Friday, June 10, 2011

Everyone's Gone to the Movies

My latest play is set in an American circus in the 1920s. It's called My Tiger, My Lover, which is based on a series of paintings by Naoe Suzuki (more to come about this), based on the life of tiger tamer Mabel Stark. So I've been reading, watching animal acts on Youtube and watching movies about circuses. I keep running into the technology problem- there are all these movies on VHS, but not yet available streaming or on DVD. That said, I've seen a lot of movies in the past few months.
At the Circus (1939) was much better than I remember. I used to group it in the sad, the-brothers-are-old-and-tired, post-A Night at the Opera movies. And while it's not as good as that, it's pretty good. And Groucho sings the original lyrics to Lydia the Tattooed Lady, not "When she stands the world gets littler,/When she sits, she sits on Hitler."
First, I saw The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). It's quite plodding, though the train wreck is pretty exciting. Todd Browning's Freaks (1932) never fails to impress. I first saw it in college and I must've seen it four or five times since then. And this version had special features! It turns out that Olga Baclanova, who plays Cleopatra, had been at the Moscow Art Theatre. And after that piece of work, Todd Browning didn't work much anymore. What a waste!
I hadn't seen Chaplin's The Circus (1928), a lovely movie, as good as his best. I'm not sure why it's not more popular. Nor had I seen Poppy (1936), which started as a stage vehicle for W.C. Fields (not actual circus, but a carnival). Barnum! is a film of the London production of the musical starring a very young and athletic Michael Crawford. It was directed by Joe Layton (George M!, etc.). It is remarkably dated- I was kind of stunned at how much. Or we've all absorbed and moved beyond Trevor Nunn's directing aesthetic.
The real research find for me (and I never would have known it if I hadn't watched the Special Features) was Charlie Chan at the Circus. Dreadful movie- boring and racist all at the same time. But it was shot at the winter quarters of the Al G. Barnes Circus (which by then had been bought by Ringling) in 1936, the last year that Mabel Stark was with that circus. Several of the sideshow attractions (like the giant) are on screen.
The other find was Mae West's She Done Him Wrong, which I think was Cary Grant's first leading role. West plays a lion tamer, and in the cage with the lions is her stunt double, Mabel Stark. They look somewhat similar, though Stark was slimmer and not a real blonde.

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