Sunday, May 06, 2012

THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH (1957)

NO LONG-LOST COMEDY MASTERPIECE, "THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH" is nevertheless a gentle little comedy which film buffs will have a lot of time for.  Here we're talking about a broken-down old fleapit of a movie house which is willed to struggling novelist Matt Spenser (Bill Travers) by his unknown late Uncle Simon.  Matt and his wife Jean (Virginia McKenna) travel to Sloughborough where they first mistake a thriving huge modern cinema as their inheritance.  Sadly for them, they are soon set straight by their solicitor who shows them the dilapidated old Bijou Kinema which is shaken to its very roots every time the adjacent railroad tracks convey a booming locomotive past the theatre.  Inside we find the patented "eccentric" characters:  Mrs. Fazackalee (Margaret Rutherford) who sells the tickets, Old Tom (Bernard Miles) the doorman and Mr. Quill (Peter Sellers) the drunken projectionist.  All three are old duffers who have been with the place as long as the crumbling plaster but not quite as long as the most recent colony of rats!  The owner of the huge Grand Cinema nearby Mr. Hardcastle (Francis De Wolff) wants to buy the Bijou to expand his operation but he's only offering 750 pounds.  So much for the Spensers' dreams of vacations to Samarkand.  Hardcastle knows the couple don't want a theatre so he won't budge on the price.  This leaves Matt and Jean no other choice but to repair the Bijou and try to make a going concern of it.  This they do with the usual comedy hijinx ensuing. 

Far from a laugh riot, "THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH" (absurdly retitled once again in the states as "BIG TIME OPERATORS" or some such nonsense) succeeds first and foremost on the performances of the actors.  McKenna and Travers are just incredibly likeable and have a nice. . .dare I say it?. . .sexual spark together and a lovely working chemistry.  Their chemistry is such that they were even re-teamed as husband and wife in 1966 for "BORN FREE"!  Here Matt and Jean are hard-working and thoughtful to those in their employ.  We're rooting for them to make a go of the theatre.  Bernard Miles as the elderly Tom is a little too much to take with the "lovable old duffer" acting lain on a bit thick but Margaret Rutherford and Peter Sellers are fine (if not exemplary); one wishes they had all been given more to do comedically.  This perhaps spotlights some problems with the script by William Rose and John Eldridge in that the comedy elements are kept "gentle" instead of going for it like the roughly contemporary Ealing comedies would've done; this is a British Lion release.  There are also several plot points left curiously unresolved and forgotten including the sudden pregnancy of the unmarried ice cream girl (with her irate father played nicely by Sid James in a cameo).  The major comedy set pieces in the film are mostly on view in the middle section of the film in which the expected trials and tribulations of trying to show films on antiquated projectors follow their rather too-predictible course.  One can easily predict each projector malfunction before it happens.  Having said this, there is still something rather nice about this film owing probably from the immense good will a film buff will give the subject as well as the winning performances of the cast.  A very funny touch, however, is when the non-air-conditioned Bijou keeps booking Westerns taking place in desert locations in order to boost the ice cream and soft drink sales; titles of the fictional Westerns shown in the film include "Devil Riders of Parched Point"(my favourite) as well as "Killer Riders of Wyoming" and "The Mystery of Hell Valley".  Actual scenes were shot for these fictional movies and they're projected on screen often.  Another very touching scene occurs when Matt and Jean return to the empty theatre to hear piano music.  Inside they discover an old silent film being run (a REAL film clip from "Comin' Through the Rye" this time) while Margaret Rutherford plays piano accompaniment and a tearful Peter Sellers explains that they watch these old films to bring back the good days long past.  The emotional heart of the movie and sadly one wants to tell them to hold on until revival movie houses come into vogue because they'd have an audience lined up to see these old movies.  But alas, the old duffers were ahead of their time with that idea.  The great Basil Dearden brings a lot of talent to the direction of the film and the film's immense watchability owes a great debt to him without a doubt.  Vastly under-rated these days, Dearden was a wonderful director and helmed some favourites including the classic 1960 caper film THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN.   Quiet, likeable and entertaining:  THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.  And it certainly goes without saying it's a damn sight more entertaining than AVATAR as well. 

3 comments:

wellyousaythat© said...

Warm and cosy as a pot of tea with biscuits

Cerpts said...

And in a comfy chair.

The viewer . . . not the tea and biscuits!

ernest said...

Lovely old film which I watched last year again. I remember some London cinemas that weren't that different although they all seem to be gone now. I used to meet Sir Bernard Miles regularly near his London Home in Alwynne Villas, Canonbury. He was alway happy to stop and chat but his memory of some of his early film roles was terrible!