It seems rare that a really good movie comes out of a story about a travelling circus. The Greatest Show on Earth did it with aplomb, but monstrosities such as Berserk and I’m No Angel leave much to be desired. Then there are the horror movies, such as Freaks, that achieved their aim well but certainly strayed from the joy we are supposed to associate with circuses. Add to the list of disappointments today’s review: Side Show.
Starring Winnie Lightner as Pat, the jack of all trades at the circus, the story follows the lives of circus sideshow employees as they travel among several towns. The movie only depicts the sideshows –those acts happening outside the big top in the open air and smaller tents of their own. Pat, who resembles a female Karl Malden, displays her important role among the cast of characters when she talks down the drunken owner of the circus, Pop Gowdy (Guy Kibbee). Finances are tight for the circus and some members of the crew aren’t being paid on time.
Pat is in love with Joe (Donald Cook), the “barker” who goes around shouting at patrons to view this or that act. It is clear, however, that Joe does not care as intensely for Pat, despite his promise of love. When Pat’s younger and more beautiful sister Irene (Evalyn Knapp) visits, Joe gropes her while “guessing” her weight before knowing who she is. The attraction is imminent, and Irene wants to stay on with the circus despite Pat’s wishes.
Pat is pretty naive of the budding romance –having hidden her relationship with Joe from her sister– and inadvertently advances it. She sends Irene off alone with Joe to distract him while she arranges a big birthday event. When the duo fail to return in time to see any of the festivities, she is sorely disappointed. It looks like Joe might end up marrying Irene, but he returns to Pat in the end.
The central plot of Side Show is the recounting of a troubled romance with a happy ending. The problem is at no point do we think Joe truly loves Pat enough to marry her. Nor can we picture Lightner as a very good romantic object. She is masculine both in look and in personality –basically running the circus. I found all of the characters difficult to sympathize with.
Adding some light to the cast is Charles Buttersworth who is just another hand at the circus. He is full of one liners, that although they get old, at least add some entertainment value to the movie. His character continually professes his love and desire to marry Pat, and frankly, I would have been happier seeing the woman choose him in the end –if that tells you anything about Cook.