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The Smallest Show On Earth (1957)

The Smallest Show On Earth. Feature film. (1957, 80 mins) IMDB

I

only watched this film because Peter Sellers was in it and although his image is prominent on the DVD cover, he doesn't star in this film. It was his second feature film and he was a relative nobody at this point in his career. Now that Peter Sellers is one of the giants of movie comedy, the rights holders want to capitalize on his name. So be it. He is in the film, from Act II on and he's the Peter Sellers we know from The Pink Panther and others.

Nevertheless, the film is a charming little comedy with definite laughs. I don't often laugh out loud when I watch a DVD, but I did with this film. Comedies are best seen in a theatre with a large audience. Back to the film.

There's a young couple living a comfortable, middle-class life. They receive a letter from a solicitor telling them they have inherited all of the estate of some long, lost great uncle. While they dream of wealth and a life of leisure, we know that's not going to happen. (Hitchcock did a variation of that story in 1931 with a film called RICH AND STRANGE.) In fact, his estate isn't much except a run-down cinema that isn't operating and is worth next to nothing.

A business adjacent to the property, The Grand Theatre, has in the past made offers to buy the cinema in order to create space for a parking lot, but the offers then isn't the offer now. Five thousand pounds versus five hundred. If the couple took it, there wouldn't be enough cash to settle the estate's debts. Enter a plan concocted by the lawyer. Pretend to want to get the place operating as a going concern and hope the buyer will up his price. The plan works until he learns they are bluffing and it's back to square one. With no choice, they decide to make a go of operating the place. They clean it up and open the doors to the public. The endeavour is fraught with more failures then successes. The projection machine barely operates. A train runs next to the building rocking the building. Customers pay with tins of meat or chickens. Even after all their efforts, their weekly profit is a few pennies. Their plan to extract a higher buying price has failed. Act II ends.

But this is a comedy after all and it can't end badly for our young couple and their elderly employees.

The janitor of the cinema, Old Tom, overhears the dilemma and decides to take matters into his own hands. He sets fire to the Grand Theatre and eliminates the competition. The buyer is now motivated to pay a great deal more than he ever imagine. Ten thousand pounds. Everybody goes away happy except the owner of the Grand.

It isn't a terribly original or suspenseful plot, but it doesn't have to be for a comedy. It's there to provide space for the characters and comedic moments and it does just that.

They say comedy is in the timing and usually that means the delivery of a line by a stand up comedian or the interactions between players on a stage, but in a movie, a cut can create timing that leads to laughter. There's an example in this film.

In Act II, our hero is desperate to figure out ways to increase revenue in his theatre. He visits the Grand theatre to see how the big boys do it and sees a cigarette girl wandering the aisles. He has an idea. He'll make his beautiful wife that girl and we cut to her walking inside the theatre, dressed in a skimpy costume and holding a tray full of sweets. The teenage boys stampede towards her. They buy the sweets and pinch her butt. She objects but can't stop them. It's funny but it's not the cut I'm referring to because while it's a success, she's making sales, she doesn't want to be degraded. Next comes the cut that is funny. We see Miss Marples walking down the centre aisle. She's half way down and no one is paying any attention to her, let alone buying anything. That's comedy.

Posted 2009/02/08 at 18h45ET in Movie Commentary.

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