While watching Dumbo for this month's installment of The Chronological Canon, I got to wondering if Disney had ever done any live action films set in a circus. It seemed a likely setting for a Disney feature, so I wasn't surprised to discover a Disney circus movie I had never heard of before, 1960's Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks With A Circus.
Toby Tyler is set in some once-upon-a-time in the early 1900s, a time when the circus was the height of entertainment. The title character, played by Kevin Corcoran, is a young orphan living with his terrible uncle and not-quite-as-terrible aunt on their filthy, depressing farm. One afternoon, Toby sees the circus roll into town and can't stop himself from slipping away from his chores and checking out the scene. He can't afford a ticket to the show, but lurks around the proceedings until he draws the attention of a shifty concession-selling carney who offers him a job as his assistant. After one more nasty confrontation with his abominable uncle, Toby is able to run away with the circus guilt-free.
During the next several weeks, Toby experiences a number of misadventures with the circus, befriending the strong animal-wrangler Ben Cotter (Henry Calvin), a gentle giant with a gruff exterior hiding a heart of gold; kindly clown Sam Treat (Gene Sheldon), and the constantly trouble-causing chimpanzee he names Mr. Stubbs. Mr. Stubbs is the catalyst of many of the movie's events, including on scene in which he jumps away from a circus parade, makes his way into the local sheriff's office, finds a gun, and proceeds to go on a shooting rampage (in which the only victim is the sheriff's hat).
If Toby Tyler was popular enough to inspire a drinking game, the cue to drink would certainly be whenever Toby shouts out an exasperated "Mr. Stubbs!"
Toby's sense of loyalty (though often pulled in different directions) and stoic disposition see him through his trials, help him overcome his adversaries, and eventually win him a place of greater respect in the circus. But once it does, will his old obligations to his terrible uncle call him away from the big tent?
Toby Tyler is an enjoyable bit of cotton candy on film: there's not much to it, it won't fill you up, but it's very sweet and enjoyable. The conflicts are never too dramatic and the stakes never feel high, but that's probably the right tone for a movie aimed predominantly at children. There's a lot to like for the kids in this: a relatable boy protagonist, the romantic lure of the circus, and plenty of animal hi-jinks (mostly by that rascal Mr. Stubbs, but with supporting turns by a group of dogs, and cameos by lions, elephants, and monkeys too).
Disney fans will recognize Corcoran as Moochie from the original Mickey Mouse Club, and maybe Calvin and Sheldon from supporting roles on Zorro (admittedly, I wouldn't). Lots of familiar names of Disney legends from the animated features and theme park Imagineering are listed in the credits: writer/producer Bill Walsh, composer Buddy Baker, costumer Alice Davis, and effects artists UB Iwerks and Peter Ellenshaw. You know you're in good hands with those names.
It's not a movie I'm going to watch and re-watch as an adult, but I'm sure even today's kids would enjoy it. Seven out of ten mice (one of those mice is just for the scene of Mr. Stubbs shooting like a maniac):
If you'd care to see Toby Tyler yourself: