I went to a circus school one summer holiday, I don’t remember demonstrating any aptitude for it, but I did enjoy it. It was nothing on the scale of what you are about to see in these films though. I think a failed attempt on a tightrope was about as exciting as my experience got, and I didn’t leave with a newfound fondness for the diabolo. (Though my partner still has his kicking around at home, obviously circus school had a more positive effect on him, I think it’s behind a bookcase somewhere now…) Despite this somewhat disparaging report of my own limited circus experience, I should emphasise just how much I admire and enjoy watching amazing human acrobats. Acrobatics is an ancient art form, but from the early days of cinema, talented gymnasts performed routines for the camera, very much in the same vein as the short narratives shot against painted backdrops were. Gradually over the years we see increasingly daring acrobatics filmed in a divers range of challenging locations. Huntley Film Archives have such a wonderful array of circus and stunt films, I’ve chosen a few of my favourites here to illustrate that variety, from tame entertainment into the world of terrifying acrobatic stunts.
All of these titles have been carefully scanned by us from celluloid film, just click on the pictures to view them!
Lady Contortionist and Dog (1890s)
The lady contortionist struts her stuff in a nifty pair of velvet trousers while her little dog sits on a nearby chair. It watches until beckoned over to strut its furry legged self as well, walking effortlessly over its human companion and stopping occasionally for a little pose with the old paws.
Women Juggle Barrels and Crosses (1900s)
Quite simply, I wish I could do this. Yes, I know there isn’t really any jumping about, but nimble footwork just doesn’t cut it when describing this skilled barrel balancing duo from the 1900s. The women’s strength, agility and co-ordination is extraordinary. Interestingly it’s staged more like salon entertainment, rather than a music hall arena, with its large rug, patterned wallpaper and parlour palm backdrop.
Renaissance Tumblers (1900s)
Not only is this a lovely example of early colour film, but the acrobatic trio is a joy to watch too. In contrast to the previous film, this show has been styled against the backdrop of an epic Renaissance city, and these tumblers are a troop of costumed entertainers in the pillared hall of a grand palace…
American Stunts (1920s)
This film certainly suggests that with the end of the war in 1918, came a new lease of life for the victors, expressed in a carefree attitude and sense of daring do. It documents many such, shall we say, life affirming, stunts performed by men and women who precariously suspend, balance, dance and cycle themselves around tall buildings, statues, aeroplanes and chimneys. Hold your breath…
Florida “Flying High” Circus School (1950s)
As with all these films, the acrobats make it all look so darned easy, and the young men and women in this film are just students! In the vast grounds of Florida State University, the performers set up their own equipment and joyfully rehearse routines until it’s showtime for the Florida “Flying High” circus troop. One of my favourite sequences is the fade transformations from training clothes into fun, glittery show costumes. The bit where a woman back flips into an armchair during training is pretty amazing too.
By TC Summerford
I’ve put together a gallery of films documenting acrobats and stunts involving acrobatic skill. They’re very exciting, but please don’t try and rig up your own trapeze at home, or cycle on a rooftop, or dance on a chimney for that matter! As usual, just click on the pic!