The Smallest Show on Earth
Directed by Basil Dearden
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
The Smallest Show on Earth is plainly influenced by the comedies of Ealing studios, many of which celebrated the miniature over the gargantuan. There was Passport to Pimlico, in which a London neighborhood momentarily seceded from the mother country, as a way of gaining local control over its playgrounds and businesses, and Whisky Galore, in which a Scottish town during wartime conspires to hide hundreds of cases of contraband whisky, their water of life, cocking a collective snoot at the officious British military authorities. Many of the Ealing comedies celebrated archaic technology; The Maggie honored an aged Scottish coastal steamer, a "puffer" with a coat of rust but a heart of steel. Likewise, The Titfield Thunderbolt shows a village united to save their elderly steam train when a branch line is to be phased out in favor of a bus. Ealing's "little films" struck a chord at the box office, and other British producers began borrowing elements from the formula during the 1950's. There was Genevieve, the story of antique car rally, a "race" that takes place at about 30 miles per hour, and The Battle of the Sexes, about a family tweed business that refuses to brought into the 20th century by a brusque American efficiency expert. There were Poet's Pub, and All Over the Town, stories of a public house and a small newspaper that are more trouble than they're worth at the bank, but whose inner worth turns out to be beyond calculation. Deeply but affectingly conservative, these films will have none of the welfare state, nor of what we now are pleased to call `global capitalism.' Instead, they want to do `go it alone,' in the smallest units of informal governance possible, the village, perhaps, or even just the country lane, or the town block.
In these films of small scale and great joy, it's a shopkeepers' millennium, a putterers' paradise, a place to display what George Orwell called in those years the emphatic "privateness of English life". We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon fanciers, amateur carpenters, cotton snippers, darts players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centers round things which even when they are communal are not official - the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside, and the `nice cup of tea.'"
There have been attempts to recreate this kind of cinema. Bill Forsythe's films, such as Gregory's Girl, Comfort and Joy, and Local Hero, brought the form back to life for a time. And The Station Agent is an honorable American attempt, as is Little Miss Sunshine. But too often, it turns out badly. Some of The Smallest Show on Earth turns up, overblown and too metaphysical, in Frank Darabont's film The Majestic. Perhaps Hollywood just can't imagine anything small.
The Bijou was built for the film, on an inconceivably bad piece of theatrical real estate at the confluence of two train bridges in Kilburn, North London. But the Grand was, and is, still there, once the Gaumont Hammersmith, then the Odeon, and now, the Apollo. But now, down on its luck, it's used mostly used for concerts. Perhaps, someday, someone will collect it in an inheritance…
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.