Fairs on film have evoked a nostalgic atmosphere of Americana, as typified by the three film versions of State Fair. Will Rogers starred in the original 1933 film about a family’s adventures at the Iowa State Fair, but the 1945 version, boasting Rodgers and Hammerstein’s only film score, remains the best remembered. The turn-of-the-century musical Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) ended with the opening of the 1903 World’s Fair and also provided Judy Garland with one of her biggest hits “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Elvis Presley attended the Seattle World’s Fair in 1963’s It Happened at the World’s Fair. A belly dancer caused quite a sensation at the 1890’s Chicago Fair in Little Egypt (1951). Jean Simmons’ brother mysteriously disappeared without a trace at the 1889 Paris Exposition in the intriguing mystery So Long at the Fair (1950). And The World of Tomorrow (1984) provided a retrospective look at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
In contrast to frivolous fairs, carnival films have tended to offer a darker view of life. Spencer Tracy played a ruthless carnival promoter who has visions of Hell in the 1935 curio Dante’s Inferno. Tyrone Power, in a change-of-pace role, was a heartless carny hustler who hits the big time in the spiritualism racket in Nightmare Alley (1947). He gets his comeuppance, however, and eventually winds up as a sideshow freak. Linda Lawson played a sideshow mermaid who actually believed herself to be a descendant of the murderous Sea People in Curtis Harrington’s minor cult favorite Night Tide (1961). A spooky carnival run by the mysterious Mr. Dark invaded a quiet, Midwestern town in the underrated 1983 adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s chilling Something Wicked This Way Comes. Elvis returned to the scene, this time working for Barbara Stanwyck, in Roustabout.
Less human monsters seem to prefer amusement parks over carnivals. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) was toying with the Coney Island Cyclone rollercoaster when Lee Van Cleef shot him up with radioactive isotope. Godzilla battled his archnemesis Ghidrah, along with several other creatures, in a children’s amusement park in Godzilla on Monster Island (1971), one of Toho’s sillier pictures. The amusement park in Gorilla at Large (1954) featured a murderous ape who turned out to be Anne Bancroft (!) in a gorilla suit.
George Segal tracked a madman specializing in sabotaging rollercoasters throughout the nation in 1977’s Rollercoaster. It was filmed in real amusement parks (e.g., King’s Dominion in Virginia) and presented in “Sensurround,” a sound system which simulated rumbling vibrations during key scenes. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 classic Strangers on a Train featured several amusement park scenes, including the thrilling merry-go-round climax. Likewise, the famous hall of mirrors showdown in Orson Welles’ Lady from Shanghai took place in an amusement park crazy house.
The cinema’s most famous amusement park is Coney Island, which provided the setting for Sinner’s Holiday (1930), Coney Island (1943), its remake Wabash Avenue (1950), Little Fugitive (1953), and the aforementioned Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953).
The rollercoaster rumbles in Rollercoaster may have been deafening, but the most stomach-churning rollercoaster footage still belongs to 1952’s This Is Cinerama, which projected its speeding dives and turns on a 165-degree curved movie screen.
Below is a a representative list of classic movies about fairs, carnivals, and amusement park:
Sinner’s Holiday (1930)
The Half-Naked Truth (1932)
Take a Chance (1933)
State Fair (1933)
Dante’s Inferno (1935)
Strike Me Pink (1936)
Road Show (1941)
Coney Island (1943)
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
State Fair (aka It Happened One Summer) (1945)
Nightmare Alley (1947)
Lady from Shanghai (1948)
Are You With It? (1948)
The Third Man (1949)
Wabash Avenue (1950)
So Long at the Fair (1950)
Texas Carnival (1951)
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Little Egypt (1951)
Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952)
Meet Me at the Fair (1953)
Little Fugitive (1953)
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
Gorilla at Large (1954)
The Glass Tomb (aka The Glass Cage) (1955)
Dance With Me, Henry! (1956)
All at Sea (1958)
Night Tide (1961)
State Fair (1962)
It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963)
She Freak (aka Alley of Nightmares) (1967)
Godzilla on Monster Island (aka Godzilla vs. Gigan) (1971)
Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978 TVM)
The Funhouse (1981)
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
The World of Tomorrow (1984)
Breaking All the Rules (1985)
Ghoulies II (1987)
Two-Moon Junction (1988)
Reprinted with the authors’ permission from the Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series.
What are your favorite films set in fairs, carnivals and amusement parks? Tell us in the comments!
Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!