The Movie: The Smallest Show on Earth

 

Who with a love for movies, hasn’t had the dream of owning their own theater, where on a Thursday night, say, they could show the classics, or perhaps on a Saturday afternoon revive the old adventure serials for the neighborhood youngsters?

In this film, a young couple, played by Bill Travers and the incomparably beautiful Virginia McKenna (having the Carole Lombard quality of looks and comic ability) have that dream thrust upon them. The husband learns that his great uncle has left him his entire estate. We first meet the couple in their small apartment when they discover their good fortune from a letter, speculate as to what this estate may consist of, and, as all of us would, have the money spent in their minds in very creative ways before they get it. Only later do they learn that the estate consists of a movie theater. Not too bad, they realize, when they get to the industrial town with the glue factory smell, at least this theater is huge, modern, and well run—“The Grand.”

Alas, the cab driver who told them “The Grand,” was the only theater in town, had misspoke. There is another theater, “The Bijou,” and everything the Grand was, the Bijou is not.

The Bijou, which has been closed since the great uncle died, is filthy, infested with rats, equipped with ancient equipment (the movie projector can only be run and understood by one man), and manned by three squabbling employees even older than the equipment. It is these three employees, Mrs. Fazackalee, the ticket seller and bookkeeper, Mr. Quill, the projectionist, and Old Tom, the doorkeeper, who propel the movie as much as the main characters. I especially liked Margaret Rutherford as Mrs. Fazackalee. Her suggestion to Matt, the male owner, as to how he should handle her dispute with the projectionist, played by Peter Sellers, is one of the highlights.

A comment on Peter Sellers. He is like Bing Crosby, one of those actors who in their personal lives were allegedly heartless jerks, but in the characters they portrayed are often capable of conveying great compassion and empathy. A result of the Fall versus our vision of what we should be, I suppose.

But back to the movie. The setup is David and Goliath, the Bijou versus the Grand. The Grand wants the Bijou’s land for a parking lot, and isn’t willing to pay what the couple need for themselves and the older trio.

It is a good insight into human nature that the young couple begin from a place where they are a whole lot more concerned with their own wealth than with the welfare of their employees. But their greed causes them to shoot themselves in the foot when their plan of pretending to re-open the theater but not actually do so is overhead by their doorman who promptly reports it to his counterpart at the Grand.

Because of this, they have to make the Bijou a real, going concern. From there it is a struggle between setbacks, such as the projectionist falling back into drunkenness, a train that rumbles by on nearby tracks every time they show a film, and a projector that displays every problem you remember, if you are my age, when they would try showing a feature length movie at an elementary school assembly. Their major success comes from adopting an idea from the Grand, pretty girls selling refreshments during intermission. Both the pretty wife, rather too popular with the raucous crowd for her own taste, and the elderly Mrs. Fazackalee, rather too unpopular, take a turn, until the husband finds a 1950’s style blonde in the audience to take over the job. Despite setbacks, a measure of success is assured.

A note about the rival, main partner in the ownership of the Grand: he is best by greed certainly, and is not above the dastardly deed, but he is also not the comic book villain we have come to expect in more recent movies. The actor does a great job of portraying him with subtlety and sympathy.

The movie displays both a love for old movie theaters and for the sometime raucous communities of strangers that can develop around such institutions. Make an effort to find and see it.

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