Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Smallest Show on Earth

I bought another batch of DVDs recently, among which was a five-DVD box set of early Peter Sellers comedies. Among the movies is The Smallest Show on Earth.

Sellers wasn't the star yet; that honor goes to Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna. They play Matt and Jean Spenser, a young married couple trying to climb the ladder to get to the good life. One day, they get a letter from a solicitor informing them that Matt's greatuncle Simon died and left them his entire estate. Matt insists that he never even had a greatuncle Matt. A call to the solicitor in the industrial city of Sloughborough suggests that they ought to go there and deal with the matter in person.

On the phone they were informed that Simon owned a cinema, and when they get to Sloughborough they find that there's only one cinema in town, the Grand, one of those grand old picture palaces. Obviously, they're worth something now. And then they get to the solicitor's office, and find that greatuncle Simon owned a much smaller cinema that closed down when he died. The solicitor (Leslie Phillips) takes them to the cinema, at which point they begin to wish they hadn't had a greatuncle Simon. The cinema, the Bijou, is in a parlous state, next to an elevated rail line, and you wonder how it was ever able to turn a profit.

And then there are the cinema's three workers: box-office cashier Mrs. Fazackalee (Margaret Rutherford); dipsomanic projectionist Quill (Peter Sellers); and probably suffering from the early stages of dementia, janitor Old Tom (Bernard Miles). None of them would be fun to work with, but they were the only ones who could keep the place running. So the obvious solution is to sell the theater, since it's got to be on a valuable piece of central city land. And indeed the owner of the other theater, Mr. Hardcastle (Francis De Wolff), needing the land for a car-park, had offered the elder Spenser £5,000 for the theater, which was a pretty nice sum back in the late fifties. But with Simon dead, Hardcastle is only offering a tenth that.

So the solicitor comes up with a wacky idea: make Hardcastle think that the Spensers want to reopen the cinema, and he'll have to relent and sell for the original price. Note that they don't actually have to open the cinema, just make Hardcastle believe that's what their doing. Apparently the Spensers must not have had a job back where they had originally lived, since they're able to start putting in the elbow grease necessary to put on the illusion of reopening the Bijou. But things go wrong when Hardcastle learns of the dupe, which forces the Spensers actually to open the Bijou and make it a going concern.

The Smallest Show on Earth turns out to be a pretty good movie, but I have to admit I found it took a long time (and it's only an 80-minute movie) to get there. Other than the Spensers, the characters tend to have irritating personality traits that make you want to smack them rather than be sympathetic to them. But once the Bijou opens things pick up. There's a lot of opportunity for humor, and if you've sen Singin' in the Rain, specifically the premiere of the new talkie, you'll recognize a lot of the sight gags here. This was before Peter Sellers became famous enough to be the star of the movies he was in, so his personality doesn't overpower the movie. He's quite understated here and it works well. The three "old" Bijou employees also get one scene where, after the cinema is closed for the evening, they run it the way it was run back in the old days, showing a silent movie with Fazackalee playing the piano. It's actually a bit touching.

The TCM Shop is selling the Peter Sellers box set on sale from an original list price of $40; I got it off Amazon for an even lower price than the TCM sale price. The sale price isn't bad for a five-disc set, and The Smallest Show on Earth is certainly well worth the watch.

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