The Smallest Show on Earth
Director: Basil Dearden / Screenplay: John Eldridge (from story by William Rose) / Editing: Oswald Hafenrichter / DP: Douglas Slocombe / Music: William Alwyn
Cast: Virginia McKenna / Bill Travers / Margaret Rutherford / Peter Sellers / Bernard Miles / Francis de Wolff / Leslie Phillips / June Cunningham / Sid James / George Cross
Compact and Bijou, Mostyn…
There’s something very parochial about the British cinema of the 1950s; a cloying introversion that comes from looking only within for inspiration, rather than without.
As if such introspection wasn’t bad enough, cinema-goers now had a new option for enlivening their Saturday nights: Television. Not that the film industry was doing much to stop the rot, offering an endless diet of self-congratulatory war films, leavened with ‘high-concept’ comedies usually bearing the imprimatur of Ealing Studios. As a result, when faced with a near-threefold slump in audiences over the decade, both the Rank and A.B.C. chains closed venues across the country.
An emerging generation of hungry, frustrated film-makers would find their cinematic voices and push-through to popular acclaim but, in the meantime, studios across the board had to contend with shrinking budgets and lowered expectations, to mixed results…
The passing of seventy-odd years lends a fresh perspective however, leaving us free to appreciate the work for what it is. Tastes change as much as our cultural mores, but the films remain; some good, some bad and the vast majority, somewhere in the middle.
Which brings us to Network’s ambitious programme of re-releases under ‘The British Film’ label, of which The Smallest Show on Earth is a new addition. It’s an important initiative. Network’s curators know that, in order to understand and appreciate wider film culture, it can’t just cherry-pick the generic highlights; the same titles to which every list-maker usually gravitates. Such a list from the Fifties, would doubtless include fan-favourites as Bridge on the River Kwai, The Curse of Frankenstein and The Dam Busters: fine films, all, but they stand on the shoulders of lesser works; films that slip under the radar and which deserve to be seen, if only to appreciate the wider ecosystem of British cinema.
Films like ‘Smallest Show, for example.
Released in 1957, this gentle, parochial and, yes, cosy little comedy (albeit, one with a surprising twist at the end), was helmed by Basil Dearden; a director of ‘functional’ British pictures for Ealing and other studios, who seemed to be a near-permanent fixture through the Fifties and into the mid-Sixties, having cut his teeth co-directing (among other things) a few wartime vehicles with comedian Will Hay. By the time he came to ‘Smallest Show, Dearden had amassed an impressive filmography, that included notable titles such as police drama The Blue Lamp (1950) and the inter-racial thriller Pool of London (1951), along with a smattering of dramas taking-in everything from life around a boxing ring, to the trials & tribulations of a probation officer and, seemingly, all-points in-between.
History (or at least Wikipedia) doesn’t record how Dearden came to be attached to ‘Smallest Show, although its screenwriter – John Eldridge – had already had two scripts directed by the man, so it’s easy to join-the-dots. The production was also blessed with its DP: none other than Douglas Slocombe: one of the most revered and influential cinematographers there’s ever been. When your credits include the original Indiana Jones trilogy, Rollerball, The Great Gatsby ‘74 AND Jesus Christ Superstar, to name just a few, you can be satisfied with a job well done.
Slocombe came to this picture, following a long run with Ealing, leading to the conclusion that the Producers (both Dearden and long-time production partner (and Ealing alumni) Michael Relph) were assembling talent behind the camera with purposeful intent. It’s as if they’re looking to pick-up Ealing’s baton; unsurprising, given that the BBC had purchased the Studio in 1955 for their own use: there were suddenly a lot of talented film-makers looking for gainful employment and I daresay both Relph & Dearden, saw an opportunity to pick-up where Ealing had left-off.
The film opens with the delivery of a letter to a flat belonging to a young couple: the Spensers. Oh, you know. Matt and Jean, otherwise known by their stage names of Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna. I’m joking of course, though readers under a certain age or with little interest in movie trivia, might not know that this film was the first time this (real-life) couple acted on-screen together.
Travers always suggests a cut-price Kenneth Moore to me, whereas McKenna is a curious blend of ice-cool steely reserve and a ‘Rah, Rah!’ Head Girl, as beautiful as she is enigmatic. Either side of ‘Smallest Show, she made the bleak A Town Like Alice (1956) and the raw, nerve-jangling Carve Her Name With Pride (1958), so if her performance here seems anti-climactic, it’s as if she welcomed the lighthearted change in material! Incidentally, both films have been reissued by Network and I heartily recommend them.
Things begin at a clip, as they discover that Matt has inherited a cinema, of all things, from a mysterious (and long-forgotten) Uncle. Suddenly aflame with dreams of travelling the world on the proceeds of its sale, they arrive at ‘Sloughborough’ after an impromptu train journey. Their taxi-ride over to the solicitor’s office, leads them past the town’s imposing ‘Grand Cinema’ and, having been told by their driver that it’s the only such place in-town, they can’t believe their luck. That is, until they meet Carter, played by the irrepressible Leslie Phillips. He’s the solicitor obliged to tell them that ‘Uncle Simon’ actually owned a place called ‘The Bijou Kinema’, but which is better known as the local ‘fleapit’.
Hopes are dashed further when they see the place: wedged between two (real) railway bridges, Dearden’s keen to show us how, as the trains rattle past, the Bijou’s illuminated sign inches a little closer to total-collapse: and that’s just the outside… Despite being ‘just’ a façade, constructed for the film, the look of the Bijou is a great result for the location scouts…
Matt: ‘You mean my uncle actually charged people to go in there? That people actually paid?’
Carter: ‘Yes. Well, some.’
Inside its cramped, gloomy foyer, they survey the cobwebs & pervasive murk before moving into the auditorium, with its tatty (square) screen, ornate columns & mouldings. But there’s also history here: Carter points-out period details and calls the Bijou ‘one of the first [cinemas] in this part of the country’. Dearden’s very good here, at seeding the ground for characters we’ll meet later-on, with discarded objects seen throughout the tour. A discarded magazine on the Box Office counter, speaks of boredom & quiet trading; an empty Scotch bottle in the Projection Booth, leads you to think it isn’t the only one waiting to be found…
Already, then, we get a sense as viewers of where this is going. It’s all very Ealing in-tone; laying the groundwork for how the underdogs will come-good in the end by triumphing over greedy / exploitative / dastardly overlords (in this case case? Yep: The Grand). It’s also Ealingesque in its writing, too. Although conventionally staged, directed and photographed, ‘Smallest Show’s dialogue is at least effervescent. The players are showing a winning aptitude for broad comedy too, which challenges the maxim that would have us believe comedies with the happiest cast & crews, tend to be the most miserable to watch! I’m here to report, that it’s not the case here. For this viewer, the gags are all landing, even if they’re a little dispersed at-times.
Back in Carter’s office, the prevailing sense of gloom felt by the Spenser’s at having this sudden financial millstone draped about their necks, is lifted by the prospect of selling-out to Hardcastle, the Grand’s owner. He has wasteland adjacent to his place, that he wants for a car-park and needs the Bijou levelled to allow access. A meeting’s arranged. Hardcastle – a bluff, Northern stereotype, played by Francis de Wolff – offers a token amount, that’s duly rejected. Later, in their hotel’s bar, Carter has a brainwave: pretend to be re-opening the Bijou, so as to fool Hardcastle into raising his offer. Again, we’re ahead of Dearden on this one, aren’t we? We know this to be the kind of film it’s shaping-up to be.
Any ‘pretence’ at re-opening the fleapit is going to morph into an actual effort, isn’t it?
To get us to where we think it’s going, we must first meet the staff, which we do the next day. The Bijou’s Cashier is the wonderfully-named (and cast) Mrs Fazackalee, played by the one-of-a-kind Margaret Rutherford, who made a career out of giving life to a succession of Grande-Dames and borderline harridans, across a wide-spectrum of work for both stage and screen; the latter most notably for Ealing. Once again, this is Relph & Dearden bringing familiarity to the assembled company.
Alongside her and playing Mr Quill, the Projectionist, was that other mercurial comedian of the age, Peter Sellers. By this point, Sellers’ had built on his fame as a member of ‘The Goons’ radio-comedy ensemble, with a series of bit-parts in various films, before making a breakthrough with The Ladykillers (1955), as part of Alec Guinness’ gang. This – and further work (on TV) with The Goons – led to higher-profile film roles, with ‘Smallest Show, best seen as part of that ascension; the Producers lucky to have secured his services, while they could still afford him. That said, I’m not convinced by Sellers’ performance here. Casting a thirty-two year old as an alcoholic pensioner was always going to be a stretch. Instead of Quill, all I see and hear, is Clive Dunn’s inspiration for Corporal Jones in the later Dad’s Army! Still, it was another ‘name’ to put on the posters…
The Spenser’s haven’t yet admitted their true plan to anyone but Carter. Instead, they’ve got both staff and Hardcastle believing the Bijou will, under their enlightened tenure, revive its fortunes. But after Hardcastle learns they’re only pretending to re-open, he withdraws his offer. Now, with bills to pay, they’ve no choice but to actually re-open. So far, so predictable.
It’s from this point, that Dearden’s film found its rhythm for me, as the Spenser’s learn how to really run a cinema. Despite the casual sexism-of-the-age, it’s as though the film-makers are parlaying their shared love of the medium to the audience. Both Director, Writer and DP are, I’m guessing, taking the time to reminisce about ‘The Good Old Days’ of
Kinema sorry, Cinema. Take a beautifully-shot sequence later-on, when Matt & Jean enter the Bijou after-hours, only to find Quill’s running an old silent film, accompanied on the piano by Mrs Fazackalee. This glimpse of how it used to be, is watched by the Bijou’s Janitor, Old Tom (Bernard Miles); a surprisingly pivotal character, who’s initial motivation is simply the acquisition of a uniform, to rival his opposite number at the Grand. They enter the booth and find Quill, portrayed as a sentimental drunkard throughout the film, now weeping for what’s been lost.
At this point, I considered where a contemporary re-make might take things from here and concluded that our pair of over-entitled, smug Londoners might finally relent and either run the Bijou as a small ‘art-house’ cinema to co-exist with the Grand, or switch to running-it as a themed coffee-shop showing silent-films all day-long (hey: not a bad idea. Call me!).
Yet, as ever, I was wrong. The actual solution to their problems I’ll not reveal here, especially the mind-blowing realisation at the end, but I’ll say this much: seen today, it seems entirely in-keeping with one of the national pre-occupations of post-war Britain: redevelopment at seemingly any cost to the fabric of our towns & cities. Throw-in a little London-centric bias against the thought of ‘raising a child in the unenlightened regions’ and you have all the makings of a curio.
At the outset, I made the case for a British film industry in-stagnation during the Fifties and there are two moments in this film, where Dearden is showing his apparent disdain for the ‘New Wave’. First, is a telling comment from one of Hardcastle’s partners about the changing nature of cinema. He’s responding to the Bijou’s success in showing desert dramas (during which the heating’s turned-up in order to sell more ice-cream) but I think there’s more going-on here:
‘In my opinion, we’d do ourselves a bit of good, if we showed a few desert pictures, instead of all this kick-in-the-belly, dump-them-over-the-waterfront stuff we keep showing!’
Elia Kazan’s masterful On the Waterfront had opened a few years earlier, splitting audiences across generational lines; the seniors as-represented by Dearden and the wider Establishment, unused to its frank dialogue & shocking violence. ’Waterfront itself, would help awaken other young film-makers and lead to a rash of harder-edged movies to which the British film industry initially had no answers. They would come, with the ‘Kitchen Sink’ dramas and more, but studios such as Ealing had to go-under first, having failed to adapt.
Second, is the Bijou’s audience. Early-on, our heroes visit the Grand on a ‘Busman’s holiday’ to see how a ‘real’ cinema presents itself and it’s clear that the audience is more affluent and ‘presentable’ than the rowdy youths attracted by the cheaper Bijou. Yet with lessons learned, Matt and Jean enjoy successful trade; even making an unexpected profit once they get themselves sorted out. It’s as though they’ve inadvertently clocked the fact, that the future movie audience would be dominated by young people and that, as a result, they’d have to show films tailored to that audience; after all, ‘Rock ‘nRoll’ was just around the corner; everything would either change – or die.
Is this Dearden making subtle play of his industry’s inability to do precisely that? Maybe. After all, while he and Relph might have been attempting to raise the ghost of Ealing, I wonder if there’s subtle allusion here to a shifting market? To realising their industry stood on the cusp of change? That, perhaps, Dearden himself was part of the problem; the ‘Old Guard’ who’d either have to adapt or make way for the new? It’s a fascinating line of conjecture, to be sure. The provocation of comment and debate might just be the true purpose of film, so for that alone, Network are to be thanked for selecting a title that does precisely that.
The Smallest Show on Earth is a misleading title for a film that, taken at face value, appears a typically whimsical – and smug – light-comedy of the era, with a pedigree to match anything from Ealing, but which offers-up such a bleak, dark twist at the end, that it left me questioning earlier statements made about the film-makers love of the medium. Watch this and you’d be forgiven for thinking their only intention all along was to help burn it all down…
Marlene, when asked to consider a job offer: ‘Well, I don’t know. I’m doing a bit of modelling for a photographer at the moment. He’s got no heating, of course…’