Peter SellersLeslie PhillipsBill TraversFrazer Hines
The Smallest Show on Earth
Medium: film
Year: 1957
Director: Basil Dearden
Writer: William Rose, John Eldridge
Keywords: comedy
Country: UK
Actor: Virginia McKenna, Bill Travers, Margaret Rutherford, Peter Sellers, Bernard Miles, Francis De Wolff, Leslie Phillips, June Cunningham, Sid James, George Cross, George Cormack, Stringer Davis, Michael Corcoran, Liz Fraser, Frazer Hines
Format: 80 minutes
Website category: Comedy
Review date: 17 August 2009
A film of three distinct parts. The first is an unremarkable bit of fluff in which Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna discover that they're the sole heirs of a great-uncle Travers never knew he had. For a while they're led to believe that he's going to make them rich, but of course that wasn't how things stood with the old rogue. He ran a cinema called the Bijou, but don't think for a moment that we're talking about anything even remotely like a modern multiplex. On the contrary, it's a tumbledown old fleapit right beside a busy railway line and near a particularly fragrant glue factory.
All this is pleasant, but nothing special. It's not even trying to be funny, which puzzled me somewhat as I'd heard that this film was a comedy. The best thing about it is the cast, with our married protagonists being played by a real-life husband and wife. Travers and McKenna made a habit of playing on-screen spouses, most famously as the conservationists George and Joy Adamson in Born Free. They aren't particularly famous names, but they're attractive and charming. McKenna's still alive today, incidentally, and was still working as recently as 2005. She's got an OBE and she played John Hannah's mother in Sliding Doors. Other notable names include Leslie Phillips in the straight-ish role of the solicitor handling their case and Francis De Wolff as the gruff northern businessman who runs the town's proper cinema. He wants to turn the Bijou into a car park and he has no intention of paying any more than the minimum price necessary to achieve this, but that doesn't make him a bad person.
Then we meet the Bijou's staff: Margaret Rutherford, Peter Sellers and Bernard Miles. This is where I realised I was watching a comedy after all.
I'd forgotten how wonderful Margaret Rutherford is. I've seen her Miss Marple films, which are entertaining but she's not even trying to play the character created by Agatha Christie. Here though she blew me away. She's this delightful old bat who's been with the Bijou since the days of silent cinema and tries to maintain some measure of control over her even more hopeless colleagues. There's a lovely scene late in the film where Bill Travers comes into the cinema after everyone's gone and finds Sellers playing a silent film on the screen as Rutherford accompanies it on the piano as she used to do in the old days.
Peter Sellers (aged 32) is playing a character the same age as Rutherford (aged 65). The guy has an alcohol problem, but that's not stopping Sellers from giving us just as much charm and unlikely dignity as Rutherford. He's a good man at heart. It's just that his only employable skills appear to be the ability to bludgeon into (approximate) life a projection system that appears to have been designed circa 1750 and only poorly maintained since.
Bernard Miles is the least famous of the three, but in no way overshadowed by them. His character's actually senile, although he's a good soul and can be made useful once he's got to know you. His story is perhaps the most heartwarming of all of them, as with for instance his yearning for a proper uniform, but he's also slightly dangerous to have around.
These three are lovely. I could have watched them all day. Travers and McKenna are rightly appalled by the state of the cinema and want only to sell it to Francis De Wolff for the best possible price, but of course this is going to be hard on Rutherford, Sellers and Miles. Fortunately they realise this. Inevitably the plot plays out in such a way that forces them to reopen the fleapit, which is where the comedy really begins. Seeing this lot unleashed upon the public is a lot of fun, especially when you stop to consider the kind of clientele that a cinema like that would attract.
This was charming and more than enough in itself to make the film worth watching. However it leads us into part three, which is easily the funniest part of the film.
Basically it's a look at the fleapit once it's actually up and running. What does it take to keep the customers coming? How can our heroes encourage them to part with their hard-earned cash? Most importantly, what is it like actually to try to watch a film in this place? One day I'll show this film to my wife and she'll simply die, since Japan is the kind of place where people don't laugh in cinemas even when they're watching a comedy for fear of disturbing the other patrons. (No, I'm not exaggerating.) This on the other hand is the kind of picture house my Dad used to go to. He'd go to the pictures as a child with his family every weekend, but they'd never pay any attention to what was playing or when it was supposed to start. They'd buy their tickets, walk in halfway through and then keep watching until the same point in the film's next screening. Everything was looped. They'd then go home.
It's incredible to me as a modern cinema-goer, but apparently the outrageous state of this cinema and its films was completely routine. Every town would have its fleapit, in which you could count yourself lucky to see a film through to the end with all the reels played in the right order and without the projector breaking down. To British audiences of the time, this would have been practically a documentary. Today, it's out-and-out fantasy. More importantly it's also laugh-out-loud funny.
This is quite a short film, but I liked that. The story gets on with things and never overstays its welcome. I'm also oddly fascinated by its cast, which has some surprising variety. I like all these actors, but they're not people I mentally associate with each other. You've got the older generation in Margaret Rutherford, but also a young (despite appearances) Peter Sellers. You've got a Hammer horror kind of actor in Frances De Wolff, but also Carry On faces in Leslie Phillips and (in a one-scene cameo) Sid James. You've also got the charming curiosity of two real-life husband-and-wife pairings, one being Travers and McKenna and the other being Margaret Rutherford and Stringer Davis. Davis often played small roles in his wife's films, as for instance in the Miss Marples.
This film makes no mistakes at all that I can see. Our two heroes worry a lot about doing the right thing and their three employees are utterly human and lovable.. There's nothing hard or cynical in this movie, with even the apparent villain figure being sympathetic and only once in the film doing anything that could even count as shady. It's a gentle little piece, perhaps a bit too much so in the first act where it's a bit obvious that our heroes' expectations are going to be overturned, but it's more impressive than it looks in having both heart and laughs.