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The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)


  • Review: ** (out of ****)
  • Starring: Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame, Henry Wilcoxon, Lyle Bettger, Lawrence Tierney, Emmett Kelly, John Kellogg, Frank Wilcox, Robert Carson, James Stewart
  • Director: Cecil B. DeMille
  • Screenplay: Frederic M. Frank, Theodore St. John, Frank Cavett, Barr Lyndon
  • Length: 152 min.
  • MPAA Rating: Unrated

In cooperation with the Ringling Bros.-Barnum &BaileyCircus, Cecil B. DeMille mounted the huge production of The Greatest Show on Earth and came away with a huge success.

Success can be measured in many terms. The film won theAcademy Awards for Best Picture and Best Motion Picture Story. However, thesewere only two of five nominations, not a very healthy for any Oscar year. The Greatest Show on Earth was a hitwith audiences, taking in more than $36 million at the box office. In inflateddollars, the film made more than $390 million, a staggering total for thatperiod, and the biggest success in a decade (Bambi was the last film to do so well in 1942). Its only failurewas overall quality.

The Greatest Show onEarth is a lumbering mess. The entire plot of the film is easy to sum up.Holly (Betty Hutton) is a trapeze artist who had the center ring to herselfuntil the company, led by stern Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) agreed to hire onrenowned trapeze artist The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) in order to appeaseinvestors who didn’t wish to allow the circus a full season’s run. This pushesHolly out of the center ring and she goes to great lengths to try and showSebastian up, much to Brad’s chagrin.

Accidents happen and a love triangle develops between Brad,Holly and Sebastian. An ultimate tragedy unites two in the triangle and thethird finds love with another circus performer. It’s all very trite andshallow…and, without the extraneous spectacle, would have consumed only aboutforty-five minutes of the aggravating 152 minute length.

The rest of the film is a virtual travelogue of the circus.It talks about the setup and take down, the day-to-day operations and featuresdepressingly long stretches of circus performances that don’t feature any ofthe film’s stars. So gratuitous was DeMille’s attempts to draw in audiences,dozens of cameos flit through the picture, including Bob Hope, Bing Crosby andHopalong Cassidy. Even the sad hobo clown played by Emmett Kelley makes anappearance.

The performances are bargain basement affairs. Heston putson his play-tough exterior and gives the same performance he’s given dozens oftimes before and since. Starlets Dorothy Lamour and Gloria Grahame turn insmile-and-wave acts as subsidiary circus performers and Lyle Bettger glowersafter his pet Angel (Grahame) as the irritating elephant trainer Klaus.

Hutton does her best to keep focus of the film on hercharacter, as does Wilde. Both give adequate performances that are neitherstellar, nor outwardly awful. Many of the other characters in the pic arefleetingly important and scarcely entertaining.

There is one performance and storyline that floats among thedetritus. James Stewart plays a lovable clown on the lam for a crime on theoperating table. If caught, he would certainly go to jail. He has hiddenhimself among the misfits of the circus in hopes that he won’t be caught. As weall know, it is inevitable that his capture occur during the picture and,satisfactorily, it comes at the most dramatic and appropriate time.

Writers Frederic M. Frank, Theodore St.John, Frank Cavett and Barré Lyndon worked on the story of this disorganizedpicture. It’s surprising they won awards for the hokey dialogue andunconvincing characterizations featured so prominently in the film.Nonetheless, it is highly likely that DeMille had a greater hand in making itfeel as haphazard as it does. The film looks like any number of travelogues ofthe period. There are numerous scenes where the performers are obviously on asound stage and not on location as you can see the scenic-transposed glowaround their images with a darker, more grainy setting in the background. Theediting features a number of nasty jump cuts and flows so miserably that thefilm feels far longer than it is.

Unless the viewer is watching with kids, there are asignificant number of sections, one can fast forward through. If you see circusprocessions and musical numbers, it’s advisable to move on. And beware of theinsanely catchy song “Greatest Show on Earth”, written specifically for thefilm. It became such a recognizable part of the film that the song is stillfeatured today in many advertisements for the circus.

Though the setting bears little resemblance to one ofOscar’s other misfires, The Greatest Showon Earth is little more than a rehash of the stylistic plot of The Great Ziegfeld. Both films featuredlarge production numbers interspersed into a limitedly entertaining plot, Ziegfeld just spent more time exploringthe ups-and-downs of the life of an interesting figure in the lead role. Greatest Show on Earth followed a rollercoaster path but the only interesting figure was in a supporting role. It iscertainly an extravaganza for boys and girls of all ages but don’t expect adeep and socially serious plot.