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Mr. Movie: Circus films

When I was a kid, the circus was still under the “big top,” a giant tent. It somehow lost something when it moved indoors. Anyway, here are my circus picks.


One of the best books I’ve ever read about anything is Water For Elephants. And the 2011 movie is okay, not as good. Robert Pattinson is Jacob, a hard luck veterinarian student whose parents are killed in a car crash. He jumps on a circus train and when his vet background is discovered, he is hired by the Benzini Brothers to care for the animals. The circus is owned by the villainous August (Christopher Waitz, of course). August is married to Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who he controls and abuses. Jacob and Marlena grow closer and closer and share a love for Rosie, an elephant mistreated by August.


I’m going way way back for my first circus movie. At The Circus (1928) is a Chaplin silent. As his signature character The Little Tramp, he is hired by the circus, has a series of misadventures that somehow make him the hit, falls in love with the bareback rider but loses her to Rex, the tightrope walker. The Tramp is beset by a troop of escaped monkeys, one of Chaplin’s best, and hardest, scenes. No computer tricks in 1928!


 Hugh Jackman carries the water for the musical The Greatest Showman (2011). It also contains Zac Efron, Zendaya, Michelle Williams and some fairly lackluster songs. It’s a musical biography of P.T. Barnum. I’m only including it here to point out the earlier Broadway musical Barnum, which is better in every imaginable way. Jim Dale is a wonder as the title character. If you get a chance to see the play, take it!


The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) isn’t that, but it’s pretty good. It won the Best Picture Oscar and is a lot of fun. James Stewart, Betty Hutton, Charlton Heston, Cornell Wilde, Gloria Grahme and Dorothy Lamour are the actors and most of them learned their circus parts quite well. It also features the actual circus animals, clowns and performers. There is an overbearing board of directors who want to shorten the show’s run. There’s a subplot involving Stewart as Buttons the Clown, a wanted man hiding behind his clown make-up. And there’s lots of great circus stuff!


Trapeze (1956) stars Burt Lancaster as the aging circus aerialist Mike Ribble. Tony Curtis is the up and coming trapeze artist who wants Mike to teach him the triple somersault. Gina Lolabrigida is the hot sexpot Lola who nearly derails the whole thing by cozying up to the young star. The most remarkable thing about this film is that Lancaster did most of his own stunts. Shades of Tom Cruise!


The Marx Brothers entry At The Circus (1939) is minor league Marx. 


All of these films are fine for all audiences.