Directed By: Cecil B. DeMille
Starring: Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston
Tag line: "The Heartbeat Story of Circus People, Filmed with the Cooperation of Ringling Bros. - Barnum and Bailey Circus!"
Trivia: A barker, kept anonymous until the very end, is heard in the closing moments of the film. The voice is finally revealed to be that of Edmond O'Brien
Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth details the trials and tribulations of circus life, and while the movie has its moments, it’s Oscar win for Best Picture of 1952 marks an early example of the Academy getting it very wrong.
To ensure that the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus plays an entire season, general manager Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) hires The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), the world’s most renowned trapeze artist. Unfortunately, this means the circus’ current trapeze artist, Holly (Betty Hutton), who also happens to be Brad’s main squeeze, will have to give up the center ring, which she’s none too happy to do. This leads to a professional rivalry between Holly and Sebastian, with each continually trying to out-do the other. Along with his dueling stars, Brad also must deal with a variety of problems, including the crooked carnival games run by a low-life named Harry (John Kellogg), and the mysterious past of the circus’ most popular performer, Buttons the Clown (James Stewart).
DeMille was the master of herculean-sized stories, and there are moments in The Greatest Show on Earth that fit the bill. The scenes where we watch the circus pack up to move to a new town (actual footage of Ringling Bros. doing the same) are impressive, though their impact is somewhat diminished by the director’s own ridiculously over-the-top narration (“Into the sunshine of spring, the circus rises from its winter hibernation, spic and span and ready for eight months of excitement and adventure.”). The sequences showing the circus performers in action are also well handled (Holly’s and Sebastian’s trapeze act generates some real tension), and the grand finale, a remarkably staged train wreck, is the kind of sprawling scene DeMille was known for. The problem is that, for most of its running time, The Greatest Show on Earth doesn’t tell a story worthy of its director’s epic sensibilities. In many respects, it’s just a soap opera, with jealousies, love triangles, etc., certainly nothing to justify the grandiose treatment the material receives. The bottom line is: The Greatest Show on Earth is no Ten Commandments, and instead of making a larger-than-life film, DeMille produced a bloated two and a half hour movie that should’ve been cut down to about 90 minutes.
Of the films nominated that year, I would’ve chosen High Noon as Best Picture, though The Quiet Man and John Huston’s Moulin Rouge might have caused me to think twice. The real travesty, however, was that neither Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful nor the classic musical Singin’ in the Rain, both released in ‘52, were even up for the top award. Sure, The Greatest Show on Earth is, at times, a fun movie, but it’s no Best Picture, and with all the other fine films that year, it probably shouldn’t have even been nominated in the first place!