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'The Circus' review: Four-hour film tells you all you need to know (and probably more)

A group of clowns from the early 20th

A group of clowns from the early 20th century as seen on PBS' "The Circus." Credit: Collection of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the State Art Museum of Florida, Florida State University

THE DOCUMENTARY "The Circus"  on PBS' "American Experience"

WHEN | WHERE Monday and Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT This two-part "American Experience" film by veteran "AE" producer Sharon Grimberg looks at the history of the circus in the United States, with Monday night covering 1793 to 1891 and Tuesday, 1897 to 1956. The first night is dominated by the story of P.T. Barnum, and to a lesser extent, his competitor and eventual partner, James Bailey, while the second covers the dominant circus clan of the 20th century, the Ringling brothers. There are many commentators here, including ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson; former aerialist La Norma Fox (Betty Hutton's stunt double in 1952's "The Greatest Show on Earth");  Dominique Jando, circus historian and former associate artistic director of the Big Apple Circus; Mary Jane Miller, a Ringling Bros. aerialist who once hung by her teeth (literally); and Paul Ringling, grandson of Alf T. (one of the five original Ringling brothers), who died in 2018 at the age of 98.

MY SAY Just to hazard a wild guess here, "The Circus" must be the most exhaustive documentary on the circus that the TV medium has ever known, and — just to hazard another one — that's about five times too exhaustive for the average viewer. How to determine who an "average viewer" is in this context? Ask this: Do I want to know everything there is to know about Lillian Leitzel? If "yes," then "The Circus" is for you.

If the follow-up is "Who is Lillian Leitzel?," then you, friend, are the average viewer.

There's no shame in this. For all intents and purposes, the circus as a national institution ended Sunday, May 21, 2017, with the final performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum. Acrobat Leitzel was world-famous when she died after a fall in 1931. She's barely even a "Jeopardy!" question now (if that) while the circus — at least the word —  has become a pejorative.

Nevertheless, "The Circus" — all four lavishly and, at stretches, overly detailed hours — is very good. In one sense it's also the perfect "American Experience" because the circus was part of the American experience for so long. Why? This film thus answers: Our longing for the fantastical, or willingness to be seduced by it as well. (Barnum saw to that.) Our restlessness, our itinerant spirit, and our need to shake off the dust of some small town as we move on to the next. And if our mass entertainments say something fundamental about our national soul, good and bad, the circus managed that as well: the abject cruelty of freak shows, for example, and the institutionalized abuse of animals. In this regard, that word circus has earned its pejorative status.  

"The Circus" barely touches on what killed this national institution, and, for all its breadth, doesn't even mention PETA, which drove in the final nail. (PETA spent decades battling the corporate parent of Ringling Bros., but the film effectively ends at 1956, when the big tents came down.) There was a terrible fire in Hartford in 1944, which killed 168 spectators, leading to the demise of that iconic tent. TV came along, offering more distractions. As this film observes, "The Ed Sullivan Show" was in a sense a TV version of the circus.

But a certain extreme overindulgence eventually took hold as well: That will be self-evident when you get to the part about 20 elephants adorned in pink tutus dancing to Stravinsky.

Do you need to watch all four hours? Not really. For an average viewers' guide, the second hour Monday (at 10) and the first hour Tuesday are the best. Meanwhile, Leitzel aficionados will want to savor the full four.

BOTTOM LINE An excellent overview that occasionally suffers from TMI.


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