The Smallest Show on Earth from 1957 is a gentle, frequently very funny look at Britain's neighborhood cinema industry. It was also known as Big Time Operators.
Real-life husband and wife Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna star as Matt and Jean Spencer, a newly-married couple who inherit a run-down movie theater right next to a railroad stop.
They also inherit the theater's ancient employees: alcoholic projectionist Percy Quill (Peter Sellers), former silent-movie pianist Mrs. Fazackalee (Margaret Rutherford) and doorman/janitor old Tom (Bernard Miles).
The theater was just barely getting by, with customers just as likely to pay for tickets with chickens and pork chops instead of money.
There are wonderful performances by the cast and it’s very nostalgic, especially for those old enough to remember the days of small neighborhood theaters. It’s an ensemble piece, with the films shown in the theater and the audience reactions providing some of the best laughs.
Sellers’s Mr. Quill is a supporting role, but one that gives an indication of his amazing versatility, playing a old man while he was still in his thirties.
Sellers was born Richard Henry Sellers in 1925 in Southsea,Hampshire, England. His parents called him Peter in memory of his still-born older brother. Sellers' parents were vaudeville entertainers, and at two days old, they carried him on stage for his show biz debut.
He spent his childhood traveling the vaudeville circuit, dancing, drumming and playing the ukulele and banjo. At 15, a brief obsession with Dashiel Hammett inspired Sellers to form a detective agency with a friend.
But as he put it, “No one phoned us, not even to find their missing cat” and he quickly gave up the detective business.
He first rose to prominence after the Second World War through his participation in a radio program called The Goon Show. This BBC program, on the air from 1951 to 1960, was a collection of off-the-wall comedy sketches in which Sellers used his considerable talents to create a number of unique characters and to establish himself as a master impressionist.
The show's zany collection of skits and Sellers' outrageous characters have been recognized as the predecessors to Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Small roles in film also came his way, but his first really good part was in 1955's The Ladykillers, which was recently remade by the Coen brothers, starring Tom Hanks.
After appearing in several British pictures, Sellers then achieved some success in the U.S. with The Mouse That Roared in 1959. Some two-dozen films later brought him to Dr. Strangelove, which aroused director Blake Edwards' interest in him.
For his roles in Dr. Strangelove, Sellers is the only actor nominated for a single Oscar while playing 3 different parts in the same film. He was actually supposed to play 4 characters but he broke his leg during filming and Slim Pickens was chosen to play the 4th part.
His collaborations with Edwards included The Pink Panther, A Shot in the Dark (both 1964), The Party (1968). He turned down the role of George Webber in Edwards’ film 10, which went to Dudley Moore.
He also appeared in Woody Allen’s very first film, What’s New Pussycat? in 1965.
He made several poorly received movies in the 70s, mainly for the money.
Poor health had troubled him from the mid 1960s, when he suffered a series of heart attacks and for a long time he rejected modern medicine for alternative medicine, including astrology and faith healing.
He finally had a pacemaker installed and seemed ready to revive his career after being nominated in 1979 for an Oscar for Being There. Unfortunately, his health didn’t allow his comeback and he suffered a final fatal attack in 1980. He was only 54.
Though Sellers was a success professionally, he did not fare as well in his personal life.
The son of an over-protective, controlling mother, Sellers often behaved like a child, throwing tantrums and demanding his wives' undivided attention. And he often clashed with actors and directors, including a strained relationship with friend and director Blake Edwards.
Sellers' wives and children were forced to suffer the effects of living with an obsessive perfectionist whose attentions focused mainly on himself and his career. Most people in the industry considered him very difficult to work with.
Sellers was the first man featured on the cover of Playboy —he appeared on the April 1964 cover with a pictorial parody of great screen lovers inside.
The 2 leads, Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, co-starred in a number of films, most memorably as the conservationists George & Joy Adamson in Born Free (1966), for which McKenna was nominated for a Golden Globe.
The experience made Travers and McKenna very conscious of the abuses of wild animals in captivity and led to them to become involved in the "Zoo Check Campaign", which evolved into their establishing the "Born Free Foundation", which is still operating today.
They were also instrumental in helping return Christian the lion to the wild in Africa. You may have seen the video of the reunion of Christian the lion and the 2 men who raised him in London.
Margaret Rutherford, Mrs. Fazackalee, was born in 1892 and just before her birth, her father suffered a mental breakdown. He murdered his own father, Margaret’s grandfather and afterwards, tried to kill himself by cutting his throat. But he survived and was locked away in a lunatic asylum for the rest of his life.
Her mother died when she was three years old and she was raised by an aunt. She went into acting later in life - making her stage debut in 1925 at the age of 33.
Ms. Rutherford is probably more familiar to everyone as Agatha Christie’s sleuth, Miss Jane Marple, a character she played in 4 films. Her husband in real life, Stringer Davis, portrayed a Mr. Stringer in her four Miss Marple films and appeared with her in other films as well. He appears in this film as Emmett.
In 1964, she won a Best Supporting Oscar for her part in The V.I.P.s.
In the 1950s, Rutherford and Davis adopted the writer Gordon Langley Hall, then in his twenties. Hall later had gender reassignment surgery and became Dawn Langley Simmons, under which name she wrote a biography of Rutherford in 1983.
Rutherford came to embody Miss Marple so well that Agatha Christie dedicated her novel, The Mirror Crack'd From Side To Side, to her.