Behold the arrival of Water For Elephants, adapted from the popular novel of the same name. With Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, and Christoph Walz on board, this drama about running away to the circus ought to draw in more than just faithful fans of the book.
Pondering the circus is a great opportunity to dig out some unusual favorites among the many television and movie moments which constantly obsess us.
Warning: Those with low clown tolerance may find themselves badly troubled. Those who enjoy being horrified by them will have a blast.
The circus is a complicated enterprise, and its symbolic value in storytelling has many faces. It may tell of freedom and the charm of living as a nomad and artist. It may speak to the weariness of the road, and the ability of a lifestyle to trap those who do not know how to break free. It may celebrate the solidarity of those cast out from society. Or in the end, it may simply deal with the hideous antics of clowns. In any form, the circus plays upon the most fundamental feelings of wonder and fear, and makes children of us all once again.
I, Dan Fields, your ringmaster, invite you to cast your eyes to the center ring, where Julia Rhodes, Matt Smith and I will caper about in the realm of imagination for your amusement, horror and delight!
The Greatest Show On Earth (dir. Cecil B. DeMille, 1952)
We begin with the most high-profile circus picture imaginable, which even won the 1952 Best Picture Academy Award. Cecil B. DeMille, legendary for directing lavish and grandiose epic films like The Ten Commandments, put everything he had into this profile of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Like Fitzcarraldo, in which the best way to film a ship being pulled over a mountain was to pull a ship over a mountain, Greatest Show puts the bright stars of Hollywood into a very authentic circus. It amounts in the end to a carefully fictionalized documentary.
To summarize the whole story takes too long, and is best seen instead. Briefly, circus manager Charlton Heston struggles with all manner of intrigue and strife while trying to keep his big show on the road. He and his two star acrobats (Cornel Wilde and Betty Hutton) are circling each other in a fiercely competitive love triangle that is sure to hurt someone badly. Crooks and swindlers are hassling him for a piece of the circus, as he struggles to keep over a thousand people working and profitable. Meanwhile, a mysterious clown who never removes his makeup (James Stewart) is clearly a more complicated fellow than he seems.
The Greatest Show On Earth makes an admittedly fun little farce like the late-stage Marx Brothers picture At The Circus look pretty puny by comparison. For grand scale, high production values, and a pure flood of spectacle, you can hardly do better.
Freaks (dir. Tod Browning, 1932)
Chances are this is “the one you’ve heard about.” With one fell swoop, Freaks effectively crash landed the career of a well-respected Hollywood director – no less than Tod Browning, whose works include a number of masterful pictures featuring silent film genius Lon Chaney (see Julia’s list below) as well as the iconic Universal Studios production of Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi.
Freaks weaves a tale of betrayal and suspense among the members of a traveling circus sideshow. Its notoriety stems from the prominent use of actual sideshow performers, many of them strikingly deformed, in the lead roles. From conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, to microcephalic “pinhead” Schlitze, to people missing all manner of limbs (including the famous Prince Randian, who was missing all of them), a broad cross section of the twists a human form can take find representation.
Hans, the diminutive circus manager, falls in love with bareback rider Venus, a “big” woman. His fellow “freaks,” a close-knit family unto themselves, are suspicious of the woman’s affection for him, supposing her only to be interested in his money. As it turns out they are right, since Venus is plotting with her true lover, the strongman, to trick Hans out of his money and bolt. Nonetheless, Hans goes through with the marriage, whereupon Venus begins a campaign of humiliating, alienating, and eventually poisoning him.
Ultimately the “Code Of The Freaks” wins out, and the attempt to harm Hans is treated as an attack on them all. This is the movie which originated the eerie “One of us! One of us!” chant, which enjoyed popular revival by the Ramones. Browning’s portrayal of the freak family is a sympathetic one. Those who disdain them are the evil ones, and are dealt with as such.
So what’s the problem? Well… yes, it’s a positive portrayal of sideshow oddities. But the real draw of the movie is actually seeing these people and their tortured physionomy. Cries of “exploitation!” have perpetually overshadowed any argument Browning could make in his defense. At the time of this picture, the sideshow was on the cusp of being dubbed socially unacceptable anyway, as modern medicine began to recognize the problems these people had as more than fodder for spectacle. Reports abound that Browning, like Barnum, treated his actual performers with much less respect than his finished work would indicate.
That may be (and is more than likely) true. D. W. Griffith had some notoriously old-fashioned ideas on sensitive subjects too. That did not make him any less of a visionary in the invention of modern cinema. Say what you will, but political correctness in art amounts to censorship masquerading as its own polar opposite. Of course Freaks straddles a fine line in the best possible case, but the ultimate message of the story is that no matter how they look, human beings have the capacity to love one another and look out for themselves.
The X-Files, Season 2 Episode 20, “Humbug” (dir. Kim Manners, 1995)
“Humbug” falls fairly early in the X-Files chronicles, when the grand story arc had not yet taken over the majority of the series. The “monster of the week” episodes were especially prevalent at this time, and “Humbug” introduced an unprecedented measure of sly and mischievous humor to the unsettling adventures of agents Mulder and Scully. Murders are happening in a strange little town in Florida, where sideshow performers of all kinds have cobbled together a community and live together in apparent harmony. Until… murderous attacks begin happening in their midst.
So here come the FBI’s favorite hunters of the weird to this most peculiar of places. They immediately meet resistance from community pillar Michael J. Anderson, the little man we know best as the dancing dwarf in the Red Room on Twin Peaks. They encounter a host of freakish folks, some by birth and some by choice, including omnivorous “geek” The Conundrum, played by real-life sideshow counterpart The Enigma.
Real-life sideshow lore forms the basis of the central mystery, as a weird little creature seems to be the culprit behind the attacks. But what… or who? Superstition and circumstance point to a real-life “Fiji mermaid” – one of those marvels of charlatan sideshow taxidermy (mammals sewn on to fish parts) famously associated with the shows of P. T. Barnum and others like him. Interestingly, the Fiji mermaid legend made another prominent (and far more disturbing) appearance in recent years, in Rob Zombie’s House Of 1,000 Corpses. Meanwhile, Mulder and Scully move among the ranks of the very different, and ultimately learn they are bound by loyalty as well as being united in weirdness. They intend to pursue the mystery to its end, and frankly, what they uncover is even more bizarre than a dead sideshow thing in a jar.
This episode features a very similar structure to several others in the show’s run, but plays especially like a more light-hearted take on the earlier episode “Shapes.” Again, they travel to an isolated community (in this case a Montana reservation) where they receive little welcome from the local officials (Michael Horse, also from Twin Peaks!) as they investigate rumors concerning a monster of local lore (shapeshifters attacking people as wolves). Once again, the federal interlopers come to understand something new about worlds beyond what they know, which fortunately for these two is never a very hard sell. The wit and imagination of the “monster” episodes showcases some of the finest and most original work ever done on The X-Files.
Killer Klowns From Outer Space (dir. Stephen Chiodo, 1988)
Even if you like this movie – and I love it! – you will find it ruthlessly unsettling. One of the few films that actually balances cheapo horror with extremely cheesy and self-aware comedy in an extremely entertaining package, Killer Klowns From Outer Space delivers no more or less than what its title promises. On an unsuspecting little town there descends a ship from space… shaped, mind you, like a big top tent. Uh oh. From its colorful bowels emerges a troupe of hulking, misshapen clowns. The existence of these creatures, for whom clowning is not a performance choice but a simple fact of biology, is an unapologetic stab at one of humanity’s most popular phobias. Not only are the clowns monstrous and scary, but their entire mission is to harvest and eat people. Walk away now if you want. Stay if you are willing to have a sense of humor about your worst childhood nightmare.
These Klowns move among the rather dim townsfolk, who generally mistake them for real clowns and only learn the truth once it is too late to escape. These Klowns do not merely gobble folks up. They trap them, by various whimsical and silly methods, in cotton candy for purposes of preservation. The hull of their ship, part meat locker and part spider web, houses hundreds of fluffy pink parcels, ripe for feeding whenever the clowns get hungry.
For reference, think of this in the same category as a film like Critters – both a sci-fi horror romp and an outrageous spoof on other movies like it. Critters is a more sharply executed film, and if it were not so amusing, Killer Klowns could be really, really, unwatchably bad. At least you will recognize all the characters and story elements – sleepy little town, unsuspecting law enforcement, teen couple who know the truth and must warn the townsfolk while running for their own lives. Ultimately the standoff between the villagers and the Klowns is bound to reach staggering (and ludicrous) proportions.
The absolute silliness of these creatures is the only thing overshadowing their horrific exploits. Their ship seems to run on popcorn, and their methods of havoc include shadow puppets, balloon animals, and crazy straws. How could this possibly occur in nature? What sort of planet must they be from? There’s a sequel in there somewhere that many of us would love to see, but might later regret…
The Unknown (dir. Tod Browning, 1927)
Since Dan is tackling Freaks, arguably the most famous circus movie there is, I am supplementing with the other brilliant circus movie made by Tod Browning . The Unknown was stored away in a film canister marked “UNKNOWN” for decades and only rediscovered in its full form in 1968. And we are the better for it.
Lon Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless, an apparently deformed man who performs tricks with his feet in the circus. Alonzo, however, only pretends not to have arms to keep his criminal past under wraps and to please the beautiful Nanon (Joan Crawford in one of her earliest roles), who fears men’s hands. The circus’s strongman (Norman Kerry) also carries a torch for Nanon, but he’s no match for Alonzo (who is no threat to Nanon’s phobia of being touched).
After Alonzo realizes he will never win Nanon as long as he has arms, he has them chopped off (!). But by the time he returns to the circus Nanon has overcome her phobia and fallen in love with the strongman. In the film’s final sequence, Alonzo tries to murder the strongman by dismemberment during a show – with horrific consequences. Chaney’s performance is oft-cited as the best ever put to film; the man’s ability to inhabit a character through and through will never be replicated. According to Wikipedia, Joan Crawford, a bona fide legend herself, says working opposite Chaney taught her more about acting than all her other onscreen experiences put together.
Browning, a director known for his bizarre attitudes and difficult personality, found in circuses the lowest common denominator of human curiosity and voyeurism. Freaks depicts real deformed people, and its content and imagery shocked the world. The Unknown plays on similar tropes: we’re all freaks underneath. Rubbernecking and taking pleasure in others’ misfortune is what circuses used to be all about; beneath the gleeful facade, the brightly colored tents, there always seems to lurk a disturbing undercurrent of true freakishness, and Alonzo is the epitome of it. Seriously, if you haven’t seen The Unknown, do yourself a favor and check it out. Yes, it’s silent, and it’s black and white – and you’ll probably feel repulsed the whole time. But it is a damned fine film.
Something Wicked This Way Comes (dir. Jack Clayton, 1983)
The works of Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft are pretty much impossible to commit to a visual medium. Both authors rely so heavily on experiences felt, on the reader’s imagination, that films made from their novels and stories just don’t measure up.
Bradbury himself penned the screenplay for the film based on his gorgeously written novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, produced by Disney and starring Jason Robards. Bradbury’s novel is dark, its characters sinister and bizarre–and not Disney fare. Unfortunately Bradbury and director Jack Clayton butted heads about the way the script and cast should be handled, and a movie that actually could’ve been brilliant ends up feeling wrong.
Thirteen-year-old boys Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade know a storm is coming when a bizarre lightning rod salesman forewarns them. With the storm comes a sinister circus headed by Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce – Bradbury wanted Peter O’Toole or Christopher Lee, which would’ve been amazing). Mr. Dark, who bears a tattoo for every soul he’s enslaved, is a spooky peddler of snake oil and quick remedies to the ailments of old age. Will’s father Charles (Robards), seeking to regain his youth, boards the merry-go-round that takes him back in time, and the boys are forced to save him from eternal slavery to Mr. Dark’s horrifying carnival.
Bradbury’s prose is visceral, emotional, almost overwrought. He’s one of the best authors of the 20th century, no question – but Something Wicked This Way Comes just can’t be done as a Disney movie. Mr. Dark, a character who gave me goosebumps even at the ripe old age of 23, comes off in the film as a little silly. The two teenage boys, who have a great depth of feeling and dynamic heroism in the book, are little more than caricatures in the film. But that’s not what this Listicle is about. What’s the circus like, you ask? Why, it is creepy. All carnivals and circuses are off, in a way. Unfortunately Something Wicked This Way Comes is just not spooky in the way Bradbury wanted it to be.
“Stephen King’s IT” (dir. Tommy Lee Wallace, 1990)
Like Bradbury, Stephen King feels a visceral revulsion toward all things clown and circus. His novel IT is a whopping 1300 pages long, and it’s about Pennywise the Dancing Clown, one form an ancient deity takes to steal the lives of children. But the book is also about youth vs. age, the dark underbelly of the fictional town of Derry, Maine, and an eternal evil that takes the form of whatever scares you most. But really? A clown is the ultimate in horror; what better way to lure children?
“IT” was a TV miniseries that aired on ABC when I was but a mere slip of a girl, and my best friend and I watched over and over again. The movie follows the “Losers Club,” consisting of seven 11-year-old outcasts (including a young Seth Green!), as they struggle to defeat an ancient, evil being that’s killing off their classmates and poisoning the very soul of Derry. Pennywise the clown is its most frequent – and most terrifying – incarnation. His deathly white makeup, blood-red mouth, and bloodshot eyes are truly the stuff of nightmares. Though he used to travel with circuses two hundred years ago, now he mostly travels alone…and no clown should ever be alone (think John Wayne Gacy here). He takes on other forms – a mummy, a werewolf, an abusive father – but Pennywise is the one everybody remembers. “We all float down here,” croaks the clown (Tim Curry) through his jagged, pointy, yellow teeth from inside a storm drain just before he rips a child’s arm off. The phrase is familiar to horror fans of a certain age. I have friends who suffer from coulrophobia based solely on this movie and the night terrors that ensued. Thanks, Mr. King – you contaminated the minds of many a child of the ’80s!
The Losers Club grows up, and when IT begins to kill again they return to join forces and defeat it for good. This scene in the movie is really, really terrible. In the book there’s a battle in the ether between The Turtle, a godlike and benevolent ancient, and IT, that has to do with biting of metaphorical tongues. And there are eleven-year-olds having sex, which is a bit strange. In the movie IT is a giant spider, and due to budgeting and, you know, the early ’90s, it’s pretty laughable.
But Pennywise is not – not even to this day. Fear of circuses and clowns is common, and I blame my own on King and Tim Curry. Of course, any movie dealing with an evil clown has to have creepy calliope music, and the theme of “IT” is ingrained in my brain. *shudder*
The Circus (dir. Charlie Chaplin, 1928)
One of Chaplin’s best comedies, The Circus is also the final silent film he ever made, though both City Lights and Modern Times employ many of the same cinematic techniques (including minimal dialogue, if any) as his films from this era. As is typical of Chaplin’s work, the movie plays like a slapstick comedy, but there’s a much larger humanist heart pumping underneath. Chaplin was one of the few comedians of the era to employ pathos in many of his gags, and in my opinion was more successful than that other great silent clown, the stoic and stone-faced Buster Keaton.
As always, the plot revolves largely around a misunderstanding of The Tramp by an outside force, here a police officer who believes he is a pickpocket, and the ensuing commotion leads to the major conflict for the film, which here is that the audience of a very small traveling circus falls in love with Chaplin after he bumbles into the big top while being chased and commences to destroy everything in sight. The funniest thing about The Tramp is that he never knows there’s a joke, it’s all just something he has to try his hardest to keep up with.
Eventually this leads to his romance with a young woman who performs in the circus and his role as the property man for the operation, which only renews his popularity once it’s discovered he can’t be funny on purpose and is thus coaxed into situations by the ringmaster. Then, the girl falls in love with Rex, a tightrope walker. In an effort to win back the affections of his lost love, The Tramp tries to learn the tightrope, and one night must perform the role after Rex doesn’t show up for his spot in the show.
This results in one of the film’s best sequences, in which Chaplin takes to the rope with a cable attached to his suspenders to help keep him from falling, and operated by someone on the ground. It allows him to successfully navigate the tightrope while performing handstands and other astounding feats that are impossible in reality. The peril escalates in true Chaplin style when the suspenders break, and a group of monkeys appear and begin to torment him immediately thereafter by climbing all over his face and pulling his pants off.
The end also has a lot in common with that of City Lights, which has the reputation of having one of the most moving endings of any film, when The Tramp here leaves his girl and the circus because of their incompatibility and the misery that would surely befall him if he was around her and her newfound lover. And while The Circus doesn’t employ this turn of events in the exact manner as his most famous film, it doesn’t lessen the impact that much. The Tramp is one of cinema’s most enduring characters, and its the combination of humor and humanism on display in each and every one of the films featuring the character that make his films so different from what Keaton and even Harold Lloyd were doing in the same period.
Big Fish (dir. Tim Burton, 2003)
While not a film that takes place entirely in a circus setting, the Calloway Circus is nonetheless the most prominent and romantic section of Big Fish, a film that features many otherworldly elements. Following the adventures of Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor) from the childhood in which he learns his fate in the eye of an old witch to the very end of his life when he is greeted by all of the larger than life characters he has talked about for years, the film is the story of his son, William (Billy Crudup), coming to terms with the father he feels he never really knew because of his disposition toward spinning tall tales about his life. It’s a poignant, moving portrait of a father-son relationship that is tinged with horror, romance and comedy, and it’s also one of the only films that has ever made me cry in the theater.
In director Tim Burton’s surrealist fantasy, the Calloway Circus is a small-time operation where, after spotting her one night in the crowd, Ed works to learn who the girl of his dreams is. Over the course of three years, he is fed one piece of information about her per month by the ringmaster, Amos Calloway (Danny DeVito), until eventually, after he discovers Amos is a werewolf and, as a reward for not harming him in his monstrous state, is told the girl is Sandra Templeton (Alison Lohman) and that she studies at Auburn. He also introduces his friend Karl, a giant he met while on his travels, to the circus, and he becomes a big star. This entire sequence plays for comedy, featuring a montage of Ed Bloom enduring many dangerous things for Calloway all to learn one piece of trivia about her: she likes daffodils, she likes music, etc. Eventually, Ed leaves the circus, and the story of his time with Sandra begins, and it remains just as magical as the rest of his life. Bloom is not a man with a mundane imagination, and this is what bothers his son most. Even on his death bed, he insists on dwelling on the tall tales he has spun his entire life.
Which brings me to the most romantic part of the whole thing: the time when Ed first lays eyes on his bride to-be. Time stops, and Ed makes his way across a crowded circus ring at the end of a show while navigating all of the frozen people and objects until he is face to face with his love. Then time starts again, and Ed continues his story with the magical narration that accompanies many of these sequences: “What they don’t tell you is, once time starts up again, it goes extra fast to catch back up.” It’s a simple statement that says a lot about Bloom’s disposition toward embellishment and playing on the established tropes of tall tales and folk sayings themselves.
Though the story of Ed Bloom’s time with the circus is brief, it is central to providing a realistic intrusion of the fantastic into his everyday life that his stories evoke throughout the film, and which his son must come to terms with as he lay on his death bed. Everything in his life has led Ed toward William, and his indulgences provide metaphors for all kinds of situations that may crop up. And the ending is bittersweet because William understands his father’s view of things too late. All of our parents are unknowable in some fashion to us, because they are the mythological predecessors to our own (hi)story. Ed Bloom, however, makes this particularly hard for William to come to terms with. William begins the film, at least where he comes in, by telling us, “In telling the story of my father’s life, it’s impossible to separate fact from fiction; the man from the myth. The best I can do is tell it the way he told me. It doesn’t always make sense, and most of it never happened…But that’s what kind of story this is.” I think all of our lives are that way, really.
Moulin Rouge! (dir. Baz Luhrmann, 2001)
Okay, so there’s technically not a circus anywhere near this film, but it still takes place in the world of so-called lower-class entertainment (cabaret and circuses were long considered, like films, to be attractions beneath monied people, though they were indulged in by everyone), and also has some of the most entertaining and imaginative cinematography and set pieces from any film ever made, circus-related or otherwise. Taking place in the infamous Moulin Rouge cabaret in Montmarte, Paris in 1899, the film reinvents the movie musical as a tragi-comic pop culture experience, throwing us in the midst of Bohemian existence as Christian (again, Ewan McGregor, who for a time must have been vying for most romantic actor in existence), a poor playwright arrives in Paris and joins forces with Toulouse-Lautrec and others to create a successful show for the Moulin Rouge’s star, Satine (Nicole Kidman.)
The story is a pretty typical tragedy, with doomed lovers and a top-notch bad guy, the Duke, played by Richard Roxburgh as a slimy rat of a person, who will stop at nothing to disrupt the love of Christian and Satine. What makes the film so astoundingly good, however, is its innovations on musical numbers and the overt theatricality of the movie itself. The show they end up creating for the club (Spectacular Spectacular!) mirrors the themes and plot points of the film, something that is not entirely original, but which is pulled off thrillingly well by Luhrmann. There’s some real magic at work here, and it’s a visual feast.
Of the many musical numbers (they run through the film like a constant undercurrent, actually, with even the score reflecting the action and emotions rather unsubtly, unlike most others attempt,) there is one big show stopper. The “Elephant Love Medley” is a duet between Christian and Satine that manages to condense about forty years of pop love songs into six distilled minutes of its pure essence, appropriating pop, rock and traditional ballads into a strange amalgamation that, just like the movie, shouldn’t work, but somehow does. It’s also gorgeous to look at, starting out on the roof of the giant elephant Satine lives in and then transcending reality to allow the lovers to dance among the clouds.
Okay, okay, I’ll admit it, this has nothing to do with the circus, but I think it’s a good lead-in for something like Water For Elephants in any case, which is at least linked thematically (I’ve never read the book, but have heard a lot about it, and the trailer gives away some of the tragedy), and which also features a romance that takes place in a magical location. I think that’s what really ties these ‘circus’ movies together anyway. The circus is a place where the impossible becomes real, where dreams can, in some form, come true.