Water for Elephants was number three at the box office this Saturday, with Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson falling in love with a circus backdrop. But circus-themed movies are nothing new — here’s a look back at some of the best:
La Strada (1954)
Fellini’s “female Chaplin” wife Giulietta Masina plays a young woman sold to perform with a strongman (Anthony Quinn) in this beautiful but tragic tale. The two join a traveling circus at one point (with disastrous results), and Masina makes a great clown as she tries to keep the laughs coming through her tears.
Of course this floppy-eared, flying pachyderm and his alcohol-induced pink counterparts are perhaps the most famous elephants of circus movies.
Big Fish (2003)
Ewan McGregor’s character joins the circus in one of the many tall tales recounted in this Tim Burton movie that celebrates great storytellers.
The Circus (1928)
No big top performer can ever top the antics of accidental circus star Charlie Chaplin.
Wings of Desire (1987)
If you loved the City of Angels love story, you definitely should check out Wim Wenders’ original about an angel that falls in love with a trapeze artist (Peter Falk is perfect as an ex-angel who has given up his wings to become a mortal movie star).
The Unknown (1927), Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928), and He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
Lon Chaney has starred as quite a few tragic circus attractions: an armless wonder who really has arms, a clown whose love life is anything but funny, and another clown whose role is to get slapped by his fellow funnymen.
There will never be another movie about circus life quite like this horror classic that features real circus “freaks” trying to save one of their own from marrying a beautiful trapeze artist after his money (gooble gobble!).
Across The Universe (2007)
An LSD-induced circus led by Eddie Izzard set to Beatles music would definitely draw a crowd.
Lola Montes (1955)
The lovely Martine Carol stars in this tragic tale of a lover and circus performer.
A Bug’s Life (1998)
An insect circus troupe stars in this small-scale version of Seven Samurai.
At the Circus (1939)
Not one of the Marx brothers’ best, but they have their moments (the thrown-in love stories are just way too forced in Marx movies).
So while the media circus around Robert Pattinson’s non-Twilight movie has helped to make it a success, there are definitely previous movies about this dying form of entertainment that it can’t out-perform.