7 May 2003 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Poodles Hanneford is brilliant
Franke Darro came from a circus background (his parents were aerialists), and he just occasionally had a chance to show off his circus skills in his film roles ... such as in 'Wild Boys of the Road', when he gives a dazzling display of acrobatics in the last scene of the movie. Darro's short stature enabled him to play teen roles well into adulthood, but eventually his lack of height became a handicap. Darro ended up as the man inside the Robby the Robot suit in 'Forbidden Planet': an uncredited role which Darro earned solely because he was small enough to fit inside the bulky robot costume.
In 'The Circus Kid', Darro gives an excellent performance as Buddy, an orphan who runs away from a a harsh orphanage (is there any other kind?) to join Cadwallader's Circus. The depictions of circus routine and circus people are not very accurate here (mostly the usual clichés), but the film is highly entertaining, and a few gaps in logic do not disturb the story's flow. Darro (aged eleven when he made this movie) showed real acting promise in this and several other early films; it's a shame that his career ended in obscurity.
SLIGHT SPOILERS. Charles Gemora, inside an ape suit, supplies a surprisingly subtle performance as Zozo, the circus's ferocious gorilla. When Buddy accidentally gets locked in the gorilla cage, he panics as the gorilla lumbers menacingly towards him. But Zozo turns out to be lonely, and the two are soon friends.
Joe E. Brown is impressive here as Kruger, the circus's lion tamer. Years ago, Kruger was fearless ... but he eventually lost his nerve and has developed a drinking problem. (Rather ironic, this: in real life, a few years after this movie was made, Joe E. Brown developed alcohol problems.) The circus's lion, Moloch, is a real man-eater. Fix-it boy Buddy manages to 'accidentally' lock himself in Moloch's cage so that Kruger will have to recover his nerve and rescue Buddy.
Helene Costello is pretty and gives a good performance, as does Lionel Belmore (who is not so pretty). There are many delights in this movie, but the most delightful of all is an appearance by the great circus clown Poodles Hanneford. Born into an English circus family, Hanneford did a clown act on horseback that was not only hilarious but also a dazzling display of equestrian skill. (Poodles Hanneford is mentioned in the dialogue of 'All About Eve', of all places.) There were no poodles in Hanneford's act: his sobriquet was originally a family nickname. He's marvellous here as the circus's chief clown. I'll rate 'The Circus Kid' 9 points out of 10.