Even by the 1950s, the concept of the circus was being sanitized and modernized – remember the VistaScreen series on the Bertram Mills Circus? That was safe for kiddies, which makes sense, as it was a family-friendly circus. No sideshows here, and no freaks – a few little people, of course, and some scantily-clad women, but no “fat girl”, “Siamese twins”, or rather racist “head hunters”. Bertram Mills was a class act, for sure, and he kept his circus classy.
That ethos was not so much the case in 1935, with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, as portrayed by Tru Vue:
Looking at this set, you’d almost think that the freaks were the main attraction, and that the other stuff was peripheral – the first half of the roll is devoted to a variety of scenes, from cowboys riding around in the dust outside a tent, to the attractions at the Big Top. These slides appear hastily shot, not well thought out, and they’re not particularly good as stereographic images. Then, all of a sudden, we are transported to the sideshow – apparently, a badly-lit warehouse-like area, with bare bulbs and air ducts instead of exotic tents with buoyant barkers. Here, in a dungeonesque atmosphere, we find what the photographer was clearly after here – the weirdos. And clearly, a lot more time was spent framing these shots, and making sure the stereo effect was fully utilized.
This makes sense, of course – like the burlesque sets put out by the company, sensational imagery would help sell rolls while Tru Vue figured out what it wanted to be. And only three years after Tod Browning’s Freaks so horrified audiences that the director fell from esteem and half of the film was permanently destroyed, these were likely the “money shots” – at least to the photographer assigned to take these on 18th November, 1935. Soon, however, Tru Vue would divide their catalogue into “over the counter” fare, sold at drug stores and the like – all of it family friendly – and more “adult interest” films, typically bought by mail order. The scenes from this roll were removed, and a 4-roll, much more sanitized series on this same circus some years later was added.
Freak shows are mostly gone these days – although, living in Brooklyn as I do, I frequently avail myself of the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, which still features a traditional 10-act sideshow performance – different every year (and sometimes week-to-week). But as a cultural staple, they’re all but forgotten – confined to the dust bin of history, along with vaudeville, silent films, radio serials, and other standard forms of entertainment of this era. Fortunately, this Tru Vue roll lives on, and therefore so to do its motley cast of characters. Enjoy.
Not an entirely politically correct set – but certainly an entirely enjoyable one, especially since the mythology of the sideshow and the circus freak have now become embedded in our culture – and this set gives us the opportunity to peek back in time at the actuality.