Circus Movies, TV Shows & Documentaries
Come to the circus, the Greatest Show on Earth …
Come to the circus, see the circus
If we’re not very careful life can overwork us
So take today and make it gay
For there are too many tears along the way!
Come to the circus, it’s circus day today
-- The Greatest Show on Earth, Paramount Pictures (1952)
Everybody loves a circus! Throughout the decades, Circus Day was a big event for small towns and larger cities. Although entertainment acts and venues have changed throughout the years, circus traditions live on today. Fictional circus movies offer a look at life and drama “under the big top.” If you cannot attend a show in person, check out these circus flicks!
- Circus films may not be suitable for children. Although some of the films listed are meant for family viewing, others contain sexually mature, violent and graphic scenes; parental guidance is suggested.
- Many films are for sale online but some are not currently available through primary or secondary markets -- you may have to do a thorough Internet search. "Forgotten" titles are often for sale through private vendors. Companies with current ownership rights may release films and TV shows on DVD or digital download, based on product demand.
- Check out YouTube because you never know which clips may be online!
Silents from the 1920s
- The Circus (1928) starring Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin, portraying his famous Tramp character, is chased by police who think he’s a pickpocket. The Tramp runs into a circus tent where the audience -- thinking he’s part of the show -- loves the funny choreography. The circus owner hires the Tramp but after discovering that Charlie is only funny when he doesn’t really try to be, the boss finds chores for him to do at showtime. In the meantime, the Tramp falls in love with the owner’s acrobat daughter. But he’s not the only one. (Originally distributed by United Artists; currently by Warner Home Video).
- Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) starring Lon Chaney and Loretta Young. Tito is a circus clown who finds and then adopts an abandoned child. Years later, the clown is dismayed to realize that he’s inappropriately fallen in love with his “daughter,”-- the girl-turned-woman, Simonetta. Another man, Luigi, has fallen in love with Simonetta but she rejects him because he already has a girlfriend. Not knowing the truth about each other, Tito and Luigi become friends when they see the same doctor to help with the conflict and depression. Simonetta eventually accepts Luigi’s proposal and then breaks it when she learns of Tito’s feelings. Tito’s inner conflict puts his life in danger. The film has alternate endings. (Distributed by MGM Studios).
- Rain or Shine (1930) Starring Joe Cook and Louise Fazenda. After the death of her father, young Mary Rainey takes control of the family business -- a circus on the verge of bankruptcy. This film, originally produced with musical numbers, was released without them because musicals were becoming a declining form of entertainment in the 1930s. (Directed by Frank Capra and distributed by Columbia Pictures).
- Polly of the Circus (1932) starring Marion Davies and Clark Gable. When aerialist Polly Fisher is injured, she recuperates at the home of John Hartley, minister of the local church. Hartley and Polly fall in love and marry in secret. John’s congregation discovers he’s married to a circus girl, so they fire him. Polly does what she thinks is the best way to handle the situation. (Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).
- Freaks (1932) starring Wallace Ford and Olga Baclanova. A circus side-show “freak” falls in love with a beautiful trapeze artist. Cleopatra agrees to marry the unsuspecting Hans when she finds out he is to inherit a large sum of money. Because she is having an affair with the circus’ strong-man, Hercules, Cleopatra plots to murder her husband. The film’s original ending had been modified after test audiences dramatically rejected it. (Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).
- The Big Cage (1933) starring Clyde Beatty. Circus legend Clyde Beatty stars as "himself” in several films featuring his prowess with lions and tigers. In The Big Cage, Clyde works for the financially struggling John Whipple Circus, where he creates a new tiger and lion act. (Distributed by Universal Pictures). Clyde Beatty also stars as a character named Clyde Beatty in The Lost Jungle (Mascot Pictures; 1934) and Darkest Africa (Republic Pictures; 1936). The Big Cage was rereleased to theaters in the 1950s.
- Circus Girl (1937) starring June Travis, Robert Livingston and Donald Cook. Kay, a trapeze artist, marries Charles -- a member of another aerial act. When Charles becomes jealous of trapeze artist Bob McAvoy, he sets up a number of “accidents” to kill his supposed rival. Another circus performer falls victim to one of these “accidents” -- a tiger mauling. (Distributed by Republic Pictures).
- Charlie Chan at the Circus (1937) starring Warner Oland. When unpopular circus owner Joe Kinney sends his detective friend free tickets to a show, he asks Mr. Chan to find out who is sending him threatening letters. But when Charlie arranges to meet Mr. Kinney during the show, he finds the man dead -- supposedly killed by an out-of-control gorilla. During the police investigation and as the circus continued to perform, the plot, as they say, thickens. Charlie Chan is a fictional Chinese-American detective base on stories by author Earl Derr Biggers. Charlie Chan at the Circus was the 11th of 47 films that were produced from 1925-1949 (Distributed by 20th Century Fox).
- Under the Big Top (1938) starring Marjorie Main and Ann Nagel. Sara Post (Main) manages a debt-ridden circus in the midst of the Great Depression. When Sara’s niece Penny accidentally sets fire to the circus tent, Sara is able to collect insurance money and rebuild. Years later, Penny is a (grown-up) trapeze star who falls in love with her troupe-mate, much to Sara’s disapproval. (Distributed by Monogram Pictures).
- At the Circus (1939) starring the Marx Brothers. In true Marx Brothers fashion, Groucho, Chico and Harpo investigate when circus owner Jeff Wilson is robbed of $10,000 … money he borrowed from his business partner. The movie features Margaret Dumont and Eve Arden. (Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn Mayer).
- You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939) starring W. C. Fields and Edgar Bergen (with Charlie McCarthy). A debt-ridden circus (aren’t they all ???) owned by the shady Mr. Larsen E. Whipsnade stays one step ahead of the law while juggling creditors and performers who want to be paid. When Whipsnade’s college-student daughter Victoria visits the circus, she falls in love with Bergen (as himself). But when Vicky finds out about her father’s financial woes, she agrees to marry a millionaire -- a guy she originally turned down. (Distributed by Universal Pictures).
- The Wagons Roll at Night (1941) starring Humphrey Bogart, Sylvia Sidney, Eddie Albert and Joan Leslie. In one of his lesser known roles, Bogart plays hot-headed and jaded carnival owner Nick Coster, who has very little respect for the work he does or the people who work for him. When a lion escapes from its pen during a stop on the show’s performance route, inexperienced grocery store clerk Matt Varney corners the kitty until it can be recaptured. Nick hires Varney to work with the lions (under the supervision of the carnival’s animal trainer). Matt is injured and then sent to Nick’s farm to recuperate. But when the young man falls in love with Nick’s younger and carefully protected sister, the carnival owner is determined to keep Matt and Mary apart. (Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures).
- Dumbo (1941); Animated Disney film. This Disney classic features a baby elephant given the cruel nickname because of his large ears. When the baby elephant’s mother, Mrs. Jumbo, gets angry at a group of boys for making fun of her son, circus owners lock her up. Dumbo, missing his mother, is ostracized by the other elephants but he makes friends with Timothy Q. Mouse. Together they discover something magical about the baby elephant’s large ears. Dumbo is a short film; just over an hour long. (Produced by Walt Disney, distributed by RKO Pictures).
Arabian Nights (1942) starring Sabu, Jon Hall and Maria Montez. Sherazade, a traveling circus troupe dancer, charms Kamar, the prince of Baghdad. When Kamar tries to seize the throne of his brother (King Haroun al-Rashid) for himself, he is captured and sentenced to death. Feeling sorry for his brother, King Haroun al-Rashid pays Kamar a visit but is chased by the prince’s men. The king finds solace at the circus, hiding out amongst the performers when he falls in love with Sherazade. Kamar, thinking that Haroun is dead, takes the throne and searches for his love Sherazade. (This film has a number of violent scenes). (Distributed by Universal Pictures).
- Carnival Story (1954) starring Ann Baxter and Steve Cochran. Willie is a local girl who picks the pocket of Joe, a traveling carnival worker. She is discovered but offered a job and the two become romantically involved. Willie becomes part of a high-diving act and is courted by the troupe leader, Frank, who proposes marriage. When Willie tells Joe about Frank’s proposal, he urges her to accept, knowing that Frank is a wealthy man. Drama unfolds when someone gets a little too greedy. (Distributed by RKO Pictures).
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) starring Charlton Heston, James Stewart, Cornel Wilde and Betty Hutton. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille and produced while Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s circus was still under the Big Top, this film features the stories of two aerialists vying for the center ring, a clown with a dark secret, an elephant trainer’s passion for his assistant and the Boss-Man who has sawdust in his veins. The film was produced as a sort of documentary with fictional drama. Although the actors learned and then performed their own circus acts, the production included real circus performers, hundreds of workers and a behind-the-scenes look at day-to-day events. Hundreds of animals, tons of equipment and around 1400 people helped to bring the lavish production to life under the circus tent. Also featuring Dorothy Lamour and Gloria Grahame. (Distributed by Paramount Pictures).
- Man on a Tightrope (1953) starring Fredric March. Karel Cernik tries to keep his family’s Czechoslovakian circus together while the government seizes control. Cernik is allowed to continue to manage the circus but he struggles with workers leaving, equipment failures and family issues that include a young wife who has a roving eye. When Cernik is ordered to feature special circus acts dictated by the government, he develops a plan to escape the Iron Curtain. But trusted friends turn out to be dangerous enemies. (Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation).
- Sawdust and Tinsel/Gycklarnas Afton (1953) starring Ake Grönberg. An aging Swedish circus owner who left his wife and two sons to travel with the show plans to visit his former family during a stop in their hometown. When Albert Johansson’s current flame, Anne -- a bareback rider with the show -- learns of his plan, she sets out to keep him close by, thinking that Albert wants to leave the circus to live with his former wife. The story leads to seduction, deceit and sour endings for almost everyone. (Distributed by Times Film Corporation).
- Gorilla at Large (1954) starring Ann Bancroft, Lee J. Cobb and Raymond Burr. This horror-mystery film is produced in 3-D. Trapeze artist Laverne Miller flies over the cage of Goliath the Gorilla. Laverne tells her husband, circus owner Cyrus Miller, that she wants the animal’s trainer fired but her plan is to have barker Joey Matthews don a gorilla suit to catch her as she drops from the trapeze into his arms. Cyrus Miller refuses to fire Kovacs (Goliath’s trainer) because he is the only one who can control the gorilla. When several people die, police must unravel who the actual killer is and whether the gorilla … or someone in a gorilla suit … is involved in the mayhem. (Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation).
- 3 Ring Circus (1954) starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Recently released from the army, Pete Nelson (Martin) teams up with his old friend, Jerome Hotchkiss (Lewis) to join the Clyde Brent circus. Although Hotchkiss is set to become an apprentice lion tamer and Nelson wants to be a clown, the two must do whatever the financially-strapped circus needs to have done. Pete sets up a gambling operation to add to the show’s income and Jerome becomes “Jericho the Clown.” But the two find their friendship -- and integrity -- put to the test. (Distributed by Paramount Pictures).
More from the 1950s ...
- Trapeze (1956) starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida. Years earlier, Mike Ribble (Lancaster), one of the world’s best trapeze artists, became crippled while trying to complete a flying triple somersault. At some point, Ribble joined another circus (in Paris) but this time, he’s an equipment rigger. When the persistent and confident Tino Orsini (Curtis) -- a strong and talented aerialist -- arrives at the circus before the season opens, he cajoles Ribble to teach him how to do the triple somersault. Ribble acknowledges Orsini’s talent when Tino flies through the air without a safety net. Tino asks Mike to become his catcher and the two-man team is hired by the circus. But when the beautiful and manipulative Lola wants to join the act, so begins a love triangle that threatens everything. Burt Lancaster, a former circus acrobat, performed many of his own tricks in this film. (Distributed by United Artists).
- Circus Boy (1956-1958) starring Micky Dolenz and Noah Beery Jr. Television series. Circus boy Corky becomes an orphan when his parents are killed in a trapeze accident. Joey the Clown (Beery) and the rest of the circus family give Corky a home and the job of helping to care for a baby elephant. The show featured different stories as the circus traveled from town to town, each week. At the time, Micky Dolenz (of The Monkees fame) worked under the name “Mickey Braddock.” His dark brown hair was dyed blond for the series. A promotional tour for Circus Boy featured Dolenz playing guitar and singing while riding the character’s baby elephant. The series spawned a number of storybooks, comics and other children’s activities that are still available through an online search. The show lasted two seasons (1956 to 1958) on NBC and ABC. (A 2001 release of the TV show was distributed by Columbia TriStar Domestic Television).
- The Big Circus (1959) starring Victor Mature, Red Buttons and Rhonda Fleming. When circus owner Hank Whirling needs a financial boost to keep his show open (aren’t there any circuses that make a profit?), he gets a bank loan on the condition that an accountant and publicist are hired to help oversee the production. A series of accidents occur before the bank begins foreclosure proceedings but a special wire-walking promotion may save day … or it may prove fatal. (Distributed by Allied Artists Pictures).
- Toby Tyler (1960) starring Kevin Corcoran. Based on the 1880 book Ten Weeks with a Circus by James Otis Kaler. Feeling unwanted after his parents die, Toby Tyler runs away from his uncle’s foster home to join the circus. Although Toby becomes friends with the show’s chimpanzee (Mr. Stubbs), Harry Tupper, a candy vendor, convinces the child that Aunt Olive and Uncle Daniel never want to see him again. Toby becomes a snack vendor and then, after a performer is injured, a horse stunt-rider. He discovers that Harry Tupper lied -- Aunt Olive and Uncle Daniel do want him to come home. (Produced by Walt Disney Productions; distributed by Buena Vista Distribution).
- The Big Show (1961) starring Esther Williams and Cliff Robertson. Drama and violence unfold under the Big Top when circus brothers fight each other for affection, approval and control of the business from their cruel, demanding father. Although there are some romantic moments, the film features an interesting polar bear act -- which turns deadly -- and several performers who fall from the trapeze. (Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation).
- (Billy Rose’s) Jumbo (1962) starring Doris Day and Jimmy Durante. Pop Wonder, the well-liked if not financially-savvy owner of the Wonder Circus, sees his debts increase with every gambling loss. When Pop’s daughter Kitty hires performer and roustabout Sam Rawlins, she doesn’t know that Sam is the son of a circus owner who wants to buy the Wonder Circus and is paying off creditors to set up for a takeover. Jumbo the elephant is a main attraction for the Wonder Circus, but one does wonder where he’ll end up! (Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).
- Circus World (1964) starring John Wayne and Rita Hayworth. In this part-circus, part-"wild west show" film, Matt Masters (Wayne, wearing his ever-present cowboy hat) brings his troupe on a European tour. On the trip, Masters hopes to find former circus performer Lili (Hayworth) -- a woman who was once in love with him. 14 years earlier (and after her husband died), Lili fled the troupe and abandoned her young daughter. Matt raised the little girl as his own -- she became a trapeze artist. When the troupe sets off for Europe, tragedy strikes along the way. But Matt finds some answers to old questions. (Distributed by Paramount Pictures).
- Roustabout (1964) starring Elvis Presley and Barbara Stanwyck. Bike-riding, leather jacket-wearing hotshot Charlie Rogers loses a singing gig when he gets into a fight with some college kids. Charlie’s bike is damaged as he rides on to the next show, so he hooks up with a traveling carnival. Owner Maggie Morgan offers him a job and a new life. (Distributed by Paramount Pictures).
Berserk (1967) starring Joan Crawford. This film is a type of murder mystery under the Big Top. Traveling circus owner Monica Rivers is always searching for the big audiences. She hires a new highwire walker and as they become lovers, Monica’s former boyfriend, Dorando, is very jealous. Dorando is found dead and other performers fear they will be next. (Distributed by Columbia Pictures).
- The Clowns/I Clowns (1970) Directed by and starring Federico Fellini. Produced for Television. Considered to be part documentary - part fantasy, the film introduces Fellini as a young boy at his bedroom window, watching as the circus sets itself up. As a lifelong fan of circuses, Fellini features clowns in different characters, situations and human realities. Made for Italian TV and released on Christmas Day in 1970, this compilation is part fiction, part retrospect.
- Vampire Circus (1972) starring Adrienne Corri. Hey, all you vampire lovers -- meet the circus! This English horror film features a gypsy woman in a traveling circus who seeks vengeance on … somebody, as vampires often do. Death, destruction, blood, curses …. everything a vampire-laced horror film (that happens to be set in a circus) should be. (Distributed by Rank Films).
The Great Wallendas (1978) starring Lloyd Bridges, Britt Ekland and Cathy Rigsby. Produced for Television. This is a fictional real-life drama-documentary about circus acrobats known for their seven-person high pyramid on the highwire. On January 30, 1962, an accident claimed the lives of two of the performers and caused a third to be paralyzed. But the Wallendas gave a similar performance the next day. Patriarch Karl Wallenda died in 1978 at age 73; he was performing a wire walk between two buildings in Puerto Rico. (Distributed by the National Broadcasting Company).
- Bronco Billy (1980) starring Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke. “Bronco Billy’s Wild West Show" is a troupe of misfit men and women in a struggling, run-down, traveling circus. Bronco Billy's assistant walks out on him -- she hadn’t been paid for months -- but the show must go on. In the next town, Billy went to City Hall to apply for a permit. There, he met Antoinette Lily (Locke); a woman who had to marry a man she didn’t even like, in order to inherit a large sum of money. Circumstances, personalities and misfortune lead the players in a variety of directions. (Distributed by Warner Bros.).
- When the Circus Came to Town (1981) starring Elizabeth Montgomery and Christopher Plummer. Created for television, a middle-aged woman becomes bored with her small-town, everyday’s-the-same life. After her ill father dies, Mary Flynn decides to shake up her own sheltered world when the circus comes to town. (Produced by Entheos Unlimited).
- Barnum! (1986) starring Michael Crawford. A musical production made for TV, this presentation chronicles the famed showman’s career from 1835 to 1881. The film, adapted from the original Broadway production, features musical numbers “There is a Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute" and "The Prince of Humbug." P.T. Barnum starring Beau Bridges was a made-for television release in 1999. It portrays a look at how, according the Barnum philosophy, people wanted and expected to be fleeced and “humbugged” -- and at the same time, sufficiently entertained with amazing reality.
Big Top Pee-wee (1988) starring Paul Reubens. Ruebens portrays his alter-ego, Pee-wee Herman. A circus sets up on Pee-wee’s farm after a huge storm comes in and then he joins the act. But the community doesn’t want the circus in town. (Distributed by Paramount Pictures).
- Water for Elephants (2011) starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon. Based on the book from author Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants relates the fictional story of Jacob, a young man getting ready to take his final college exams to become a veterinarian. When Jacob is told of his parents’ accidental deaths, he opts to leave veterinary school without his degree, later jumping onto a railroad car that turns out to be attached to a circus train. Jacob is hired to tend the animals. A cruel circus owner and his beautiful but tortured wife become an integral part of Jacob’s life. (Distributed by 20th Century Fox Pictures).
- The Clown (2011) starring Selton Mello and Paulo José. Benjamin and Valdemar are a father-son team of clowns known as Pangaré and Puro Sangue who travel the country with Circus Hope. Pangaré tires of life on the road and doesn’t “feel” funny anymore. He dreams of life with a solid place to live and a true identity. (Distributed by Imagem Films).
- Nitro Circus: The Movie (2012) featuring Travis Pastrana and Jolene Van Vugt. Not the traditional type of circus acts -- the crew brings their stunts to life on the Big Screen. A reality film based on the MTV series, viewers can expect a variety of stunts with cars, parachutes, motorcycles and trucks. Don’t try this at home, boys and girls … (Distributed by ARC Entertainment).
- Circus (2010). Produced for the Public Broadcasting System, Circus is a six-part documentary that chronicles life and drama in the Big Apple Circus -- from tryouts and practice through the 350 show tour. The entire running time is about 360 minutes on 3 DVDs.
- High Grass Circus (1976). This award-winning piece features a 24 hour look at the life of the Royal Brothers’ Traveling Circus (Canada). The documentary is about 57 minutes long; produced by the National Film Board of Canada.
- Thampu (The Circus Tent) (1978). Written and directed by G. Aravindan, this documentary film of the Great Chitra Circus as it sets up in Kerala is shot in black and white. Village women and schoolchildren watch the rising of a big tent and its colors, glitter, animals and performers settling on the dusty grounds. Excitement is all around but three-day circus period goes quickly before the town settles down to its basic, everyday existence. (Distributed by General Pictures).
- Children of All Ages (2008). This documentary features “three rings” of entertainment. “Ring One” contains performances from the Sailor Circus -- the country’s oldest children’s show performances from kids under the age of 18. “Ring Two” showcases images of a large miniature circus, with all its bits and pieces, built over 50 years. “Ring Three” is a series of interviews by some of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s top circus performers.
Cirque Du Soleil
- Cirque Du Soleil shows feature storyline themes created with circus acts and styles by musicians and performers from around the world. Performances from various shows are available on video and DVD. For example, Cirque Du Soleil's Quidam (1999) depicts what happens to Zoe, a lonely young girl who re-imagines her own boring, sedentary life. Varekai (2002) is the story of the Greek myth of Icarus -- a dream of what may have happened after he flew too close to the sun. La Nouba (2004) features clowns, rope walkers, aerialists and the like in Florida’s custom–built theater at Walt Disney World.
Come to the circus, Come on Along With Me
You'll see the elephants and the camels, the hippopotamus and all the other mammals. Come see the clowns who play their part …they'll wear a smile that hides a broken heart
----Tremendous, Stupendous, as Circuses Should Be ----
The Bengal tigers and the lions … the trapeze artist does a leap that’s death defyin’
A land of mirth, your money’s worth ...
Come on Along to the Circus
(come to the circus)
THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH!!!
---- The Greatest Show on Earth, Paramount Pictures (1952)
Words by Ned Washington
Music by Victor Young
© 1951 Sony ATV Harmony
Complete Song Running Time: 2:59
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