by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was a download from archive.org of The Constant Woman, a 1933 independent movie from KBS Productions, releasing through World Wide Pictures (which went belly-up due to the Depression while this and several other films were still in release; the rights were then picked up by Fox, and in 1938 an outfit called Atlantic Pictures picked it up and retitled it Hell in a Circus, and it seems the only extant prints are of the 1938 reissue: that’s the one we got and the one the American Film Institute Catalog reviewers saw). It’s an indication of the general quality of KBS Productions’ productions that though this was an indie, it had “A”-list, or at least “B-plus”-list, talents from the major studios both behind and in front of the cameras. The director was Victor Schertzinger, the writer was F. Hugh Herbert (adapting a one-act play called Recklessness by, of all people, Eugene O’Neill!), the cinematographer was Arthur Edeson (in between his tenure at Universal, where he shot All Quiet on the Western Front and Frankenstein, and his tenure at Warners, where he shot The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca) and the stars were Conrad Nagel and Leila Hyams.
Nagel plays Walt Underwood, an actor and manager of a tent-show theatrical company that advertises its stock of old-chestnut plays as “Direct from Broadway.” His other actors include his wife Marlene Underwood (Claire Windsor) and younger supporting player Lou (Leila Hyams), and the behind-the-scenes factotum who keeps everything running smoothly is Beef (Stanley Fields). The Underwoods’ teenage son Jimmie (Tommy Conlon) is Beef’s assistant, and there’s an early scene in which he receives a telegram and does so much hugging and fondling of the guy who delivered it that I began to wonder about his sexual orientation … but even in “pre-Code” Hollywood they weren’t about to go there. Instead, this film turns out to be six reels of soap opera with an action movie climax grafted on — and anyone who saw the reissue version under the Hell in a Circus title was probably discomfited, to say the least, that the circus didn’t appear until the last reel. The telegram is an offer from someone named Hassett for Marlene to come to Broadway and star in a play, which she insists on accepting — “I’m not getting any younger,” she tells Walt, “and this is my last chance” — even though he pleads with her to stay, not only because they’re finally making a bit of money but so they can stay together and both be there for Jimmie.
A month or so later, Walt’s troupe (with Lou taking over Marlene’s star parts) is booked in Reading, New York and Walt decides that he and Jimmie will take advantage of the proximity to go to New York City and visit Marlene. Only when they get to the hotel where she’s staying, they notice fire trucks outside and are told there was a fire and, while it was confined to one room (the firefighters put it out in time to keep it from spreading throughout the hotel), at least one person died in the room. When Walt and Jimmie show up at the front desk asking for Marlene, the hotel officials start acting very suspiciously and ultimately call Walt in for a private meeting at which they break him the bad news: Marlene is dead, killed in the room fire, and the remains of another victim, a man, were found with her. Evidently both had been drinking and one of them fell asleep with a lighted cigarette in hand, and the cigarette set the bedclothes on fire and ultimately burned both of them. Walt tells Jimmie that his mom’s death was purely accidental and leaves out the part about her having been with another man. Then Walt and Jimmie collect Marlene’s surviving possessions, and among them is a packet of love letters which Lou discovers that reveal that Jimmie is not Walt’s biological son.
Lou tries to conceal this from Walt but he finds it out anyway and, like Al Jolson’s character in The Singing Fool, he responds to the news of his wife’s betrayal by hanging out in speakeasies and drinking a lot. Without either Underwood, the fortunes of the Underwood Theatrical Company plummet, and they’re reduced to playing Galveston in the middle of the rainy season, where they don’t make any money to speak of and what they do gross is attached by the local sheriff. Realizing that the only way to save the business is to get Walt on the wagon and back in charge of it, Lou and Jimmie track him down — and the speakeasy owner says he won’t allow Walt to leave until someone pays the $52 bar tab he’s already run up (in 1933 dollars!). Instead Lou sends Beef and his crew to break Walt out of there if they have to start a fight and wreck the place to do it — which, of course, is exactly what happens. The other actors and crew members desert the Underwoods because they aren’t being paid, but Lou hits on the idea of rewriting their old scripts into episodes of a radio sitcom in which she and Walt can play husband and wife.
The show is a success and Walt and Lou fall in love for real — only Jimmie has a furious hissy-fit over the idea that his father is going to marry someone else four years after his mom died. He runs away, and it’s only a chance clue — when the police officer they’re talking to orders a roast-beef sandwich and both Walt and Lou simultaneously register the name “Beef” — that alerts them to what happened. Jimmie ran off and joined a circus. They go to see him, but in the meantime an elephant breaks loose and crashes the Big Top, which catches on fire (presumably from a cigarette dropped by a fleeing audience member), and the elephant upends one of the wagons used to transport dangerous animals and its occupant, a tiger, escapes. Jimmie is trapped under the wagon and Lou, trying to alert someone to save him, is mauled by the tiger before Biff arrives to save the day, lifting the wagon so Jimmie can escape and shooting the tiger to save Lou’s life. Of course, all this reconciles Jimmie to his (adoptive) father’s remarriage and all ends well.
Victor Schertzinger was best known for musicals and comedies — One Night of Love, Something to Sing About and the first two Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies — and many of his musicals feature songs he wrote himself. But as a soap-opera director he was considerably less interesting, even though this film, whatever its faults, does keep us emotionally tied to the central characters and anxious for them, rooting for them to get over their problems and be successful and happy. It’s also got some neat scenes — the one in which Walt plays a dangerous game of bluff with the radio-station manager to get his contract renewed is especially good — and there’s at least a bit of music, a song in the background sung by a Rhythm Boys-like trio called “The Three Ambassadors.” Though the reissue title is tacky as well as deceptive, it’s nice to have this film — it’s no great shakes as drama but it is involving and emotionally fulfilling — even though most of the major “names” on it did much more illustrious work elsewhere.