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Smallest Show on Earth, The (1957)


Main image of Smallest Show on Earth, The (1957)
DirectorBasil Dearden
Production CompanyHallmark Productions
 British Lion Film Corporation
ProducerMichael Relph
ScreenplayWilliam Rose
 John Eldridge
A Presentation byFrank Launder
 Sidney Gilliat
Director of PhotographyDouglas Slocombe

Cast: Bill Travers (Matt Spenser); Virginia McKenna (Jean Spenser); Leslie Phillips (Robin Carter); Peter Sellers (Percy Quill); Margaret Rutherford (Mrs Fazackalee)

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A young couple inherit a cinema, but discover that showbusiness isn't all it's cracked up to be.

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Had it been made two years earlier, The Smallest Show on Earth might well have been an authentic Ealing comedy. It was co-written by William Rose (The Ladykillers, d. Alexander Mackendrick, 1955), co-starred Margaret Rutherford (Passport to Pimlico, d. Henry Cornelius, 1949) and Peter Sellers (The Ladykillers), while cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, producer Michael Relph and director Basil Dearden were long-term Ealing contract employees.

The theme of the film, too, is pure Ealing, with the rickety Bijou cinema's motley quintet fighting a seemingly futile battle against the Grand's corporate monolith, while the nostalgia that suffuses The Titfield Thunderbolt (d. Charles Crichton, 1953) also occurs in the scene where the Bijou's equally decrepit staff (Rutherford, Sellers, Bernard Miles) treat themselves to long-forgotten silent films after hours.

Ultimately, though, The Smallest Show on Earth is closer to that, and the Rose-scripted Genevieve (d. Henry Cornelius, 1953), than it is to the great Ealing masterpieces like Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Man in the White Suit. There are occasional glimpses of a harder-edged look at the realities of running a failing business, but Dearden and Rose usually prefer to fall back on easy laughs, generally deriving from the Bijou's failure to measure up to expectations either aesthetically or technically.

The supporting actors are on excellent form - Sellers is particularly impressive, given that he was half his character's age - but Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna have little to do as the central couple except keep stiff upper lips and hope for the best, their sunny optimism usually at odds with grim reality. For all the impression they occasionally make on business rival Hardcastle (Francis De Wolff), they're hopeless cinema managers - they can't even address their customers without being physically mobbed.

Amusing though the film often is, its lasting value comes from its snapshot of British cinemagoing in the mid-1950s. Back then, there were a great many small cinemas like the Bijou, fighting a losing battle with television and their better-upholstered rivals, though the Bijou itself was constructed especially for the film, at the meeting of two train bridges in Kilburn, North London. Tellingly, while the Grand was based on an actual cinema, the building in question - the Gaumont Hammersmith, later the Odeon and now the Apollo - is now primarily used as a live concert venue, while most similar-sized cinemas have either closed or been transformed into multi-screen multiplexes.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Grand ambitions (3:35)
2. Restoring the Bijou (1:48)
3. Projection disaster (4:37)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Dearden, Basil (1911-1971)
James, Sidney (1913-1976)
McKenna, Virginia (1931-)
Miles, Bernard (1907-1991)
Phillips, Leslie (1924-)
Relph, Michael (1915-2004)
Rutherford, Margaret (1892-1972)
Sellers, Peter (1925-1980)
Slocombe, Douglas (1913-)