Behind the Big Top: Inside the sawdust arena

Behind the Big Top: Inside the sawdust arena
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The procession of performers and circus acts passes by the camera to enter the big top arena including horses, clowns and elephants. Some of the acts are filmed including a female lion tamer, a cycling clown, performing elephants, and barebacked horse riders. A boy from the audience is harnessed and tries to ride the horse. The clowns join in the fun as he flies around the circle and steals a man’s cap. Summary by Poppy De Souza

A story of excitement, showmanship and hard work, this documentary strongly conveys the experience of the travelling performers of Wirth’s Circus and Zoo. Behind the Big Top uses a commentary style similar to newsreels of the time and is an entertaining look at one of Australia’s most famous circus troupes. The end of this film hints at the repetitive and itinerant lifestyle of circus performers of the time – constantly on the move, unpacking and re-packing, performing for town after town – so that while the film portrays the adrenalin and spectacle of performance, it also shows that it is very much a job.

Title Synopsis

A documentary about the travelling Wirth’s Circus and Zoo that toured to Melbourne in 1949.

The circus train arrives in town and workers (and elephants) help set up the big top for the main show. Inside the sawdust arena of the main tent, children and families watch as lion tamers, trapeze artists, clowns, performing elephants and balancing acts perform spectacular tricks. At the end of the visit, the troupe packs up and leaves for the next town on the circus train.

The documentary uses a voice-over commentary and an instrumental soundtrack.

Notes by Poppy De Souza


​​​​​​​Education Notes

This black-and-white clip shows a parade of performers and animals entering the 'big top’ at the beginning of a Wirth Brothers Circus show, followed by various circus acts. Included are performing elephants, a female lion tamer, antics from the clowns, professional bareback riding and a young boy from the audience attempting to ride bareback. The boy, in a safety harness, swings around the arena. When he steals a hat the clowns join in to chase him around the ring. A voice-over and music track dramatise the action.

Educational value points

  • The clip shows typical components of traditional circus performances – the grand parade of costumed performers and trained animals around the central ring, displays of horsemanship, comic acts by clowns and audience participation. Fast-paced marching or dance music, as heard in the clip, also featured, and was often performed by the circus’s own brass band.
  • The clip indicates the popularity of animal acts in circuses in the 1950s before opposition to the use of animals contributed to the decline of this type of act. The first circus animal acts featured horses. Trained wild animals such as big cats, bears, elephants and sea lions were introduced from about 1831. Since the 1970s circuses such as Circus Oz have emerged that do not include animal acts at all but focus on human performances.
  • At a time when women were often portrayed in popular entertainment such as cinema as vulnerable and dependent on men, the inclusion of a female lion tamer would have contributed to the sense of danger inherent in the act. It may have heightened the audience’s fear for the tamer and highlighted the exotic nature of the performance. While the animals were trained they were also unpredictable and the danger was real; many lion tamers were mauled.
  • Wirth’s troupe of trained elephants (there were ten at the height of the Circus’s popularity) was an important part of the Circus’s attraction and featured in publicity. The elephants performed in the ring and also transported equipment from the circus train, travelling through the town to the site of the big top. One elephant, Alice, brought fame to the Circus when she rescued a child who had wandered into the ring. She was over 100 when she died in 1956.
  • The distinctive make-up and costumes of circus clowns are shown in the clip. The traditional white-faced clown in Pierrot costume first appeared in Europe in the 17th century. The tramp clown, in tattered clothes and with sad-mouth make-up, was a 19th-century US creation. The clowns shown were skilled performers who would have also entertained the crowd between acts with their ludicrous antics and routines.
  • The Wirth Brothers Circus was one of Australia’s largest and most successful circuses, and it is shown at a time when its fortunes were rising again in the prosperous period after the Second World War. The Circus declined with the advent of television and in 1963 it was disbanded after 83 years of performance.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
PJP Productions
Lynn Laurence

This clip starts approximately 7 minutes into the documentary.

We see performers in full costume and the menagerie of circus animals enter the ring. A variety of performances are captured. Circus music plays throughout.
Narrator The brilliant artists of the sawdust arena. Still they pass in a seemingly endless procession, and no-one gets a bigger laugh than the clowns. And here come the elephants, the end of this grand parade. The only woman lion tamer in the world – one girl alone with a cage full of ferocious beasts. It takes a lot of nerve to put the big cats through their hoops. Laughter fills the tent as this mirth-maker entertains the crowd with his comedy antics on wheels – the cycling clown and his eccentric philosophies.

And now it’s the elephants’ turn to show that when it comes to tricks, as the saying goes, they never forget. The reward for hours of patient training – they go through their routines like the seasoned performers they are. Although they look heavy and cumbersome, these huge animals do their act with an ease and gentleness that belies their size. This time it’s 'London Bridge is falling down’, and if you think it’s easy to make the big fellow crawl beneath his brother, then just try it with your dog and maybe you’ll get some idea of the patience required to make an elephant crawl.

The art of bareback riding. It calls for strict timing and a good sense of balance. Any error in judgement could result in a dangerous accident. The daring of the bareback rider. With the aid of a safety belt, a youngster from the audience is given a try and there’s laughs aplenty as round he swings and the clowns go over like nine pins. This lad seizes a hat, and a hilarious chase begins.