Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Smallest Show on Earth*

The Smallest Show on Earth(1957)
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
IMDB Entry

One of the Internet's great resources is  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 and Bill TraversPeter 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

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

War With the Newts (book)

By Karel Capek

War with the Newts

Karel Capek's career boils down to one word:  Robot.  He popularized the term (evidently, he credited his brother for actually coining it) in his play R.U.R. in 1920.  It caught on.  (Oddly, the robots in R.U.R. were not mechanical; they were organic, more like the traditional science fiction android than robot.)

I read R.U.R. back in college in a science fiction course, so you don't have to. It has dated extremely badly and boils down to exploited workers revolting -- with an ending that is now one of SF's greatest clichés (and was probably a bit clichéd back in 1920).  So when, later on in the course, we were required to read Capek's War with the Newts, I was less than enthusiastic.

Then I read it.

War with the Newts is the work for which Capek should be remembered.  It's a deft satire, leaving the preachiness of R.U.R. behind but still making some fascinating points.

The book tells about the discovery of an intelligent type of salamander in the South Seas. At first, the salamanders are trained for menial labor, but as time goes by, they prove to be too intelligent for that. 

The story is divided into three sections. The first describes how the salamanders are discovered, and how they are soon put to use on underwater projects.

It's the second section that really stands out.  Entitled "On the Road to Civilization" it is a total parody of all human history, filled with strange footnotes and digressions.  I read it with a sense of incredible wonder at Capek's ingenuity.

In the final section, the Newts -- whose reproductive capacity far outstrips humans -- start modifying the world to meet their needs.  Capek is drawing a parallel between the Newts and the Nazis (who were rising to power in Europe at the time), but also makes some points about all dictators in general.

It's a book that's fun, but with an important point (still valid today). It's still in print, so go out an get a copy.  You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


Directed by
Richard Attenborogh
Screenplay by William Goldman
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margaret, Burgess Meredeth
IMDB Entry

Like many movies I write about, Magic is badly named.  It's not about magic; it's about ventriloquism.  But that's a minor quibble about a neat little bit of psychological horror.

MagicThe plot is an old one, dating in films back at least to the 1920s:  the ventriloquist whose dummy takes on a life of its own.  Corky Withers (Anthony Hopkins), a failed magician, becomes a success on stage once he switches to ventriloquism.  His dummy, Fats, is nasty and cruel, but a big success.

But the success scares Corky.  You see, Fats seems to have a life of his own.  Is the dummy coming to life, or is it just Corky cracking up?  He goes off to try to figure it out, disappointing his agent (Burgess Meredith), but while there, ends up rekindling his relationship with his old high school sweetheart, Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margaret).  But it all leads to murder and retribution.

The talent involved makes this work.  This was one of Anthony Hopkins's first leading roles and he was quite a revelation at the time (of course, we all now know what he's capable of).  His Corky (and his doing the voice of Fats) is complex and surprising.

One of the nice things is that it's never completely clear whether Fats is really alive, or just a projection of Corky's split personality. The film cleverly avoids any clear-cut answer (though it does lean toward a non-supernatural explanation); when Corky is convinced that Fats is alive, you wonder whether he just might be right.

The script (and original novel) were by William Goldman, better known as the writer of Marathon Man and The Princess Bride and an Oscar winner for his screenplays of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President's Men. This one is often overlooked, but works very well.