Directed by Basil Dearden
Screenplay by William Rose and John Eldridge
Starring Bill Travers, Virginia McKenna, Peter Sellers, Margaret Rutherford, Bernard Miles, Francis De Wolff
One of the Internet's great resources is archive.org. If you're not familiar, they create shapshots of all web pages, so you can see what they looked like in the past. But, for films, it's even better: a bunch of public domain movies freely available for download. They include some pretty good films, too, since before TV, there was no reason to renew copyright, and studios sometimes forgot.
The Smallest Show on Earth is a charming little British comedy. Matt Spencer (Bill Travers) and his wife Jean (Virginia McKenna) discover they have inherited a movie theater from an uncle that Matt can barely remember. When they go to claim their inheritance, they discover it's not an elaborate movie palace, but the Bijou, a "flea pit" neighborhood theater that is on its last legs.
To increase the value to get top dollar for it, they try to set it up as a going concern, keeping the trio of ancient staff (Margaret Rutherford, Peter Sellers, and Bernard Miles) on the job.
The story is well plotted. Matt and Jean's reasons for keeping the theater going -- something they are reluctant to do at first -- grow logically from the situation, and the way they turn drawbacks into benefits is smart and funny.
Peter Sellers is the best-known member of the cast. Here he plays Mr. Quill, the old projectionist and the only one who know how to keep the antiquated Rube Goldberg projector running. No mugging, but a performance that is both funny and charming. The movie is sometimes marketed as though Sellers is the star, but I doubt anyone would be disappointed.
Virginia McKenna is also very charming as Jean, and Margaret Rutherford -- a great British character actor and later Oscar winner -- is also good as Mrs. Fazackalee, the ticket seller and former lover of Matt's uncle.
The film is also a nice look into how old-fashioned neighborhood movie houses were run. It will leave you smiling.
*Alternate title: Big Time Operators