Circus life is a natural for motion pictures. Old movies give us rare glimpses of long-gone, circus performers and their lifestyle. We can see first-hand the wagons, tents, animals and typical backyard activity—though usually in black and white. Many such circus movies are available on VHS or DVD and besides the movie itself, there are many other related items for the circus collector—photos, posters, press kits, advertisements, programs, books and more.
Below is an alphabetical list of a few just some of the hundreds of circus-themed movies produced by Hollywood and beyond. I’ve listed the title, release year, stars and sometimes additional information about each movie. You will note the absence of the Cecil B. DeMille, Oscar-winner “The Greatest Show On Earth,” which is the topic of a separate article titled Collecting ‘The Greatest Motion Picture On Earth.’
“3 Ring Circus” (1954), starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. This movie was filmed on the Clyde Beatty Circus when it traveled by rail. Clown Bobby Kaye has a role.
“4 Devils” (1928), starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Morton (also titled “Four Devils”). “The New York Times named this one of the 10 best films of 1928. The film was silent, but a part-talkie version was also released. Unfortunately, no known copies of the film exist today. The original story was based on a short story, “Les Quatre Diables,” by Danish author Herman Bang. After the picture was released, Gosset & Dunlap printed a book with illustrations from the screen play. My friend Charlotte Shive (Maxwell) worked on the film as a stunt double in the trapeze sequences. You can read about Charlotte in a series of three articles I have on this website: Fascinating Story Behind Antique Circus Wagon Wheel, The Circus Fraternity: My Friend Charlotte and the Ubangis, and Memories of a Life in the Circus – Odds and Ends from the Big Top.
This book was published in 1928 by Gosset & Dunlap following the release of “4 Devils.” On the right page it says “Novelized by Guy Fowler from the Fox Picture produced by F.W. Murnau.” On the left you see the four stars of the motion picture—Charles Morton, Janet Gaynor, Nancy Drexel and Barry Norton. Other scenes for the movie appear throughout the book. Prices for this book range from $25 to $80.
“Africa Screams” (1949), starring Bud Abbott, Lou Costello and Clyde Beatty. Scenes of world famous animal trainer Clyde Beatty highlight the movie. A cage made of bamboo is constructed in the “jungle” and Beatty trains the animals just captured. This movie was filmed in black and white. Both black and white and colorized versions are sold for less than $5. You can even watch the entire film on YouTube.
One of the first VHS versions of “Africa Screams” was released in the mid 1980s and featured this artwork on the box.
“At the Circus” (1939), starring the Marx Brothers.
“Big Cage, The” (1933), starring Clyde Beatty, Anita Page, Andy Devine, Wallace Ford and Mickey Rooney. This was Clyde Beatty’s first film and he starred as himself. It was based on the Edward Anthony book by the same name. The book featured many photos from the motion picture. Edward Anthony is listed in the writing credits in adapting the film from his book.
The Big Cage” book was copyrighted in 1933 and published by The Century Company. The book featured many photos from the motion picture. Prices on the internet range for as little as $15 for a worn copy to a high of $500 for a first edition with dust jacket.
“Big Circus, The” (1959), starring Victor Mature, Red Buttons, Rhonda Fleming, Vincent Price and Peter Lorre. Aerialist Fay Alexander has a minor un-credited role and also an un-credited role as technical advisor. Barbette, who worked with the Ringling Barnum show in the 1940s, was choreographer for the film. Real circus performers appearing the movie were Hugo Zacchini, Dick Walker’s Lion Act, The Flying Alexanders, and wire-walker Gene Mendez. The movie is available on DVD for $20-$30.
This Dell comic book was sold in conjunction with the release of Irwin Allen’s “The Big Circus.” You can find copies of this comic for $10 or less.
This lobby card was created for appearances of “The Big Circus” at theatres in Mexico. Value is $15 to $20.
“Big Show, The” (1961), starring Robert Vaughn, Esther Williams and David Nelson.
The cutline on the back of this 8 x 10 inch publicity photo says “Cliff Robertson (center) and members of the Krone circus family are aerialists in “The Big Show” on THE ABC SUNDAY NIGHT Movie. Robert Vaughn, Esther Williams and David Nelson co-star Sunday, December 24 at _______ in color on Channel _______ and the ABC Television Network.” Photos of this type are valued at $5 or less.
“Billy Rose’s Jumbo” (1962), starring Doris Day, Stephen Boyd and Jimmy Durante. Actual circus acts used in the film included Ron Henon, The Carlisles, The Pedrolas, the Wazzan Troupe, Poodles Hanneford, Billy Barton, Corki Cristiani, Victor Julian, Richard Berg, Joe Monahan, Miss Loni, Adolph Dubsky, Pat Anthony, Janos Prohaska, and The Barbettes. Al Dobritch was listed as coordinator of circus acts.
“Chad Hanna” (1940), starring Henry Fonda, Dorothy Lamour and Linda Darnell. The movie is based on the Walter Edmonds novel by the same title—also released in 1940. Betty Miles, who appeared with S.L. Cronin Circus and other shows as an equestrian, doubled for Dorothy Lamour and Linda Darnell. This movie shows up occasionally on TV, but as of this writing is not available on DVD.
“Charlie Chan at the Circus” (1936), starring Warner Oland in the title role. Interesting side show scenes appeared in this movie. John Aasen had an un-credited role as the circus giant. In the 1920s, Aasen appeared with Al G. Barnes Circus. This movie is sometimes available on DVD for $20 or $30.
“Circus Ace, The” (1927), starring Tom Mix.
“Circus Clown, The” (1934), starring Joe E. Brown, Patricia Ellis, Dorothy Burgess and Don Dillaway. Equestrian Poodles Hanneford played himself in an un-credited role. One of the most remarkable scenes featured famous aerialist Alfredo Codona, but he wasn’t flying; he was shown standing on the trapeze platform assisting the other flyers. Codona was seriously injured in a fall in 1933 and was unable to perform again as an aerialist.
“Circus Days” (1923), starring Jackie Coogan as Toby Tyler. This black-and-white, silent movie was the first film version of the James Otis novel, “Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks With a Circus.”
“Circus Girl” (1937), starring June Travis and Robert Livingston.
Circus Girl” is available on DVD for less than $10. According to the text on the back of the DVD box, the feats in the movie were performed by circus stars, The Escalante Family.
“Circus World” (1964), starring John Wayne, Claudia Cardinale and Rita Hayworth. Famous wire walking clown Pio Nock performed in the movie. Franz Althoff of Germany’s Althoff Circus was credited as technical advisor. Bob Dover, longtime performance director with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, was an un-credited special technical advisor and circus performances coordinator. Bob Dover’s real name was Billie Rosenthal.
Even though “Circus World” was filmed in Cinerama, you can find the movie on VHS or DVD for less than $10.
Circus World” was filmed in Cinerama. This image shows both sides of a flyer that advertised the film showings at the McVickers Cinerama Theatre in Chicago.
“Circus, The” (1928), starring Charlie Chaplin. This film is available on DVD for less than $20. Sometimes you find it in a package of several Chaplin films.
“Darkest Africa” (1936), starring Clyde Beatty. This was actually a 15-episode serial and not a feature film. All the episodes are available on DVD for less than $10. Used VHS copies run considerably higher. The serials also featured Manuel King, who was billed as the “World’s Youngest Animal Trainer.” A typical problem with many movies set in Africa was the appearance of tigers, which are not native to that continent.
“Fearless Fagan” (1952), starring Janet Leigh, Carleton Carpenter and Keenan Wynn. This movie was based on a story that appeared in the February 12, 1951 issue of “Life Magazine.” The story told about Floyd Humeston and his efforts to find a home for his trained lion, Fagan, after Humeston was drafted in the Army.
“First of May, The” (1999), starring Julie Harris, Charles Nelson Reilly, Robin O’Dell and Mickey Rooney. Much of the film was shot on Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus. The movie was inspired by the book “The Golden Days,” by Gail Radley. Circus performers appearing in the movie were Atos Zamperla, Ermes Zamperla, Mafalda Zoppe, Olissio Zoppe and Matt Zoppe Zamperla.
“Fixer Dugan” (1939), starring Lee Tracy and Virginia Weilder.
“Flying Fontaines, The” (1959), starring Michael Callan and Evy Norlund. Clown Bobby Kay appeared in the movie.
“Freaks” (1932), Directed by Tod Browning and starring Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, midget Harry Earles (also known as Harry Doll), half-boy Johnny Eck, the living-torso Prince Randian and many other side show attractions of the day. This is considered by many to be the greatest cult film of all time. It was also known by these titles: “Forbidden Love, Nature’s Mistakes” and “The Monster Show.”
“Great Wallendas, The” (1978), starring Lloyd Bridges as Karl Wallenda. Britt Ekland and Cathy Rigby also appear. This was a made-for-TV movie. Karl Wallenda was credited as the technical advisor.
This is the VHS tape box for “The Great Wallendas.” It can sometimes be found on the internet.
“Halfway to Heaven” (1929), starring Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Jean Arthur.
“Hearts and Spangles” (1926), starring Wanda Hawley and Robert Gordon.
“I’m No Angel” (1933), starring Mae West and Cary Grant. Mae West appeared as a lion trainer in this movie that can’t decide if the setting is a carnival or a circus. People often confuse the two. Typically, a carnival has rides, like the merry-go-round and Ferris wheel, and games of chance. The carnival often appeared in conjunction with a state fair or county fair. The carnival would usually stay in town for a week or longer. Circuses feature wild animals, a big top performance and would normally move to a new town every day. Both circuses and carnivals would usually have a side show.
“ Laugh, Clown, Laugh” (1928), starring Lon Chaney and Loretta Young. This is a silent movie.
“Lost Jungle, The” (1934), starring Clyde Beatty, George “Gabby” Hayes and Mickey Rooney. This was a 12-part serial that was made into a feature film. Animals from the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus appeared with Clyde Beatty.
This lobby card, advertising “The Lost Jungle,” is valued at $25-$35.
“Main Attraction, The” (1962), starring Pat Boone and Nancy Kwan.
“Man on a Tightrope” (1953), Directed by Elia Kazan and starring Frederic March, Terry Moore, Gloria Grahame and Cameron Mitchell. The Circus Brumbach from Germany was used during the filming.
“Mighty Barnum, The” (1934), starring Wallace Beery, Adolphe Menjou and Virginia Bruce. The film is filled with inaccuracies about the life of P.T. Barnum.
“O’Shaugnessey’s Boy” (1935), starring Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper and George “Spanky” McFarland.
“Peck’s Bad Boy with the Circus” (1938), starring Tommy Kelly as Peck, Edgar Kennedy and George “Spanky” McFarland. This was also a book by Hon. Geo. W. Peck, with a 1905 copyright.
Peck’s Bad Boy with the Circus” is available on DVD for less than $10.
“Perils of the Jungle” (1953), starring Clyde Beatty. DVDs of this movie are available for less than $10.
“Polly of the Circus” (1932), starring Clark Gable and Marion Davies. “Polly of the Circus” appeared as a book in 1908. In 1917, a silent version of the film was made by MGM starring Mae Marsh and Vernon Steele.
“Red Wagon” (1933), starring Charles Bickford, Anthony Bushell and Greta Nissen. This movie was based on the novel by Lady Eleanor Smith, published in 1930. The New York Times reviewed it in their June 22, 1936 issue. The reviewer was not impressed with the movie and said “Had director Paul Stein engaged Mr. Dexter Fellows as technical advisor we feel sure that ‘Red Wagon’ would have emerged as a far more engaging film.” Dexter Fellows, mentioned by the reviewer, was the long-time press agent for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
“Ring of Fear” (1954), starring Clyde Beatty and Mickey Spillane. Poodles Hanneford and Karl Wallenda appeared in the film but were un-credited. Clyde Beatty was technical advisor. The movie was filmed on the Clyde Beatty Circus when it was a railroad show.
Ring of Fear” is available on DVD for less than $15.
“Rings Around the World” (1966), with host Don Ameche. This was a documentary spinoff of Don Ameche’s TV series, “International Showtime,” which was very popular in the 1960s. The show was filmed in the Copenhagen’s Circus Schumann, Circus Krone in Germany, the Spanish National Circus in Munich, Circus Scott in Sweden, and the Circus Knie from Switzerland. Top circus acts included Gunther Gebel Williams (before he came to America), Tito Gaona, Fredy Knie, Vivien Larible, Gene Mendez and Pablo Noel.
A VHS version of “Rings Around the World” shows up on the Internet and usually sells for $45 to $50.
This is the inside center section of the theatre press kit for “Rings Around the World.” These kits had advertisements in various sizes and ordering instructions for posters and other promotional items. Value is about $20.
“Sally of the Sawdust” (1925), directed by D.W. Griffith and starring W.C. Fields and Carol Dempster as Sally. This was a silent film and was based on “Poppy,” a Broadway musical which also featured W.C. Fields. This film is available on VHS or DVD for $15-25. In 1936, Paramount pictures released a film titled “Poppy,” with W.C. Fields and Rochelle Hudson as Poppy.
“Sideshow, The” (1928), starring Marie Prevost and Ralph Graves. Ralph Madsen, who was billed as the Texas Giant, appeared in the film.
“Spangles” (1926), starring Marian Nixon and Pat O’Malley. The film was based on the novel by Nellie Revell, published the same year.
“Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus” (1960), starring Kevin Corcoran, Henry Calvin, Gene Sheldon and Bob Sweeney. This Walt Disney classic is now available on DVD for about $15.
“Trapeze” (1956), starring Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster and Gina Lollobrigida. Famous aerialist Fay Alexander was the stunt-double for Tony Curtis. He was also listed as “Flying Sequences Technical Advisor.”
“Under the Big Top” (1938), starring Marjorie Main, Anne Nagel and Jack La Rue.
“Unknown, The” (1927), directed by Tod Browning and starring Lon Chaney.
“Wagons Roll at Night, The” (1941), starring Humphrey Bogart, Eddie Albert and Joan Leslie.
“You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man” (1939), starring W.C. Fields, Edgar Bergen and his ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy. The movie was filmed on the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. Blacaman, who was billed as the “Hindu Animal Hypnotist,” appeared in the film.
Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.
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