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What's Going on in Beely Circus?
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by Jay Seaver

"A fine swashbuckling programmer."
3 stars

One of the things I'd always assumed about the silent era was that international distribution was easier and more common; after all, to bring an English-language film to Germany or vice versa, a studio would just have to replace the intertitles or cutaways to written notes with translated versions. No fake-seeming dubbing, and the audience was already expecting to read the dialogue. This does not seem to have been the case, though: "Metropolis", for instance, had a terrible time securing U.S. distribution, and the films of Harry Piel are all but unknown to the Anglophone world.

If What's Going on in Beely Circus? is representative, then this is perhaps not a tragedy on the order of the world not knowing the works of Chaplin or Murnau. It's still a remarkable vanishing act; at the peak of his popularity, Biel's films occupied over a third of his nation's screens. Now, he not only exists in obscurity, but much of his prodigious output is simply lost (Beely Circus is the only feature that survives in its entirety). It's a shame, not just because all lost works are unfortunate, but because Piel - called "the dynamite director" after the amount of action scenes included (and explosives used) in his pictures - so dominated the German box office that he could scarcely have avoided being a major influence on a generation of German filmmakers.

In Beely Circus, Piel directs and stars as Harry Peel, a man-about-town secure enough in his wealth that he does not seem to have to either work for it or mention its source. As the film opens, he's reluctantly getting dressed up for a night at his exclusive club. It's a sort of stodgy environment for this man of action, but old friend Robert Jackson (Ralf Ostermann) will be there, recently returned from South America. They barely have time to speak, although Harry will hear from him later that night, calling from a pay phone as he's attacked at the auditorium he had recently acquired. Harry promises Jackson's pretty sister Rose (Ilona Karolewna) that he'll investigate, although police detective Bull (Fritz Greiner) would prefer he left the matter to the authorities.

Harry is a pugnacious protagonist, somewhat in the Douglas Fairbanks mode - handsome, athletic, and clearly ready to buckle any swash that needs it. He's a roaring twenties action hero, overflowing with energy, uncomfortable in the tuxedo he wears at first, and ready to confront any problem he might find head on. Beely Circus is a murder mystery story in form, but Harry isn't the sort of amateur sleuth who cracks a case by looking for tiny clues or asking witnesses and suspect questions where the tiniest detail may be important. He'll occasionally go undercover, but prefers relying on his fists and raw nerve. Toward the middle of the film, he's thrown in a room with a tiger, which most would consider dangerous, but Harry Peel is so tough that he can basically stare it down and then have the big cat follow him around to intimidate people in later acts.

I figure that was the appeal of Piel's films - that Harry was this larger-than-life pulp hero who could handle any problem with direct action. He swings on ropes, tames wild animals, finds secret passages and falls in with the dead man's sister because, in this sort of movie, that is the natural order of things. He chases criminals but still sticks it to the man in his dealings with the police. Pretty simple stuff, but fun in that way. It's a basic meat & potatoes action movie, and though it doesn't feature any huge set pieces, it seldom slows down close to a stop.

Pity so few of Piel's movies survive. "Beely Circus" isn't going to be one of my favorite silents, but the guy was popular for a reason.

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originally posted: 01/15/06 02:46:57
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Directed by
  Harry Piel

Written by
  Max Bauer

  Harry Piel
  Charly Berger
  Eugen Burg
  Fritz Greiner
  Erich Kaiser-Titz
  Ilona Karolewna

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