Friday, March 22, 2013


When one starts a new endeavour there are things that need to be learned.  I learned one of those things this week.

I thought I was being clever, taking one of the all-time classic silent shorts and writing up a full description of the action, but as it turns out, it was a lot of work!  So, fair warning, I'm probably never going to do that again.  But I did do it, so here we go....

You have seen Sideshow, right?  It is one of the seminal works of slapstick comedy of all time.  It is one of the very first  Muybridge Legacy short films (Shot in 1913 - yes, 100 years old!) yet it still holds up.  It stars Shao and Zi Zhe, a pair of real-life Siamese twins. (Allegedly - there is some controversy alluding to fraud, but that is not my business here.) And actually manages to deconstruct the classic Hollywood fist-fight before there was a Hollywood, or a set of fist-fight tropes to deconstruct.  Seriously, this is genius before it's time.

               EXT.  FAIRGROUND - DAY
               A busy day at the circus. The calliope whistles
               rhythmically belch steam. Families arrive at the fair
               grounds in wagons, motor-cars and also on foot.
               Carnies, vendors, sideshow acts and the midway are all set
               around the centre-piece, the big top. People are lined up
               just to get inside the enormous tent.
               The fair is set up beside a rail-line which stretches off
               across the prairie to the horizon. Colorfully painted rail
               cars sit on a side-line. One of them bears a clearly
               identifiable symbol on the side - a red cross.
               INT. MEDICAL CAR - DAY
               A Doctor gives two men a simultaneous check-up. Checking
               their throats, the heart beat of each, reflexes of one
               foot, two feet, three feet...
               The doctor sighs gravely and puts his stethoscope away
               before turning around and facing his patients... Who are
               Siamese Twins, joined at the hip with only three legs!
                                   DOCTOR (TITLE CARD)
                         Your shared kidney is near worn
                         out. It can't keep up for the
                         both of you. One of you is going
                         to have to make a big sacrifice.
               Shao points at Zi. Zi points at Shao. Shao emphatically
               sticks his finger right in Zi's face. Zi sticks his finger
               in Shao's face. Shao grabs Zi around the throat. Zi does
               the same to his brother and the two of them start
               throttling the life out of each other as they stagger out
               the door.
               EXT. FAIRGROUND - DAY
               They continue to choke each other as they wobble onto the
               A group of roustabouts are pushing two rail cars together.
               Shao and Zi step out of the way just as the two cars slam
               together where they were just standing.
               They stumble through the outer edge of the crowd. They mix
               up their tactics - alternating between choking and trying
               to pry one another's hands from their throats. People look
               on in confusion. One Carny with a big wooden mallet cries
                                   CARNY (TITLE CARD)
                         Step right up. Ring the bell and
                         win a prize!
               Zi grabs the mallet and takes a swing at Shao. The combined
               momentum of the mallet and Shao's dodge throws the pair off
               They fall through a canvas wall, landing in the
               confectionery. Where Zi lands, popcorn falls over his head.
               He looks up and sees the hot-pot. So does Shao. Shao pushes
               his brother's head into the side of the pot. Zi screams and
               Zi pulls down a rack of cotton-candy. Shao finds himself in
               a swarm of pink and blue. He can't see. As he bats the
               batts away, Zi pushes him up and through another canvas
               The back of their legs catch the edge of a platform and
               they land on their backs and are swooped away - they've
               fallen onto the carousel.
               Zi punches Shao. They get to their knees. Shao punches Zi.
               They get to their feet. Zi swings at Shao, but Shao pulls
               his head away - only to get clocked by a rising carousel
               horse. He staggers off the edge of the rotating platform.
               They land on the bumper-car floor. Boink! A car just misses
               Zi's head. He rolls away, dragging Shao with him. Boink!
               Shao is nearly hit. Boink! Boink! Boink! The children
               driving the cars are actually trying to hit them! Shao and
               Zi scramble to get out of the way.
               They keep running on their three legs. They pass side show
               signs - "The Amazing Mr. Lifto!"; "The Incredible
               Rubberman!"; "Wonder at the Illustrated Man!"; "The
               Astounding Two-Headed Man (Closed Due to Sickness)." They
               find themselves standing between the sword-swallower and a
               juggler, juggling machetes.
               Shao sees the sword swallower and pulls his sword right out
               of his gullet like it was a sheath. As Shao swings at Zi,
               Zi grabs a machete out of the juggler's throwing pattern
               and parries Shao's blow.  
               They hack and slash their way past the bearded lady and
               between bursts of the fire-eater's deadly breath, until
               Zi's hefty blows with the machete corner Shao against the
               sturdy wall of the strongman's chest. Zi raises for the
               fatal blow, but the strongman grabs his hand. He shakes his
               head in disgust. He lifts Zi up - Shao dangling from him -
               and tosses him (them) aside.
               They land on the hood of a colorfully painted coupe filled
               with clowns.  
               INT. BIGTOP - DAY
               The car drives through the door of the big-top honking it's
               horn, clowns practically falling out of each window. 
               The car circles the centre ring and pulls to a stop,
               catapulting Shao and Zi off the hood. Clowns pour out of
               the coupe and swarm Shao and Zi who defensively raise their
               weapons as they are circled by the multi-coloured horde.
               Bap! Bap! A pair of cream-pies land in their faces.
               Suddenly their blades are gone and they are sprayed with
               seltzer. Clowns have each of their outer two legs in hands,
               leaving the twins perched on their single middle leg. The
               clowns run around them in circles and let-go, leaving them
               spinning like a top, reeling across the centre ring between
               the legs of stilt-walkers.
               The crowd in the stand laughs as the twins come to a stop
               amongst the trained-dog act. The one dog riding on another
               nips at their shared posterior. Shao grabs the pup off the
               other dog and pushes the snarling dog into Zi's face.
               A dancing pony prances past and Zi grabs hold, swinging
               himself up onto it's back. Shao, dragged behind, drops the
               dog and flails madly.
               The crowd roars with laughter. A second pony comes along
               side of the first, prancing in synchronization. Shao pulls
               himself up on the second pony. They ride alongside of one
               Up ahead Shao sees the blindfolded knife-thrower's act. He
               takes the reigns of his pony and steers Zi towards the path
               of the knife thrower's blades. Zi grabs his pony's reigns
               and steers Shao into the path. Back and forth, back and
               forth, Shao then Zi. Zing! A knife whizzes between them -
               nicking the highest point of the shared portion of their
               body. Both look at the blood. Who exactly has been hit?  
               The ponies run under a leathery gray wall - but it's too
               low for the twins. They land on the sawdust floor stunned.
               An elephant towers above them. It trumpets and begins
               stomping about.
               The crowd screams with delight and fear.
               Shao and Zi wrestle with each other. The elephant's feet
               slam down - Whump! Whump! - Each time narrowly missing one
               of the twin's heads.
               They roll out of the way of the elephant, right into the
               face of a lion. The lion roars, so does the crowd. Zi tries
               to push his brother's head into the lion's maw. Shao grabs
               a nearby rope and wraps it around his brother's neck,
               choking him.
               Nearby a snake-charmer plays his gourd-flute. The rope
               begins to rise, lifting Shao and Zi with it away from the
               lion. The lion swats at them as they rise out of it's
               reach. Shao continues to strangle Zi as they lift up...
               up... up. Trapeze artists fly past them and they keep
               They find themselves high above the ground and still
               rising. Zi is almost done in when they are lifted to the
               level of the high-wire. The tightrope comes down between
               them, forcing Shao to let go of Zi. Suddenly without the
               support of the fakir's rope they are forced to cling to the
               They push. They shove. They bite at each other's grip. They
               are exhausted. Shao takes one last desperate lunge at Zi.
               Zi dodges to the side. Shao has over committed. Zi has over
               balanced himself. Both reel desperately on the edge of
               balance before their shared body plummets.
               As they fall their eyes meet - they share a tear, and hug
               just as they hit bottom... A safety net.
               The crowd goes wild!
               The people filling the stands throw money, screaming with
               The ring-master hurries over to Zi and Shao.
                                   RING MASTER (TITLE CARD)
                         Boys, what an amazing act. You
                         work brilliantly together! I'm
                         taking you out of the freakshow.
                         You have got to be the new
                         feature act.
               Shao and Zi look at each other. What hollow news - they
               still haven't solved their problem.
                                                             IRIS OUT

Shao & Zi Zhe in later years

No comments:

Post a Comment