Man on a Tightrope (1953)

#1 by Robert Crewdson , Sat Jun 16, 2018 1:32 pm



This film is based on a true incident; the escape of the Circus Brumbach from East to West Germany in 1950.

The story begins in Czekoslovakia in 1952, Karel Cernic (Fredric March) is the leader and former owner of the circus, which was taken over by the state. He is allowed to remain in control as long as he includes political skits at the order of the local police. They are not popular, and he doesn't include them. There is an informer in the circus (played by Richard Boone), and Karel finds himself being taken in for interrogation by the head of the SNB, (national police , played by John Dehner), and more frequently by Fresker, the police agent, brilliantly played by Adolphe Menjou, who often turns up at the circus to cast an eye about. Fredric March plays the coward to allay suspicion of his plans to escape from East to West. When the time is right, the circus starts moving to the border of Czekoslovakia, giving performances on the way. They arrive at a checkpoint to say that they have been ordered to give a performance for the troops at the border; meanwhile, the telephone lines have been cut so that their story can not be checked upon. The border is a bridge, as they get close to the bridge, then March gives the order to smash through the barrier. The circus moves as quick as possible to get across while coming under machine gun fire from turrets. Fredric March gets his circus to freedom, but dies in the attempt, and his wife, played by Gloria Grahame, vows to continue in his place.

The real life escape was different; the circus was able to move no more than two vehicles across the border at any one time so as not to arouse suspician; in this way; Gustav Brumbach was eventually able to get the entire circus across the border. What makes this film interesting is that the entire Brumbach Circus was used in the film, with members performing their acts or being used as extras. Karel Cernik's mother was played Madame Brumbach, and the midget clown Kalka, was played by Hansi from the circus.

Henry Hathaway, who was a Fox contract director, had been working on the screenplay with Robert.E Sherwood, and felt they had a good script, when studio chief Darryl Zanuck, called Hathaway to his office and told him, 'I want to take this picture and give it to Elia Kazan, as there has been all this talk that he is a Communist and it's not true, and we want him to do an anti-Communist film to prove that he wasn't'. Kazan was a former Communist and testified before the House un-American activities, naming names, which was why he was working, when other's who didn't co-operate with the committee were blacklisted. Kazan was ready to turn the picture down, but was persuaded by Zanuck that it was based on a true story, and he could film it on location in Bavaria. Kazan agreed to accompany Sherwood to Bavaria to meet the Brumbach Circus to ascertain if the story was truthful or simply propaganda.

Kazan was impressed when he met the circus performers in Bavaria and decided to do the film; however he had reservations regarding the love interests in the script, which eclipsed the drama of the escape, and wrote to Zanuck, 'This is a story above all others that should not be conventionalized. We're dealing with something red hot, something that will be seen and judged by very serious standards because it deals, in miniature, with the central issue of our day. It must have about it the stamp of complete truth'. To lead the circus, Kazan chose Fredric March, an old friend. March had been finding work difficult because of the industry blacklist; the actor was known to have left wing views. March studied the Brumbach Circus clowns, and did most of his own tricks, dances and stunts, including the scene where Cernik and Barovik (Robert Beatty) beat each other bloody in Cernik's trailer. March found the role physically demanding, as he was on screen most of the time.The part of Karel Cernik's 2nd wife was offered to Marlene Dietrich, who turned it down.It was then offered to Gloria Grahame, 25 years Fredric March's junior. It was her second circus movie in two years, the other being 'The Greatest Show on Earth'. She spent most of her spare time in a trailer as the weather alternated between rain, fog and sunshine. While March would play a courageous anti-Communist, his nemesis was played by Adolphe Menjou, who was active in the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and welcomed HUAC to Hollywood, denouncing the red menace in the film industry. On the film set, however, Menjou was apparently professional , and kept his political opinions to himself.

Kazan was delighted to be filming on location and working with a German crew, whom he grew to admire, as they helped him to move beyond being 'a stage-bound director'. Kazan was also inspired that the crew stuck with the film despite threats from the East German government against relatives still living under that regime.

Kazan wrote to associate producer Gerd Oswald that the deterioration of the Cernik Circus should mirror the decline of Eastern Europe under Communist rule. Kazan explained that the Cernik Circus was once an excellent circus, performing before the crowned heads of Europe. After World war 2 and the triumph of Communism, the circus is in disaray. There is no money for new tents, costumes, rigging or machinery. Everything has a tattered and patched look as the government, which technically owns the circus, has little time and money for the enterprise. The film should demonstrate to the viewer that the circus is held together by sheer will power.
Kazan suggests to Oswald 'As we watch their act , we must feel despite shabbiness and the worn out equipment. We feel only the brave spirit of the circus'. It was filmed in black and white to get the resilient and downtrodden look that Kazan desired for the film.

Kazan found the experience of making this movie rejuvenating, but neither he nor Fox President Zanuck were completely happy with the finished product. Kazan found it too syrupy, and Zanuck, too lumpy. Kazan believed that with careful editing the film showed promise.Without Kazan's participation or consent Zanuck edited the movie himself. Kazan muttered his contempt and walked away from the experience , determined not to let it happen again.

Despite the issues during and after production, the film found favour with many critics. It bombed at the box office though ,and was Fox's biggest money loser. Kazan blamed Zanuck's editing, which he thought gave too much attention to the love stories rather than the escape.

The screenshots don't do my print justice, they were taken the first time I ran the print. This copy is very sharp, and has a louder than usual soundtrack. When the 20th Century Fox fanfare started, I had to turn the volume down to 1 on a scale of 0 10.


Fredric March being interrogated by Adolphe Menjou.

Richard Boone, the Communist informer, with Fredric March.

Robert Beatty and Fredric March.

A guard trying to verify their story of entertaining troops on the border with Austria.








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RE: Man on a Tightrope (1953)

#2 by Greg Perry , Sat Jun 16, 2018 4:29 pm

Robert,
I am a big fan of escape movies--like "The Great Escape" and many others. I will have to try and watch this somehow.
What stands out to me, is when you look at the color one-sheet poster, it leaves you with the idea this was some kind of circus love story, and NOT also a suspenseful escape-type film. Just goes to show how easy it is to misjudge a film incorrectly based solely on a poster or picture.
Great behind the scenes details on this film--always enjoy learning about those. Thanks for taking the time to prepare and post this for all of us members.


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RE: Man on a Tightrope (1953)

#3 by Tom Photiou , Sun Jun 17, 2018 11:48 am

Another great review Robert. You do have some real classic in your collection.
A very good escape film i would like to get again, (sold STD 8 feature years ago), is The one got away with Hardy Kruger.


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RE: Man on a Tightrope (1953)

#4 by Robert Crewdson , Sun Jun 17, 2018 12:10 pm

I believe Walton did 'The One that got Away', a very good film, with a sad ending. I have it on disc.


 
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RE: Man on a Tightrope (1953)

#5 by Tom Photiou , Sun Jun 17, 2018 12:39 pm

It was Walton and a full 5 x 400 feature to.


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RE: Man on a Tightrope (1953)

#6 by Tim Duncan , Sun Jun 17, 2018 6:40 pm

Great review and behind-the-scenes story Robert! Thanks for your screenshots too! Despite the box office failure, how well do you like the film Robert?



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Last edited 06.17.2018 | Top

RE: Man on a Tightrope (1953)

#7 by Robert Crewdson , Sun Jun 17, 2018 7:43 pm

It's not a bad film; could have been better; maybe like Kazan said, they should have concentrated on the escape. I like the film, but it's not one you could watch too often; about once a year would be sufficient.


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