And that’s why filmmakers look to the Big Top for inspiration. It’s a naturally cinematic place with themes as flexible as sideshow contortionists who can touch their toes with the top of their heads. For instance, Charlie Chaplin mixed comedy and romance in his classic film The Circus, while Trapeze with Burt Lancaster is a three-ring tragedy and Ten Weeks with a Circus is strictly for kids.
This weekend, Water for Elephants, an historical drama starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, takes us backstage at the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.
The most famous circus movie is probably The Greatest Show on Earth, Cecil B. DeMille’s story of love, crime and clowns under the big top. Today the film—which was named one of the 100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made by the Golden Raspberry folks—is most notable for making Charlton Heston a star and as the first movie Steven Spielberg ever saw.
If DeMille’s movie is the most famous circus movie, then Freaks is certainly the most notorious. Set in the world of a funfair sideshow, it features a cast primarily made up of actual carnival performers—like Elizabeth Green the Stork Woman and Prince Randian a.k.a. the Human Torso—to tell the story of a beautiful trapeze artist who agrees to marry a deformed sideshow performer for his money. As a young man, director Tod Browning (who also helmed Dracula) had been a member of a travelling circus and that experience brought such a horrifying realism to the story that one woman threatened to sue MGM, claiming the film had caused her to suffer a miscarriage.
And speaking of sideshow attractions, these days Benicio Del Toro is known as a serious actor, an Academy Award winner who is sometimes jokingly been referred to as the “Spanish Brad Pitt.” That’s a long way from his first role, human oddity Duke the Dog-Faced Boy in Big Top Pee-wee. Despite earning reviews like, “If there’s a lower form of comedy than circus humor I’ve yet to encounter it,” star Paul Reubens once said that “Big Top Pee-wee is “at least as good as Police Academy.”