Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to... the circus!  
10 May 2011 - 2:47 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

Federico Fellini's words may not please the mums and dads for whom that first trip to the circus is a cherished family experience, but the filmmaking legend perfectly articulated the love affair that motion pictures have had with the sawdust-strewn world of the big top.

“Cinema,” said the iconic Italian director, “is an old whore, like the circus, who knows how to give many kinds of pleasure.”

Fellini lived the dream of many young lads, who viewed the circus as a romantic escape. Aged 12, he ran away from his boyhood home and joined a local troupe. These experiences helped shape one of his greatest films, the Oscar-winning La Strada (1954), a tangled, tragic love story set amidst the strongmen and trapeze artists of a struggling travelling circus. In equal measures beautiful and bleak, romantic yet amoral, La Strada captures a world reliant on the innocence of the child yet one that exists largely to exploit it.

Circuses date back to Roman times, when animals would perform tricks between gladiatorial bouts, but they soon became major social gatherings. The very first established circus, the Circus Maximus, was the only event both Roman men and women could attend together. At the turn of the 20th century, it was inevitable that the very newest form of mass entertainment, the motion picture, should look to one of the very oldest to bring in crowds. Victor Sjöström's He Who Gets Slapped (1924), starring Lon Chaney, created one of the most memorable sad-clown figures in film history; pioneer DW Griffith crafted the feminist melodrama Sally of the Sawdust (1925); Frankie Darro, one of the period's forgotten child stars, got into mischief in The Circus Kid (1928); German auteur FW Murnau, famed for his vampire masterpiece Nosferatu (1922), explored high-wire passion in 4 Devils (1928); and cinema's greatest funnyman, Charlie Chaplin, took his beloved 'Little Tramp' character on the road and became the breakout star of The Circus (1928).

Director Todd Browning, who had dipped his creative toes into the bizarre, surreal world of gig top with his armless knife-thrower romance The Unknown (1927), fully embraced the macabre circus-sideshow world with Freaks (1932). His horror-romance, featuring physically disabled performers, all of whom had been recruited from a popular freak show circuit of the day, was deemed unreleasable by MGM; apparently, ogling sideshow exhibits at the fairground was acceptable but telling a human story of love and betrayal set in their world was not.

Admittedly, it's an uncomfortable watch, but Freaks is now considered a classic and it set the tone for the 'scary circus' genre which has flourished to this day. Try to sleep after watching Anton Diffring as the scalpel wielding ringmaster in Sidney Hayers' Circus of Horrors (1960) or Dennis Hopper fall for a sly sideshow mermaid in Curtis Harrington's Night Tide (1961); join Claire Brennan as she discovers the mind-bending allure of psychedelic-era circus oddities in She Freak (1967); enjoy duelling masters-of-the-creepy Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski in John Moxey's Circus of Fear (1967); or slide into the mire of Joan Crawford's late-career choices with her second last film, Jim O'Connolly's British shocker Berserk (aka Circus of Blood, 1968). Most potent of all is Alejandro Jodorowsky's stunning circus-set oedipal nightmare Santa Sangre (1989), in which a mentally disturbed son provides the vengeful arms for his mother, dismembered in a circus mishap years before. Recently, nightmarish visions such as Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse (1981), Jack Clayton's Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) and Paul Weitz's Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant (2009) have played on the coulrophobic fears of a whole new generation, ensuring a trip to the circus is every bit as scary as it is exhilarating.

The modern circus was borne of Europe's gypsy population, who would pitch tents and entertain small town folk they met on their nomadic travels. That continent's film culture has honoured the heritage of its circus performers with such works as Martin Fric's beloved Czech drama People from the Wagons (1966); Tamás Fejér's Hungarian clown-and-dog heartwarmer, Bogáncs (1959); the 2009 Italian/Austrian co-production, La pivellina, from directors Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel; Gerhard Klein's Alarm im Zirkus (1954), which follows two brothers as they foil the theft of a horse from East Germany's premiere circus; Russian Yuri Kushneryov's melancholy story of a clown, an abandoned boy and the shared loneliness of their lives, Moy lyubimyy kloun (1986); and Alex de la Iglesia's A Sad Trumpet Ballad, aka The Last Circus (2010), is a love triangle danse macabre between two grotesque clowns and a beautiful but manipulative acrobat for whom they will go to any lengths to bed. The film will open this year's Spanish Film Festival.

The artistry of the circus is so captivating, even angels find it irresistible. Wim Wender's celebrated Wings of Desire (1988), tells the story of a wayward cherub (Bruno Ganz) who becomes so enamoured with the beautiful trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin), he is willing to forego immortality for her. When the Washington Post described the film as “a soaring vision that appeals to the senses and the spirit,” critic Desson Thomson could have been describing the essence of the perfect circus visit.

The circus is also about showmanship; the roar of the lion defying the tamer, the shriek as the clown's bucket of confetti is tossed towards the unsuspecting audience. Such virtues play right into the hands of Hollywood and, in turn, the studios have served the spirit of the great circuses well on the big screen. At the height of the circus industry's popularity in 1911, 32 companies were travelling the railways of North America. The biggest troupe, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, toured with one hundred cars in 1923, carrying big top tents that could hold more than 10,000 spectators. Hollywood wanted a piece of that popularity and soon, almost every major American star was lining up for a role, any role, in a circus flick. The Marx Brothers (At The Circus, 1939); Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin (3 Ring Circus, 1954); Anne Baxter (Carnival Story, 1954); Elvis Presley (Roustabout, 1964); Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida (Trapeze, 1956); John Wayne and Claudia Cardinale (Circus World, 1964); and Walt Disney's gallery of stars, most notably Dumbo (1941). How popular were the antics and melodramas inherent to life under the big top? In 1952, the year that saw the release of films such as High Noon, The Quiet Man, Rashomon, Ivanhoe and Singin' in the Rain, it was Cecil B. DeMille's cornball all-star circus soap opera The Greatest Show on Earth that took home the Best Picture Oscar. There's magic about life in the circus and that win proved it beyond any doubt.

The opportunity to explore intimate themes against a grand, theatrical backdrop continues to be irresistible to the modern filmmaker, despite the diminishing popularity of the circus. It was almost inevitable that the master of the darkly lovable, Tim Burton, would make a circus film – a destiny he fulfilled with Big Fish (2003); fantasist Neil Gaiman painted a bleak circus world for UK director Dave McKean's Mirrormask (2005); Norwegian Christopher Nielsen's animated stoner comedy Free Jimmy (2006) followed a team of losers as they try to free a junkie elephant from his circus life; and Jacques Rivette nostalgically recreated family life in the circus for his biopic of author Raymond Boussell, 36 vues du Pic Saint Loup (2009). This year alone, four new circus-themed films are slated for release: Francis Lawrence's Water For Elephants, Alex de la Iglesia's A Sad Trumpet Ballad, Devon Reed's The Bigtop and Jaakko Kilpiäinen's Finnish documentary, Riemuruhtinaat.

Federico Fellini knew what DeMille's ringmaster meant when he bellowed the line, “You can shake the sawdust off your feet, but you can't shake it outta your heart.” The Italian maestro returned to the roar of the circus once more, with his lauded 1971 documentary, The Clowns. That he should still be exploring a carny's life some five decades after he first embraced it as a boy is a testament to the entrancing longevity of one of society's most unique blends of art and entertainment.