From big-top clowns to the little people, as, once upon a midway, midgets were known, circus movies regard the human menagerie, reducing character to types. The Strong Man. The Fat Lady. The Juggler. The Clown. The Ringmaster.
This week's release of Water for Elephants, based on Sara Gruen's bestselling novel, is both a celebration of carny camaraderie and an indictment of the casual cruelty to people and animals at the circus.
It's not a great movie (you can read my review here), but it provides that movie-movie pleasure of watching beautiful people struggle out of ugly situations. Consciously or not, it also borrows from other famous circus films (most notably, Charlie Chaplin's 1928 The Circus, in which Chaplin's Tramp/Clown falls for the bareback rider). Except for the mercurial character of August Rosenbluth, a mercurial and abusive figure played by Christoph Waltz, Elephants sanitizes the sawdust milieu so pungent in many circus movies.
One type of circus film focuses on the disfigured and deformed and Other. I'm thinking of The Man Who Laughs (1928), about the guy whose face is carved into a perpetual grin and becomes a clown. Or Freaks (1932), Todd Browning's unnerving look at how the circus class system of "normals" and "freaks" mirrors that of the larger culture. And of Nightmare Alley (1947), a similarly unsettling allegory of the circus as the mirror of the world where there are insiders and outsiders, illusionists or suckers.
Then there is the kind of circus film that Pauline Kael described as "the sad-faced clown loves the beautiful bareback rider loves the strong man" plot. This roughly includes E.A. Dupont's Variety (1925), Ingmar Bergman's The Naked Night (1953) and Federico Fellini's La Strada (1954), in which circus figures stand in for human archetypes.
There is also the trapeze-artist-as-idealized-erotic-figure, aerialists flying high like angels, a motif of Trapeze (1956), starring Tony Curtis, Gina Lollobrigida and Burt Lancaster, Wings of Desire (1988), with Bruno Ganz and Solveig Dommartin, and Big Top Pee-Wee (1988), with Valeria Golino as the swinging beauty.
Mostly, though, there are the life-is-a-circus movies, such as the enjoyable I'm No Angel (1933), with Mae West as the gal who tames lions and men, the less enjoyable At the Circus (1939) in which the Marx Brothers save the show from bankruptcy and the unapologetically hokey The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) starring every animal and human act in Hollywood.
Among circus films, my guilty pleasure is Roustabout (1964) starring Barbara Stanwyck as the owner and Elvis Presley as the drifter who learns the value of loyalty and hard work.
Your favorite circus film? Circus-film cliche?