On Thursday February 28th, TCM continues its 31 Days of Oscar films, among them Best Picture-winner THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH.
A time capsule of ‘50s mainstream entertainment, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH features popular stars, Technicolor photography, and a plot heaping with soap suds— and it was the #1 box office attraction of its year.
There is no doubt that this movie won the Oscar for Best Picture as a reward to Cecil B. DeMille for his pioneering achievements in the medium and for a career of popular movies, many of them epic undertakings, rather than solely on this one film’s own merits. THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH is one of the least impressive Oscar-winning Best Pictures, but it does entertain in that irresistible DeMille fashion— super corny but a big, splashy show.
It tells the epic tale of life behind-the-scenes of the “greatest show on earth,” when a traveling circus hopes to stay in the black by relying mainly on outsider trapeze artist (and ladies man) “The Great Sebastian” (Cornel Wilde) and their own expert female trapeze artist “Holly” (Betty Hutton) who vies for the attention of the crowds and eventually Sebastian himself. Charlton Heston is “Brad Braden,” the no-nonsense head of the company who keeps everyone in check. Heston is a pro handling DeMille’s over dramatics and stilted dialogue (“Holly, this is circus.”)— no wonder DeMille gave him Moses in the even more over-the-top TEN COMMANDMENTS. The others in the cast, particularly Betty Hutton, fare much worse in rising above such lines as Holly’s: “You haven’t got anything but sawdust in your veins!” Also among the troupe is sexy “Angel,” (played by Gloria Grahame) who knows Sebastian from the past, but her trained elephant Ruth is much more interesting and integral to the plot beats.
Framing the film is DeMille’s voice-of-god narration about this “greatest show on earth.” DeMille expertly integrates many real acts (an entertainment bonus) including: a horseback riding dog, the “world’s smallest bareback rider,” and a man who jumps rope on the trapeze; we also see such famed real-life clowns as Lou Jacobs and Emmett Kelly. During Dorothy Lamour’s “Lula Lady” number, when her fellow ladies climb ropes and swing from them, the camera pans across the audience revealing a terrific unbilled cameo, which I won’t reveal— but it adds to the fun. We are also treated to second unit work of how the big top is erected. Additionally, the Technicolor vibrancy— of the cotton candy, the floats, the colorful costumes— is among the film’s main assets. Victor Young’s jubilant score keeps the film “up” as well.
The suspense is old-school Hollywood (Sebastian and Holly are doing their acts without nets!/ Who is the mysterious clown “Buttons” [James Stewart], and why is he never seen without his make-up?…. Hmmmmmm). On top of such diversions as the “Buttons” subplot is one involving gambling cheats at the booths, which only serves to show what a tough guy Brad is and how he keeps the show in line. Then Sebastian is injured!— but is the damage permanent? The plot leads to a big finale, involving the circus train and some none-too-convincing special effects (even for 1952). Can the troupe pull together and still put on a show? Spoiler alert: You bet ya!
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952): One of the least impressive Oscar-winning Best Pictures, but entertaining in that irresistible Cecil B. DeMille fashion— super corny but a big, splashy show— with bonus entertainment value in real-life circus acts of the day.