The Smallest Show on Earth (1957)

Matt and Jean Spenser (played by real-life couple Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna) are a young couple with big dreams. Matt is set to receive an inheritance from his uncle, and when he does, it’s off to Samarkand for adventure and exploration.

But the inheritance isn’t quite what Matt expects. Instead of a wad of cash, it’s a property — a movie theater. Not all is lost, as Matt and Jean arrive in town to find the Grand theater, a modern cash cow of a multiplex. As the owners, they’ll be raking in more than enough money for their travels!

But again, there’s an unexpected twist to the inheritance. The theater they’ve inherited is not the Grand, but the run-down Bijou Kinema, a smaller, debt-ridden theater conveniently located between two very noisy railway bridges. Along with the theater itself, they’ve inherited its ancient staff: Mrs. Fazackalee (Margaret Rutherford), Mr. Quill (Peter Sellers), and Old Tom (Bernard Miles).

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(Image via Eye For Film)

The owner of the Grand wants to buy the Bijou to put in a new parking area for the Grand, and that’s an attractive prospect… until he only offers the Spensers $500. They decide to pretend they’re reopening the Bijou, to drive his price up.

The Smallest Show on Earth was directed by Basil Dearden. The film is also known as Big Time Operators.

This film’s “Bijou Kinema,” aka the “Flea Pit,” may need a hefty dose of TLC, but it’s a dream! I think a lot of film buffs would love to own an old movie palace, myself included. The Bijou is the type of elaborately decorated fixer-upper I’d love to take on for a restoration project, if I had unlimited funds.

Wonderfully strange theater inheritance aside, The Smallest Show on Earth is a cute, sweet, easy-viewing British comedy. The central couple is very good-natured and likeable.

The grumpy-but-dedicated staff of the Bijou is a lot of fun to watch, too. They’re an eccentric bunch. Naturally, they’re worried about the future of the theater, and don’t immediately take kindly to the couple renovating it.  They have their nicer moments, though. In one sentimental scene, they watch a silent film together, with Mrs. Fazackalee providing some live piano accompaniment. Their love for the theater and history with each other is sweet to watch.

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(Image via Rialto Pictures)

All of these characters — the Spensers and the staff — are so endearing. I enjoyed every minute of watching them. The film highlights the struggles of trying to keep a business afloat (especially when you know nothing about the business), but at the heart of it all are these lovable and determined characters.

The Smallest Show on Earth is a lovely watch. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves classic movies, and more specifically, classic movie palaces.

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13 thoughts on “The Smallest Show on Earth (1957)

  1. Thanks for recommending this! I’ve heard of it but didn’t really know anything about it, so I was always under the impression that it was about a struggling or small-scale circus.

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    1. I actually assumed the same when I saw the title, haha! Then I read the description, and immediately watched it when I realized it was referring to a picture “show.” I hope you get the chance to watch it! 🙂

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      1. I see that it’s actually available on FilmStruck until November 22 as part of a “Peter Sellers Before Clouseau” collection, so I’ll definitely have to check it out at some point in the next few months.

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  2. Yay! I’m so glad you found this film. I adore everything about it – the sets, the characters, the twist at the end. I need to watch it again soon. I’m so glad you featured this on your site because it deserves more love and attention than it gets these days.

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