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The Smallest Show on EarthThe Smallest Show on Earth

Directed by Basil Dearden

(United Kingdom, 1957, 80 minutes, b&w, DVD)



Virginia McKenna . . . . . . . . . . Jean
Bill Travers . . . . . . . . . . Matt Spenser
Peter Sellers. . . . . . . . . . Mr. Quill
Margaret Rutherford . . . . . . . . . . Mrs. Fazackalee

The 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:

If, as E.F. Schumacher famously said, "small is beautiful," then The Smallest Show on Earth must be sublime. This is the story of the Bijou, the little movie theater for which the moniker "fleapit" is a kind of compliment. A young couple, the Spensers, have arrived at the London borough of Sloughborough (that's right) to claim their inheritance, a beloved but scabrous local cinema so close to the tracks that a passing train offers the Bijou patrons the first foreshadowings of surround sound. Matt Spenser (Bill Travers) is a struggling writer; it turns out that owning the Bijou is a lot like not getting paid for one's writing, except the wages are worse. The Bijou is an eminently failing institution of local culture. They've also inherited the closest thing to assets the theater has, a kind of cooperative of inefficiency something that can only loosely referred to as a "staff." There's cashier Mrs. Fazackalee, projectionist Percy Quill, and the ancient retainer, "Old Tom," who appears to serve several particularly useless functions. This collection of eccentrics are played by a collection of eccentrics, including the exquisitely fussy Margaret Rutherford, and that brilliant changeling of the movies, Peter Sellers. At first, the Spensers enter into a small scheme to inflate the market value of the old theater, with an eye to selling it to the "real" movie theater in town, the much grander Grand, as a parking lot. Meanwhile, the Grand gets the pick of the popular films, while the Bijou struggles along showing films that ought to be cut up for ukulele picks; the Bijou's Z-Westerns like Killer Riders of Wyoming, and Devil Riders of Parched Point, and The Mystery of Hell Valley are not going to make anyone in Sloughborough forget Gone with the Wind. The owner of the Grand, the deliciously named Hardcastle, toys with the hapless Spensers, raising , then lowering, the price he's willing to pay for the crusty little theater. Television and trains are about to put paid to the intrepid little theater. But then, the neighborhood begins to come back to the Bijou...

The Smallest Show on Earth is patently a product of postwar England. The nation was physically exhausted, bomb-damaged and still bleeding quietly around the heart for the war's dead and injured. The war had virtually bankrupted the country, and wartime rationing continued deep into the 1950's. In 1957, though England's past might have been Grand, the nation now looked more like the Bijou. Dilapidated, almost not worth demolition, such tiny institutions suddenly seemed precious in a world grown vast and terrifying, global in its economics as well as in its powers of destruction. Amid cataracts of change, the Bijou is an eddy of certainty.

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

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