically alters the material. (Which may explain why the film studio did not use the title of the original novel -- still hugely popular in 1923 -- for this movie.) In 1960, 'Toby Tyler' was remade by Walt Disney ... and again, the film radically deviated from the novel. But these two film versions deviate from the novel in very different directions.
SLIGHT SPOILERS. Young Toby (Coogan) is constantly beaten, whipped and overworked by Eben Holt, his mother's sister's husband. When Toby accidentally breaks Holt's chinaware, he is terrified that he'll receive another flogging. He runs away, and lands up with a convenient circus in which he gets a job as a concessionaire, selling lemonade and other snacks.
The original novel got a whole chapter out of Toby's ordeal when one of his customers slips him a bad nickel. In the Disney movie, that incident is reduced to one line of dialogue. 'Circus Days' substitutes a very implausible sequence in which Toby accidentally fills lemonade glasses with petrol, and sells this to customers ... who don't notice the switch until they drink it. Surely the colour and the fumes would tip them off? A kindly circus clown (Cesare Gravina: a good performance in a badly-written role) uses his own savings to help Toby get out of trouble. Yes, circus performers always have lots of money saved up. The movie gets even less plausible (and more offensive) when Toby gets locked in the lion's cage. The beast lumbers towards him on all fours ... and turns out to be an African-American man wearing a lion's skin and head (with 'yassuh' dialogue in the intertitles). Turns out that the lion died, so they offered the job to Old Black Joe.
The bareback rider in the circus is pretty Jeannette, a girl about Toby's age (played by an actress rather older). Toby's carelessness causes an accident in which Jeannette sprains her ankle, and she can't perform. No problem: the circus crew dress up Toby as a girl, and they train him to do Jeannette's riding act. (With some very obvious stunt doubling.) There's a very sick-making moment here when Luigi the clown kisses Toby. It's bad enough that a man is kissing a boy, but the boy is dressed as a girl and the man is costumed as a clown. I couldn't help thinking of a certain gay serial killer who wore a clown costume. Ugh! Plausibility is tossed into the sawdust when the circus boss offers Toby $75 a week -- a HUGE salary in 1923! -- to continue his equestrienne routine, and Toby turns it down.
Elsewhere in this film is an ingratiating performance by Nellie Lane, of vast avoirdupois, as the circus's fat lady. She wears a bouffant hairdo and an enormous headdress that almost make her head seem proportionate to her huge body.
In the original novel, Toby Tyler did indeed become a bareback rider ... a *male* equestrian, under the name Monsieur Ajax. The Disney film applied that name to a character not present in the novel: a boy equestrian who is Toby's rival. The female impersonation angle was devised for this Jackie Coogan movie, and is blessedly absent from the novel and Disney's remake.
Was someone trying to groom Jackie Coogan for a career as a drag performer? Shortly after 'Circus Days', he starred in 'A Boy of Flanders', which also has a long sequence featuring Jackie passing as a girl in public. 'Circus Days' is well directed by Edward Cline, and has some good performances and photography. But Disney's version (for all its changes) is far more faithful to the original novel. I'll rate 'Circus Days' 5 out of 10.