Hollywood Under The Big Top

by Rob Mermin

When I was a young fellow I sallied forth to explore the reality behind the myth of “Circus.” I clowned with The Wildest Show On Earth in the mining towns of Wales; got kicked in the shins twice daily in the Comedy Mule Act above the arctic circle in Lapland; rode fast horses with the Hungarian Magyars; played to royalty in the circus palaces of Russia and Scandinavia; ran around in the three rings of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus; and finally established my own traveling circus—Circus Smirkus­—in the rural villages of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.

So when the Green Mountain Film Festival asked me to create a program on the theme of circus, I thought my experiences in the ring would surely give me some legitimacy in debunking the sordid myths and legends surrounding this unique international subculture. The reckless underbelly, the hardscrabble lifestyle, the populace of misfits and outcasts, the tough circus owners, the accidents in the ring, the catastrophes of the road, the outrageously gorgeous women and strikingly handsome men and their torrid romances—aren’t these just the misconceived fantasies of conventional society portrayed by the Hollywood propaganda machine?

Nope! I have to admit it is all quite true! After reviewing 25 circus feature films, I realize that Hollywood got it just about right! Circus folk might cringe at the hokey melodrama, but they will grin at the affirmation of their uniqueness as perceived by “towners.” Sure, the hard life and tough characters exist in abundance. But in these films there is also evidence of the innate circus qualities of loyalty, discipline, passion, camaraderie, artistry, competence, resilience, dedication, community, and strong family infrastructure.

I have chosen only films that have the itinerant show under canvas or classical circus building as their focus. Traditional circus is a world of mud and magic, myth and mystery, mirth and mayhem. It is a lifestyle of renewable adventure that attracts wanderlust and daydreamers and children. It is an exuberant entertainment based on personal achievement. I’m just puzzled why more people don’t sally forth to join in the fun.

Circus is a truly global community inhabited by an itinerant race with “sawdust in their veins” and their own history, traditions, and culture. For the public, circus is a moveable feast of creativity and hyperbole, evoking childhood wonderment and adolescent yearning and adult astonishment.

CIRCUS IN CINEMA is my personal offering as cultural ambassador from the Cinematic Realm of Dreams and the Circus World of Wonders.

Circus in Cinema was commissioned by Focus On Film for the 2010 Green Mountain Film Festival.

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