Thursday, February 03, 2011

Circus on Film: The Many Reasons to Love "Spangles," a 1926 Silent Classic ...

I was hesitant to have it Netflixed my way -- only a two star rating, but I must keep reminding myself, don't trust the mob, not always. Trust my own personal mob mentality. Movies can dash low expectations, too.

This little flick will charm any circus fan of a certain age who loves the lyrical sight of large tents billowing over grassy (or weedy) lots, oh so idyllic compared to the asphalt at your local mall. (You go, Kelly Miller! -- your Brewster NY lot, rough and tumble country turf under dark teasing clouds, was the real thing.) Spangles is made of big sunburst wagon wheels, even if only in black and white. Of the messy opening "spec" (crudely alluding to opera over sawdust) that could nonetheless fill up three rings with jubilant animation. Here is evidence of the old muscularity of circus (notice how I avoided the word "masculine"?). Here on parade are grizzled men bearing spears, busy chorus lines (Geishas from a Hollywood back lot?) moving submissively into and around the rings while, overhead, ladies swing on revolving ladders, and Spangles, star of the big top, rides her horse in a solo circle.

It's the kind of action you just know a young Dory Miller fell in love with during his boyhood, a production paradigm he would forever after try recreating over and over again in his scaled down five-ring Carson and Barnes versions. A few of them hit the mark with glorious gusto.

Spangles bears the distinctive markings (here I am guessing) of the Al G Barnes Circus, a California-based show that entertained the Golden state in the early springs. My mom once saw them in San Francisco; her ticket stub celebrates the occasion in an old scrap book.

We get fleeting glimpses of action down at the runs, of a hippo I take to be Lotus, a lovable pin head called Biff -- did I not see him years later touring with the Foley & Burke Carnival sideshow? Biff's playful elephant Sultana charms backyard visitors with his big trunk -- until he, in the end, gets even with the Big Boss for having once stupidly mistreated him. No, no, goes one of the movie's Big Themes: "An elephant never forgets."

So many wonderful little things earning a push on the pause button: neat shots under those old seats consisting of, if I have this right, jacks and stringers and -- planks? The genuine item yes, so much like what I as a kid helped erect when Clyde Beatty Circus came to town.

Best of all by far are some wide-angled shots inside the tent of the spec, "Pageant of Nations," in abundant motion. Probably derived from existing Barnes costumes, with Barnes "performers" (canvas men, some, no doubt) marching in. All of it happening in and around a rather intriguing tale about a man on the run, falsely accused of murder and taking refuge in the circus, in particular in the arms of Spangles, the lovely equestrienne horse rider. A dramatic endpoint brings a rope around his neck at the hands of a lynch mob, right there under the tent, and to his rescue comes Sultana, lumbering boldly through the sidewall and under a section of the seats, turning them into toothpicks. How much fun! Better than De Mille's train wreck in The Greatest Show on Earth.

And more, like the bawdy brawny remnants of old Rome (we must never forget our roots) in the chariot races hearkening back to Circus Maximus; even that I luckily sampled, very close to its final fade when the old Al G. Kelly & Miller Bros. Circus came to Petaluma, CA, circa 1960, reachable right there at a Greyhound bus stop by a blanket of free flowing grass that still flows freely.

Best of all, perhaps, the midway itself, oh those tall tall banner lines promising such oddball attractions, and the characters promised standing there proudly, brazenly on the platform while the barker barks and the crowds surrender.

Go rent the movie for yourself and take a look at what the younger generations today, defaulting to veiled porno-kink, may be earnestly trying to recapture.

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