A recent showing of Strangers on a Train (1951) on TCM got us to thinking about carnivals in movies—in particular certain rides that figured into the plot and even gave its main characters a thrill or two. From the midways of Paper Moon (1973) and Some Came Running (1958) to cheap horror flicks set in abandoned parks to the attractions in Amélie (2001) and Hairspray (1988), there was no shortage of rides from which to choose. We’ve narrowed our focus to a handful of majors films, favorite movies where fun rides add to the story.
Ace in the Hole (1951)
Without consulting director Billy Wilder, Paramount changed the name of the movie from Ace in the Hole to The Big Carnival in a failed attempt to attract more of an audience. The revised title is a nod to the media frenzy surrounding a man named Leo Minosa trapped in a New Mexico mine and the attempts to release him. Ambitious, down-on-his-luck journalist Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) jumps on the story and deftly delays the rescue efforts in order to exploit the tragedy and sell more papers. It works, drawing tourists and carnies peddling cheap thrills as the drama unfolds.
Annie Hall (1977)
Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) attributes his rather nervous personality to growing up in a house under the Thunderbolt rollercoaster at Coney Island. Singer’s father ran the amusement park’s bumper cars, shots of which are juxtaposed with Singer’s fender-bender attempts to leave a Sunset Strip parking lot after meeting Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) at a health food restaurant. Both the rollercoaster and the Singer house, in reality the Kensington Hotel, were demolished in 2000.
Gordon MacRae plays Billy Bigelow, a barker for the carnival ride of the title where he meets millworker Julie Jordan (Shirley Jones). They marry, he gets fatally shot while committing a robbery, Julie gives birth to their daughter and he spends the rest of the movie trying to make things better from beyond the grave. Frank Sinatra was originally cast as Bigelow and bolted soon after filming began when he learned that each scene in the movie would be shot twice to accommodate differing projection formats among theaters. One take would be for regular Cinemascope and one take would be for Cinemascope 55. By the time MacRae, who at the time was headlining a nightclub act in Lake Tahoe, joined the cast, the producers figured out a way to convert Cinemascope 55 to Cinemascope, thus invalidating the need for double filming.
East of Eden (1955)
Cal (James Dean) and his brother’s girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris) take a ride on a Ferris wheel and develop their affection for one another in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel. Kazan cast Harris over the concerns of Jack L. Warner, who considered her a decade too old for the character. Dean was cast instead of Paul Newman, who appeared alongside Dean in an early screen test.
The 400 Blows (1959)
A troubled 12-year-old skips school, runs away from his less-than-attentive parents, steals a typewriter and lives a generally scrappy existence in François Truffaut’s landmark new wave film. One such foray takes him to a fair where he takes a spin in a centrifuge next to, in a Hitchcock-like cameo, Truffaut himself. The director is also seen afterwards smoking a cigarette while standing near the ride.
“I’m not pregnant!” shouts Betty Rizzo (Stockard Channing, above right, with Didi Conn) from the Ferris wheel during the senior-year send-off in Paramount’s hit musical. At 33, Channing was the oldest actor in the group of teens, but many of her fellow high-schoolers were not far behind: Michael Tucci was 31, Jamie Donnelly was 30 and Olivia Newton-John was 28. (John Travolta, at 23, was a mere pup.) The “You’re the One that I Want/We Go Together” finale takes place at the school carnival, first in the fun house, then on and around various rides and games.
Mary Poppins (1964)
A chalk drawing leads to a flight of fancy where the magical nanny of the title (Julie Andrews), along with her friend Bert the chimney sweep (Dick Van Dyke), take little Jane and Michael Banks on an adventure involving merry-go-round horses that break free, take part in a fox hunt and race with each other. P.L. Travers, the book’s author, fought against the chalk-drawing sequence and lost the battle to Walt Disney. She did, however, have casting approval of the main character and was won over by Julie Andrews with a mere phone call to the actress. Disney originally entertained the notion of having Angela Lansbury, Mary Martin or even Bette Davis play the title role. He changed his mind after seeing Andrews on Broadway in Camelot. The actress finally committed to playing Mary Poppins the day after she was learned that Audrey Hepburn would take over the role Andrews originated on Broadway in the film version of My Fair Lady (1964).
State Fair (1945)
The Rodgers and Hammerstein number “A Grand Night for Singing,” performed by the entire cast, covers a lot of the fairgrounds, including an amusement park airplane ride with Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain. Both were dubbed—Crain because she couldn’t sing and Andrews because the studio was unaware of his trained voice. Not wanting to deprive his singing double of a job, the actor did not make a fuss.
Strangers on a Train (1951)
A carnival becomes the setting for a killing and, later on, a showdown between killer and suspect in Alfred Hitchcock’s murder exchange thriller. Just before she is offed by Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), Miriam Haines (Laura Elliott), the wife of tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger), takes a ride on the carousel with her buddies. By movie’s end, the out-of-control device becomes a death trap for one of the main characters. According to Hitchcock, the shot of the old man crawling underneath the speeding merry-go-round was not a process shot but an actual old man crawling underneath a speeding merry-go-round. The director vowed never again to film such a dangerous stunt.
The Third Man (1949)
Built in 1897, Vienna’s Weiner Riesenrad (literally “Viennese giant wheel”) becomes the meeting place for fugitive Harry Lime (Orson Welles) and author Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) in Carol Reed’s mystery about stolen penicillin and suspicious deaths. Orson Welles supplied much of the scene’s famous dialogue: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love—they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”