Clyde Beatty was the most famous circus lion tamer of the 1930s. Beatty’s act showcased a particularly American style of animal training, one that depicted a suspenseful struggle between man and beast, and featured snarling animals, cracking whips, and pistols ablaze with blank cartridges. Beatty began his career with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, but it was national press coverage of his recovery from a lion bite in 1932 that elevated him to a new level of renown. By 1933 Beatty was famous enough to publish his memoirs and have them made into a Hollywood film entitled, The Big Cage, the success of which helped him to achieve a remarkable degree of celebrity: he graced the cover of Time Magazine in March 1937, and formed his own organization, the Cole Bros. – Clyde Beatty Circus, which opened the 1937 season at Madison Square Garden, something that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus had done every year since 1909. Even during the declining years of the American circus, Beatty maintained a long career that straddled the circus and the modern media: he appeared in feature films, film serials, and a radio drama series, “The Clyde Beatty Show” (1949-1950). Below you can here some excerpts from an episode of “The Clyde Beatty Show” called “Crisis on the Set,” which dramatizes Beatty’s trip to Hollywood to make a film of his act.
At several points in the narrative, the episode makes reference to problems faced by early twentieth century lion tamers who sought to make the transition from circus big cage to film studio: animals had trouble interacting with large film crews; it took hours to get the animals in position for the cameras; the glare of the lights and sudden flashes had the potential to disorient and agitate the animals; and early motion picture studios often had limited space. In addition to those challenges, there was a long-standing belief that animal training and acting were inherently incompatible since, if the trainer took on a role or outwardly changed his persona for even a moment, the animals might not recognize or obey him. This sonic depiction of Beatty’s act found here also indicates how the spectacle of the big cat act was equally balanced between sound and image: we hear the snarling of the animals, the crack of the whip, Beatty’s sharp commands, and the explosion of blank cartridges. In fact, the lion became a kind of quintessential test subject in the linking of sound and image in the form of one of the most iconic images in the history of film: the roaring lion on the MGM trademark. That iconic logo also stands as a succinct reminder of the extent to which the cinema “remediated” the spectacle and thrills of nineteenth century entertainments like the circus lion tamer.