Under the Big Top

In old circus films, someone is often dramatically injured or killed. 

I didn't realize this until taking the nephews to the circus. As I sat there, holding some sticky confection in a clown cup for the little ones, watching highly disciplined acrobats twirl, a feeling came over me. It was a feeling of absolute calm.

Why was I surprised by calm? Because, despite having been to the circus several times without incident, it dawned on me that classic Hollywood trained me to expect catastrophe and sudden death.

In classic, live-action circus films
(1) the big top goes flying away in a big storm, or
(2) supportive beams that were working well a minute ago suddenly come crashing down, or
(3) someone malicious wants to put the circus out of business and starts killing people, or
(4) suddenly a big cat mauls its trainer.

These, or other horrifying incidents, occur in a number of circus stories that old Hollywood would release back then.

Think about it.

The Big Show with Cliff Robertson - death by fall, death by animal.

Berserk with Joan Crawford - multiple and mysterious gruesome deaths
The Greatest Show on Earth with Charlton Heston -  near death experiences, crashes, run-ins with the law.

Even in the light-hearted, circus musical Jumbo,  Jimmy Durante almost kicks the bucket when the pillars come tumbling down in the rain.

Do you know of a classic circus movie without near-death or catastrophe? Let me know in the comments.

 Further Resources

  • Actor and classic film buff, Steve Hayes has a fun story about sitting behind Gloria Grahame during a showing of The Greatest Show on Earth. View his story by clicking here. Strong language warning


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"Java's Journey: A really fun, informative well-written blog that explores all of the things - and I mean all - I love about classic films."-- Flick Chick of A Person In The Dark Email: java-rush@hotmail.com


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