Wirth's Circus: Behind the Big Top, (1928)

Wirth's Circus: Behind the Big Top, (1928)
WARNING: This clip contains animal suffering or death
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The film begins with Wirth's famous circus elephants being dressed in their costume rugs. This is the followed by a menagerie of animals; horses, ponies, zebras, more elephants and a caged lion. The footage shows George Wirth with two women and another shot that shows him with his 16mm motion picture camera in hand - it is assumed that his brother Philip Wirth is filming him. A number of performers are seen, including a dancer and a very tall and very short man.

In one scene, all the circus performers and animals are gathered out the front of the tent for a formal photograph to be taken, the photographer can be seen setting up his camera at the edge of the frame. The film ends with footage of a performer wearing a Wild West inspired costume holding a gun.

This footage is teamed with a recording of Philip Wirth playing the tin whistle, originally recorded on lacquer disk and digitised by NFSA. It is unknown as to what year this music was recorded, however, it is known that Philip Wirth took up playing the tin whistle in his older age and would often play it in the circus ring during performances.

Wirth’s Circus was Australia’s largest and most prestigious circus company. For eight decades Wirth’s was billed as Australia’s own ‘Greatest Show on Earth’, and was a huge travelling circus of international standard and reputation. It was the sons and daughters of Johannes and Sarah Wirth, of German origin, that formed the circus: John, Harry, Philip, George, Marizles, Mina and Madeline.

The Wirth brothers began performing with their father as a travelling band though they soon advanced their show into a variety troupe and established themselves as a small circus by 1882. The circus grew rapidly; extended family featured as artists, they embarked on world tours, travelled Australia extensively, boasted an exotic menagerie of animals and recruited star attractions from Europe and America.

It was Phillip and George Wirth that continued to manage the circus as Wirth’s Bros Circus from the 1910s. George Wirth retired in 1930, though Philip Wirth and his extended family continued running the business up until its demise in 1963.

The NFSA currently holds approximately 50 x 16mm home movies that document the Wirth’s private life, circus life and performances from the years c.1926-1950s. They primarily document the period that Philip and George managed the circus. The majority of the films are thought to be shot by George Wirth, who became a director of Pagewood (Film) Studios after his retirement in 1930.