Hardly anything is so charming as the neighborhood cinema. When a young couple receives a call that an uncle has left them a cinema in his will, they have great aspirations for what this means. Upon arriving, they see a large scale modern cinema, The Grand, and think to themselves, “now we have found a bit of luck.” But this is not their cinema, they soon learn. No, theirs is the Bijou, affectionately named the “Flea Pit” in the community – a dilapidated plot centered between two railroad lines.
It’s a place out of time. They hope, perhaps, it can be sold off for something. The owner of the Grand might buy it for a bit anyway – but first, they’ll need to renovate it back to life. Charmingly, the theater is attached with old-timers who will fight to bring it back to the golden age of cinema. We have Mrs. Fazackalee (Margaret Rutherford), a forlorn lover of the previous owner; Mr. Percy Quill (Peter Sellers), an alcoholic projectionist from another era; and Old Tom (Bernard Miles) as an untrustworthy doorman. They all bring history and sense to the renewed operation while also comically tripping over the challenges of running a modern cinema.
One of its greatest moments of joy comes with the old staff celebrating silent cinema. Mrs. Fazackalee plays the piano to accompany the silent picture Comin’ Thro the Rye. As we know of silent films, they were rarely shown silently, it only means that they did not have prerecorded accompaniment. This shows the old cinema workers swollen with nostalgia – this film’s just seeping with the stuff. Significantly, The Smallest Show on Earth* understands our love for going to the neighborhood cinema – the way it feels, the way we share it, what movies mean to a community.
It is not an easy road for the Bijou. As had been custom in its previous run, customers want to pay by way of trading farm animals for a ticket. It was a community pillar, not a functionally profitable cinema. And so they have to work around these issues. The theater begins showing movies about thirst in the desert while pumping up the heating, a scheme to sell iced concessions during breaks.
This is one of its many comedies. All of them tie back to the operation of a cinema in some sense. We have the brilliant Sellers pulling good work as a trainee projectionist. He’s a friendly and big-hearted character – it’s so clear the theater is in his blood and runs from his understanding. The one time he’s drunk too much and cannot operate the next picture, our lead is left alone and the film literally unravels. Everything that can go wrong with an old projection does. It’s such a treat for viewers; I do not want to give away much – please experience all of its warm-hearted good humor for yourself.
I adore this movie’s sense for the lost art of the theater business. It is a remaining document, aware of the gravity of the loss about to occur. It saw the theater as a construction of the ‘20s and ‘30s give way to big modern multiplexes that would take away what they had once given to their communities. It foresaw a greater future in the struggling rambling little corner joint where the chandeliers would shake with the passing of trains. It saw what we love about movies and then projected it back to us. The Smallest Show on Earth is a love letter to lost cinema, and this is a love letter to everything it gets right about that.
*a.k.a. Big Time Operators