An amiable knock-off of the Ealing comedy style, The Smallest Show on Earth
starts with aspiring novelist Bill Travers and his "nice gel" wife Virginia McKenna inheriting a cinema from a hitherto unknown uncle and discovering that it isn't the sumptuous modern Grand, which specialises in those "smash 'em in the face, knock 'em over the waterfront" pictures, but the decrepit Bijou, known locally as "the fleapit". The initial plan, set up by lawyer Leslie Phillips, is to sell off the cinema to the owner of the Grand so he can knock it down to make a car park, but our heroes are put off by the arrogant bullying of the rival manager (Francis De Wolff) and succumb to the inept charms of the crazed, aged staff--drunken projectionist Peter Sellers, doddery commissionaire Bernard Miles and dotty ticket lady Margaret Rutherford (who joined the team as a piano accompanist).
In the 1950s, there was a run of gentle British comedies in which outmoded and broken-down local institutions (steam trains, tugboats, vintage cars) were saved by collections of committed eccentrics who despised the new-fangled bus services or soulless council bureaucracies and were willing to resort to a little larceny (in this case, arson). The Smallest Show slots in perfectly with the cycle, getting laughs from the Bijou's already outmoded programme of scratchy Westerns and desert dramas (which increase ice cream sales) and sentiment over the staff's midnight screenings of silent movies that remind them of better days. It's likeable rather than hilarious, with Sellers and Miles buried under crepe hair and fake wrinkles competing to out-dodder each other and losing the picture to the inimitable Rutherford, who doesn't have to fake her eccentricity. Pin-up, June Cunningham, is the glamorous usherette and Sid James plays her annoyed Dad.
On the DVD: The Smallest Show on Earth is presented in a decent print, but with no extras. The film is also available as part of the four-disc Peter Sellers Collection. --Kim Newman
From the Back Cover
Four classic Peter Sellers films available for the first time on DVD. Includes "Carlton-Browne of the F.O.", "Hoffman", "The Smallest Show on Earth" and "Two Way Stretch".
Hoffman: Peter Sellers is Hoffman, a middle-aged misfit who blackmails his young and attractive secretary into spending a week with him. Although he behaves like a creep throughout the weekend he actually emerges as a sympathetic character in the end.
Two Way Stretch: While in prison, Peter Sellers has planned the perfect robbery. He intends to break out, steal a fortune in diamonds, and then break back into prison without anyone noticing he has been absent. With only a few days left of his sentence, and a perfect alibi -- what could possibly go wrong?
Carlton-Browne of the F.O. Peter Sellers is Amphibulos, the corrupt Prime Minister of a small Pacific Island who hopes to profit from renewed interest in the island from the British in the wake of the death of the island's king and the rumour of valuable mineral deposits being found on the island. Carlton Browne (Terry Thomas) is the hapless man sent from the Foreign Office to re-establish friendly relations with the idealistic heir to the throne (Ian Bannen).
The Smallest Show on Earth: Jean and Bill are a married couple trying to scrape a living. Out of the blue they receive a telegram informing them that Bill's long-lost uncle has died and left them his business -- a cinema in the town of Sloughborough. They expect to sell the cinema to gain a huge inheritance, however, when they get there they discover the cinema is falling apart and is run by three equally run-down attendants (Peter Sellers, Margaret Rutherford and Bernard Miles) who seem to have worked there forever.
On the DVD: Four randomly bunched films, two actually starring Sellers and two with him in fairly minor support. Aside from decent prints and letterboxing for Hoffman, the discs offer no extras, not even a Sellers filmography. Aside from Two Way Stretch, none of the films are first-rate Sellers, but they're all a long way from The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu and the little-seen Hoffman shows the mercurial comedian in one of his occasional committed acting roles. --Kim Newman