It’s funny that certain movies or TV shows and even pieces of music seem to stay with you throughout your life. I was born in the mid 1950’s and started to become interested with TV and films from a very early age around 5 I think, my family too were very cinema orientated as in they would go to the cinema at least twice a week, and in the 1960’s there were so many movies around to watch.
But also as the 1960’s progressed movies that had been made in the 1950’s started to appear on the little box of wonders that was stood in the living room of most households in the UK. Mainly black and white TV’s but there were a few colour especially as the world cup became more interesting and England were in the 1966 final and subsequently became the Champions of the World.
So the BBC in most cases would show the great Ealing comedies and films by the Boulting Brothers, classic British war movies, robbery capers, suspense filled dramas, and the kitchen sink dramas that were so popular such as A Taste of Honey, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Kind of Loving and before these Love on the Dole. The films were usually shown on a weekend, normally on a Saturday afternoon on BBC 2 because sport was on BBC 1, and then with more hard-hitting stuff being screened late at night. It was these Saturday afternoon matinees that I as a ten year old would love to sit and watch, things like The Lady killers, The Lavender Hill Mob, Passport to Pimlico, Man in the Moon, The Mouse that Roared, Genevieve, Kind hearts and Coronets, I,m Alright Jack, being wonderful pieces of comedy and escapism. One movie that I really loved was The Smallest Show on Earth (1957).
And although I am not in anyway, making comparisons between this movie and Cinema Paradiso. I have to say it gave me the same thrills, uncovered the same emotions, and evoked a sense of nostalgia, that is hard to generate nowadays with the so-called big movie block busters.
The Smallest Show on Earth, had what I think was an impressive cast, a veritable who’s who of 1950’s and 1960’s British cinema which included Virginia McKenna, Bill Travers, Peter Sellers, Margaret Rutherford, Bernard Miles, Leslie Phillips, Sid James, Jane Cunnigham, and Francis De Wolff. With a storyline that although maybe was a little implausible was something that we believed in and a string of events that seemed so innocent compared to today’s standards.
The talent did not stop in front of the camera as the movie was directed by Basil Dearden (Dead of Night, The Blue Lamp, Khartoum), with cinematography by Douglas Slocombe (The Titfield Thunderbolt, Hue and Cry, The Man in the White suit, Rollerball, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark) and a musical score by renowned British composer William Alwyn (In Search f the Castaways, The Swiss Family Robinson, A Night to Remember, Carve her Name with Pride, Malta Story).
Director Basil Dearden was a former stage director and entered the world of cinema as an assistant to director filmmaker Basil Dean. Born Basil Clive Dear in 1911, he soon worked his way up the ladder and directed his first film in 1941;which was a film that he collaborated with actor/director Will Hay on entitled The Black Sheep of Whitehall. Two years later he directed his first film in his own right as a filmmaker and eventually became associated with writer/producer Michael Relph, together they made films on themes not often tackled in British films, such as homosexuality and race relations. In the ’60s Dearden embarked on a new phase of his career by directing large-scale action pictures, the best of which was the epic war movie Khartoum, which starred Charlton Heston and Sir Laurence Olivier in 1966. The film which became a classic and was a critical and financial success is still regarded as an iconic British movie today by fans and critics alike. In 1970 he worked on the Roger Moore thriller The Man Who Haunted Himself, but it was soon after the movie was released in 1971 that Dearden was killed in a car crash on the same stretch of road where Moore’s character was also killed in an accident in the movie. He won the BAFTA for best British film in 1959 for Sapphire.
Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe was born in London on February 10th 1913, and has long been regarded as one of the film industry’s premiere cinematographers, he began his career as a photojournalist for Life magazine and the Paris-Match newspaper before the outbreak of World War II. During the war he became a newsreel cameraman, and when the war finally ended he began to work for Ealing Studios as a camera operator, making his debut as a full-fledged cinematographer on the studios Dead of Night (1945). Slocombe, is credited with giving Ealing films that unique, realistic look it became famous for. He left Ealing embarking on a freelance career because he did not want to be tied to just one studio. He started to divide his time between England and America. He won the BAFTA for his work on the Dirk Bogarde, Joseph Losey directed movie The Servant in1963 and went onto lift numerous awards for his work on movies such as The Great Gatsby in 1974, and Julia in 1977. Slocombe became a favourite of director Steven Spielberg, working with him on three Indiana Jones movies. Slocombe, also worked on movies such as The Blue Max, The Lion in Winter, Never Say Never Again, Jesus Christ Superstar and Rollerball. He passed away after a fall in 2016. His career began in 1940 with Lights out in Europe for which he did not receive acredit, his final film being Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade in 1989.
Born in 1905, William Alwyn was a composer who not only scored movies but was an active and important British concert hall composer. He was a Virtuoso flautist and composer who taught at London’s Royal Academy of Music as a professor from 1926 to 1955. During the war years, he was employed by the Ministry of Information, where he came to the fore as a composer of scores for documentary films which were used for morale building, the instruction of troops and for propaganda. One of these films, a newsreel reportage entitled The True Glory which was released in 1945 and won an Academy Award.
After the war, Alwyn had several successful collaborations with the director Carol Reed, the most notable of these being his haunting music for the 1947 movie Odd Man Out. The Fallen Idol from 1948 and The Running Man which was released in 1963. Alwyn also composed a rousing and robust score for the Burt Lancaster comedy adventure The Crimson Pirate in 1952. In addition to his film work, Alwyn composed operas, symphonies, chamber music, and concertos for piano, violin, viola and harp. He conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra in several recordings of his compositions. William Alwyn became a fellow of the British Film Academy in 1958 for his contribution to the development of British cinema. In 1975 Alwyn married Doreen Carwithen who was also a respected composer who wrote for film.
English film comedies I fear are now extinct, we will alas never see the likes of Margaret Rutherford, Bernard Miles and Peter Sellars work their magic and bring so much to a storyline. This trio of excellence were vital to the success of The Smallest Show on Earth the timing and sheer quality of their performances were astonishing and rewarding to watch. Three eccentric yet emotive portrayals of characters that were the life force of the picture house at the centre of the films attention The Bijou or the Flea Pit as it was referred to in the movie by some. In its heyday it had been an opera house and in recent times re-branded a Kinema but after many years of falling into disrepair it had fallen to its lowest ebb becoming a poor second to the Grand picture house in the same town. I think actor Bernard Miles, gives what is probably one of his best performances as the Bijou’s resident handy man, cleaner and door attendant, who’s only request throughout is to have a proper uniform. Old Tom was it seemed content to carry on working way past retirement and as long as he had his cats a uniform and was allowed to earn a living, he would go on forever.
The same goes for Mrs Fazackalee (Rutherford) and Mr Quill (Sellers), content to stay forever as long as she could get rid of the rats in the building and he got new projectors or at least had the old ones repaired. Then there is the couple who inherit the Bijou because of the death of an Uncle, these are played by Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, (pre Born Free days). Who together probably had some of the worst lines in the script, but once you get past the period humour of the time they become quite endearing. With the script containing some of the most natural and dry wit penned, a thing that Hollywood has never been able to do successfully in my humble opinion.
There are many entertaining and memorable moments within this gem of a movie, but one particular scene stays with me after so many years, it is a scene that is poignant and filled with heartrending emotion, it is when the new owners return from a dinner engagement to hear music coming from the theatre, they discover the three old employees are watching a silent movie.
Margaret Rutherford’s character accompanying the images from the pit on piano, Old Tom sits embracing his cat mesmerized by the flickering scenes and the delicate and fragile sounding music, with Mr Quill moved to tears as he shows the movie from the projection room, and talks briefly to the new owners explain that the films are sections of silent movies which he has kept over the years, all three are lost in the old days of the Kinema, the sight of Rutherford playing the piano and Old Tom fixated upon the screen is superbly acted out and something that is engaging and highly emotional.
The Smallest Show on Earth is a treasure trove of sights and sounds from a bygone age, that is still sorely missed by many.