Great Circus Movies

As I am sure you have realized, COVID has robbed us of so much live entertainment. From concerts to sports events to concerts and even one of the oldest forms of entertainment, the circus. While we may not be able to see real life trapeze artists and clowns we have plenty of movies set in this world.

Dumbo: One of the timeless animated classics which has emerged from the House of Mickey Mouse. The misfit child of Ms. Jumbo, Dumbo is treated like a pariah by the others at his circus home due to his large ears. But under the encouragement of ringmaster mouse Timothy, the young elephant tries to find his place in the world. Receiving a magic feather, Dumbo soon learns he can take to the air. Like so many of Disney’s animated classics Dumbo recently received a soulless live action remake which it is honestly best to avoid.

He Who Gets Slapped: A 2017 inductee onto the National Film Registry features legendary Silent Age star and make-up artist Lon Chaney in one of his finest performances. While Beaumont was once a brilliant scientist, that is all behind him now. His work was stolen by his wife and his patron, Baron Regnard who embarrassed him in front of his colleagues with the delivery of a slap. Now Beaumont performs as the clown “HE who gets slapped” for a Paris circus. When the Baron reenters into his life to make life miserable for HE’s fellow performer Consuelo, the clown must confront the man who ruined his life.

Freaks: This controversial Pre-Code horror left audiences absolutely horrified upon its 1932 release and has lost little of its punch since then. Before going to the movie business, pioneering horror director Tod Browning had made a living with the circus and drew upon this life to make this classic. The dwarfish freak show leader Hans believes he has found the love of his life in the new trapeze artist Cleopatra. What he does not know is that Cleopatra and his strong man are conspiring against him. When the plot is discovered, Hans and his family of freaks vow to make the conniving trapeze artist one of them.

The Greatest Show on Earth: The legendary filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille built a career on big lavish epics with star-studded casts. This makes the circus the perfect setting for one of his greatest films. No-nonsense Brad Braden vows to his financiers that if they let his circus have a full tour he will beat the odds and turn a profit. This seems easier said than done as he has to deal with: his girlfriend losing her spot to a new trapeze artist, the troubled past of his clown Buttons and so much more. The fact that DeMille brought in hundreds of real performers from Ringling Brothers gives this movie a great authenticity.

The Circus: One of the great geniuses of film, Charlie Chaplin made his own memorably trip to the circus in 1928. While on the run from the police, his iconic Tramp character, mistakenly ends up at the circus and is shortly made the star attraction by the greedy ringmaster. While here he falls in love with the ringmaster’s stepdaughter, unfortunately she has fallen for the show’s new tight rope walker. A love triangle forms under the big top as the cruelty of the ringmaster only grows. Despite dealing with multiple issues in his personal life at the time of production, Chaplin still managed to make The Circus one of his biggest critical and financial successes.

Nightmare Alley: One of the best and most underrated movies of the film noir movement. In an incredible performance Tyrone Powers plays the conniving Stan Carlisle who works in a low rent circus alongside has-been mentalist Zeena. When he sees his chance to hit it big, he takes her famed trick for himself and becomes a star. Leaving the circus behind, Stan (now dubbed “the Great Stanton”) fleeces members of high society, aiming for bigger targets until it inevitably crashes down around him. The con artist is forced to return to the world of the circus, only this time at the bottom of the barrel. Check out my Noirvember review of this bleak masterpiece HERE.

Man on a Tightrope: Based on a true story from an East German circus, controversial director Elia Kazan brought this stellar film to life. Karel Cernik has struggled to keep the circus his family founded from falling into the hands of the new Communist regime, but it has come at a price. He knows the only option left is to find a way to use his circus to cross the border to freedom. As Cernik deals with the secret police, his family life becomes tumultuous and complicating his plans.

Berserk!: A British thriller which served as one of the strangest starring vehicles for Joan Crawford. When death hits the circus, suspicions fall on ringmistress Monica Rivers as the culprit. While trying to run a circus and deal with her troublesome daughter, Monica now has to convince her performers that she is not a killer. This is a very strange movie, luckily Crawford’s stellar performance serves as a great grounding element to balance things out.

La Strada: Amid a filmography full of masterpieces, the great Federico Fellini considered this one of his most personal films. After the death of her sister, Gelsomina is sold by her mother to the strong man Zampano. Together they end up in a ragtag circus where the brutish strong man finds a foil in the clown Il Matto. What follows is a cycle of sadness with Gelsomina caught in the middle and things are bound to end in tragedy. Over six decades after its release, La Strada still stands as one of the finest films ever made.