On Sunday 26th August 2012, Lincolnshire institution The Kinema in the Woods in Woodhall Spa celebrates its 90th birthday with a double feature of classic films. In the first part of a special two-part review, I take a look at those films in detail
Director: Basil Dearden
Screenplay: Willaim Rose, John Eldridge
Starring: Bill Travers, Virginia McKenna, Peter Sellers, Margaret Rutherford, Leslie Phillips, Bernard Miles
Producers: Sidney Gilliat, Frank Launder, Michael Relph
Running Time: 80 min
BBFC Certificate: U
In choosing the first film of their celebratory double feature, the staff of The Kinema in the Woods have shown both a commendably self-deprecating sense of humour and an impeccable taste in classic British comedy. Given the amount of films released since the Kinema opened its doors in 1922, choosing just two must have been a monumentally difficult task but they could scarcely have chosen a more perfect opener for the evening. Not only is The Smallest Show on Earth thematically apt, it is also crowd-pleasingly entertaining, suitably short and sufficienlty modest that it will provide a fitting build-up to the spectacular Singin' in the Rain, the second feature on the bill.
Although it has now been consigned to relative obscurity, The Smallest Show on Earth has extremely impressive credentials. Produced by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (the team responsible for bringing such other forgotten British classics as Green for Danger and Only Two Can Play to the screen, as well as writing the screenplay for Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes) and co-written by William Rose (whose script for Ealing's The Ladykillers is surely recommendation enough), The Smallest Show on Earth also stars a veritable gallery of British talent in lovely little character sketches.
But first, the plot: struggling young couple Matt and Jean Spenser (real-life married couple Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna) can scarcely believe their luck when a great-uncle Matt didn't even know existed leaves his whole estate to them. This estate, they discover, consists of a broken down old cinema called The Bijou, which is populated by a staff of elderly kooks. However, the cinema also happens to be in a prime position that the successful neighbouring cinema The Grand want for their new car park. In an attempt to convince Grand owner Albert Hardcastle (Francis de Wolff) to raise his insultingly low offer of £750, the Spensers announce their intentions to reopen The Bijou. This bluff becomes a reality when Hardcastle refuses to budge on his offer and the Spensers must learn about the running of a cinema as they go along.
Although its set-up is a standard David and Goliath situation, the unusual screenplay does not give the heroes an easy ride. Instead, we watch them struggle to maintain their elaborate bluff in the face of unruly crowds, technically baffling equiptment and a bickering staff. In its brief 80 minute runtime, The Smallest Show on Earth milks all the potential out of its charming situation and then ends before it overstays its welcome, thus adding further layers to its multi-purpose title. Viewers expecting to be able to second-guess every twist may also be suprised at the rather dark turn and ambiguous climax the film heads towards.
While its wonderful script is a major asset, The Smallest Show on Earth is immeasurably improved by its stellar cast. The film's one weakness in this respect is Bill Travers, whose central turn as Matt Spenser is barely adequate. Fortunately, this straight role demands little other than to drive the plot forward and Travers has excellent support, not least from his wife, Virginia McKenna. Although this is a film best remembered for its supporting roles, McKenna's leading turn as Jean Spenser is a standout on subsequent viewings. Although there is as much at stake dramatically for her character as there is for Travers', McKenna plays Jean with a mischievous twinkle, always ready with a joke or flippant comment to diffuse the situation. Also excellent is a convincingly low-key straight performance by a young Leslie Phillips as the couple's sympathetic solicitor Robin.
The cast is rounded out beautifully by a trio of small comic performances. As the geriatric staff of The Bijou, Margaret Rutherford, Peter Sellers and Bernard Miles are all memorably troublesome and endearingly fragile. Sellers (in a very early film role) plays a character approximately fifty years older than he was at the time with skillful authenticity (he would do the same even more convincingly two years later in Charles Crichton's The Battle of the Sexes) while Rutherford plays her own age with an understated, dishevelled comic dignity. It is Bernard Miles, however, who gives the most memorable supporting performance. As the sinister Old Tom, Miles is both appealing and unnerving, his character staying one step ahead of the plot in ways that his crumbling physical appearance would never allow us to expect.
On the evening that The Kinema in the Woods celebrates its 90th birthday, no doubt the assembled crowd will be looking forward to enjoying the much loved classic Singin' in the Rain, a film that's always guaranteed to send them on their way with smiles on their faces. But let's hope they're all in their seats early enough to catch the opening feature because the lesser-known The Smallest Show on Earth is likely to acquire a place in their hearts too and, on a night celebrating the joys of cinema and championing the success of a small, old-fashioned movie house, there couldn't be a more fitting moment to discover this modest forgotten gem.
The Kinema in the Woods 90s Birthday Celebrations Double Bill will take place on Sunday 26th August 2012 at 6.30pm. Tickets are £9.50 each and are on sale at http://www.thekinemainthewoods.co.uk/ or from the Kinema itself.