The allure of the big top setting has long since faded, but for four decades starting in the 1930s, it was an ideal place to find high-wire dramatics, ferocious beasts, incognito killers, and perhaps a troupe of vampires. Laughs, too, as evidenced by the number of comedies set against a circus backdrop. W.C. Fields played a ringmaster in You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939), the Marx Brothers saved one from bankruptcy in At the Circus (1939), and even Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis got into the act with Three Ring Circus (1954).
James Stewart in clown make-up.
Movie murderers have also exhibited a special fondness for circuses, as evidenced in Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936), Circus of Horrors (1960), Psycho Circus (1967), Berserk (1968), and the vengeance-minded vampires in Vampire Circus (1971). On a more dramatic level, James Stewart played a murder suspect hiding out as a mild-mannered clown in Cecil DeMille's 1952 extravaganza The Greatest Show on Earth. This multi-character melodrama garnered a Best Picture Oscar and tallied record box office figures for Paramount. The film's successful behind-the-scenes formula was more or less copied in Trapeze (1956), The Big Circus (1959), The Big Show (1961), and Circus World (1964).
The life of the world's greatest circus showman was chronicled in 1934's The Mighty Barnum and 1986's Barnum, with Wallace Beery and Burt Lancaster in the title roles, respectively.
Serious European directors have used the circus for symbolic purposes, as in Ingmar Bergman's Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), Federico Fellini's La Strada (1954), and Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (1987).
Doris Day and friend in Billy Rose's Jumbo.
Four Disney pictures have taken place at least partially under the big top:Dumbo (1941), Toby Tyler (1960), A Tiger Walks (1964), and The Three Lives of Thomasina (1964). Lady in the Dark (1944) had a musical dream sequence set in a circus, while Rodgers and Hart's Billy Rose's Jumbo (1962) revolved around a circus owned by Doris Day. The circus in 1961's Gorgo featured a dinosaur as its main attraction. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a baby with a mad mother in hot pursuit.
The following representative list of classic movies about circuses excludes those films set in fairs and carnivals:
He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
The Circus (1928)
Dangerous Curves (1929)
Freaks (aka Nature's Mistakes) (1932)
Rain or Shine (1930)
Polly of the Circus (1932)
The Big Cage (1933)
The Mighty Barnum (1934)
Circus Clown (1934)
Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936)
At the Circus (1939)
You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939)
Chad Hanna (1940)
Road Show (1941)
The Wagons Roll at Night (1941)
The Dark Tower (1943)
Lady in the Dark (1944)(dream sequence)
Dual Alibi (1947)
Caged Fury (1948)
The Fat Man (1951)
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
Sawdust and Tinsel (aka The Naked Night) (1953)
Man on a Tightrope (1953)
Three Ring Circus (aka Jerrico, the Wonder Clown) (1954)
La Strada (aka The Road) (1954)
Carnival Story (1954)
Ring of Fear (1954)
Invitation to the Dance (1957) (segment)Merry Andrew (1958)
The Big Circus (1959)
The Flying Fontaines (1959)
Circus of Horrors (1960)
Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks With a Circus (1960)
The Big Show (1961)
Bimbo the Great (1961)
Billy Rose's Jumbo (aka Jumbo) (1962)
The Main Attraction (1962)
Circus World (aka The Magnificent Showman) (1964)
A Tiger Walks (1964)
The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)
The Three Lives of Thomasina (1964)
Rings Around the World (1967)
Psycho Circus (aka Circus of Fear) (1967)
Vampire Circus (1971)
The Clowns (1971)
Punch and Jody (1974 TVM)
The Last Circus Show (aka The Balloon Vendor) (1974)
The Great Wallendas (1978 TVM)
When the Circus Comes to Town (1981 TVM)
Side Show (1981 TVM)
Barnum (1986 TVM)
Wings of Desire (aka Der Himmelber Berlin) (1987)
Big Top Pee Wee (1988)
Shadows and Fog (1992)
When Night Is Falling (1995)
Rudyard Kipling's The Second Jungle Book:Mowgli and Baloo (aka Jungle Book Two) (1997)P.T. Barnum (1999 TVM)
Reprinted with the authors' permission from the .