The Boy Who Stole the Elephant (1970)

For those hoping that The Boy Who Stole the Elephant is like an Anarchist’s Cookbook for how to make off with circus animals, you will likely be underwhelmed with little British orphan boy Davey’s scheme to spirit away his soulmate, Queenie. He simply walks out of the circus tent with her in the middle of the night! While there is a certain genius in the simplicity of this plan, he didn’t count on one thing – James Bond’s biggest toothache of them all, Jaws!

Jaws (Richard Keil) does not take a giant bite out of the elephant’s ear, or even more disappointingly, does not crush Davey’s head with his mammoth hands, but he does see the circus jailbreak happen and tells Rufus, the circus owner.

Rufus is a lovable old scalawag who abuses his employees’ trust, regularly lying to them about the financial state of the circus (terrible to the point of being criminally dangerous), his gambling addiction (it’s as compulsive as ever) and that of course he isn’t going to sell the elephant that his good friend and rival circus owner Molly loaned him to make the show a success again (he’s selling the elephant in the morning to a zoo to cover a loss in a poker game).

At first Rufus seems like a harmless huckster, a rascally smooth talker who believes in his circus more than anything, spewing forth positive vibes even as it has obvious that his show is laughably decrepit. We root for him to find a way to right the ship and make things a success for his loyal performers, but we quickly sour on him as the he film progresses and it becomes apparent that his delusions and gambling problem both endangers the circus folk (two trapeze artists almost fall when the worn out ropes they are using break and the bareback horse rider does fall due to the muddy conditions in the tent) and are terrible qualities for a role model as he attempts to raise Davey. (Davey was orphaned when his parents died in a circus accident and you can’t help but wonder if it was because Rufus had them using old, substandard equipment.)

But what would a no account pathetic punter be without being surrounded by a team of enablers? His workers constantly let him off the hook, believe his lies and always sublimate their own well being and self interest to give him another chance.

Even worse is Molly, who used to be his star attraction until she started her own hugely successful circus. She actually loans him money every year so he can keep the show (and his poker games) afloat. She initially appears to put her foot down this year though, refusing to give him any more large sums of money, but then later appears at his circus to loan him an elephant for the summer! An elephant that a big city zoo is willing to pay $2000 for! The only surprise about how Rufus tried to use poor old Queenie to satiate his gambling cravings is that he didn’t try to have her entered into some kind of mixed species event at the local racetrack!

Despite Rufus swearing off gambling again, he knows the potential for a big score when he sees one. The circus is doing great with Queenie and Davey’s act so what would be even better then one elephant? A whole freaking heard! Rufus just needs a good stake to get the additional elephants and what better way to do than to take advantage of his legendarily substandard card playing skills!

All goes according to plan. Rufus loses everything, writes an IOU for $2000, has to sell the elephant and the winner sends his muscle ( his son Jaws) with Rufus to ensure Rufus makes good on the bet. Davey hears Rufus making a deal with the zookeeper and runs away with Queenie.

It frankly took the film too long to get Davey and Queenie out on the road together, but once it happens you at least get a modicum of the elephant-on-the-loose hi-jinks you’ve been waiting for. There’s various locals getting scared, Queenie breaking through the wall of a barn, dumping whiskey on the town drunk, ruining a paint job on the side of a barn and most spectacular of all, going undercover disguised as a moving corn crib!

Everything is rapidly wrapped up neatly in the unconvincing fashion you would expect from a film that original aired in two parts on Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. Somehow the gambler gets his money, the zoo gets its elephant, Davey gets a real human family (including Cindy from The Brady Bunch!) and Rufus and his crew all get jobs with Molly’s circus.

The film does a decent job giving you a run down 19th Century circus atmosphere and there are the seeds of an interesting story here with the addict circus owner, but it never rises above the mild drama and slight comedy necessitated by its Disney origins. As it is, it doesn’t reach nearly the heights of the greatest Disney circus movie, Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus, and worse, teaches everyone that it’s ok to betray everyone who has faith in you and gamble away everything you have because someone with more money will always be there to bail your worthless ass out. I mean, who did Rufus think he was? Some Wall Street bank?

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