Vaudeville was the nest that birthed cinema, as Edison and the Lumiere brothers moved from kinetoscopes to audience projections in vaudeville houses. In return, film and television would dethrone staged variety entertainment, turning Orpheum theatres into RKO cinemas, and push it from the dominant form of mass entertainment in the early 20th century into kitsch eccentricity. In this context, The Show of Shows acts as cinema’s mea culpa. The film is a discreetly structured montage of late 19th- to mid-20th century archived footage of vaudeville, fairground and circus performances, scored with original music from Sigur Ros and composer Hilmar Orn Hilmarrson. Introduced first to performers backstage during construction, preparation and rehearsal, we then join the audiences funnelling into the tents to watch an assembled variety show medley, arranged into innominate thematic sections. Tumbling, lion-taming, blind-boxing, burlesque striptease and other antiquated arts are brought back from the dead via the mass medium that helped kill them.
Almost entirely silent, the film stands on the strength of its well curated clips and soundtrack. The cumulative effect of the percussive, multi-layered, but largely ambient music, coupled with spectacular, daring and disturbing sights, is hypnotic. While occasionally the soundtrack can overpower the visuals, such as a misguided dip into incongruous heavy rock, mostly they work in tandem. The obvious star of The Show of Shows is the unhurried and deferential editing, which bridges gaps across a half-century of performances with clever comparisons, contrasts, and neat match cuts. Many images unearthed by director Benedikt Erlingsson and editor David Alexander Corno are truly remarkable. Some, such as the marvel of three strongmen balancing atop one-another on a girder suspended above the New York skyline, as the camera spins 360 degrees, are simply breathtaking. I was particularly struck by a sequence of artful clowning, in which a baker dressed in white and armed with a bag of flour fights a coal worker in black, armed with a bag of coal dust. As they whale on each other, the contrasting dust whirls around them in dramatic plumes that soon cover the stage in a grey storm. Scenes such as this, of which the film delivers in a dazzling cascade, beautifully display the eloquent performance art aspect of vaudeville, which is often lost in modern-day ersatz revivalism.
While mining the archives for joyous spectacle, the filmmakers don’t hide all the darker aspects. Viewer enjoyment of the film may hinge on whether or not the historical distance is enough to watch bull calves wrestled roughly to the ground, lions’ jaws wrenched open, or children awkwardly breaking their artificial grins as knives are hurled at their heads. I myself found it difficult to watch an overextended section on circus animals, when the undeniable magnetism of the images failed to match my distaste for the animal abuse. Nothing shown ever falls into blatant gratuitousness though and, in a judicious decision, the regrettable ‘freak’ aspect of sideshow and carnival is skipped entirely, as are minstrel shows.
When lesser archive footage films would settle with merely revealing or remarking upon history, The Show of Shows exemplifies the art of good editing with minimal narrative, and achieves an unexpected poignancy with how well it arranges the pieces. Instilling nostalgia for lost or dying art forms that are still as thrilling as they were a century ago, the film recreates the sense of being there in the audience, and rekindles a little of the fire at the heart of variety theatre that cinema helped snuff out long ago.
The Show of Shows is now playing in UK cinemas
You can find screenings at theshowofshowsmovie.com/screenings
by Kieran Gosney