Many people have branded this the worst best picture winner of all time. I’m not sure I agree but I can completely understand where they’re coming from. The 1950s were an interesting time in the film industry. More on that later.
Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, this Technicolor showcase is set in the world of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
“This is the story of the biggest of the big tops and the men and women who fight to make it the greatest show on earth.” – Narrator (Cecil B. DeMille)
The story begins in Sarasota, Florida where the circus company is getting ready to hit the road for their new season of shows in towns big and small across America.
The circus is struggling to stay profitable so general manager Brad Braden (Charleton Heston) brings on Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) a suave, French high trapeze daredevil. Sebastian is a big draw but he’s known to be difficult to work with because of his penchant for romancing the ladies. After all, he’s very French.
At this point the film takes on the feel of movies like Major League where a ragtag bunch of misfits comes together to save their team/company/orphanage/farm/community center or in this case, circus.
But that trope quickly slips into more of a background subtext as the film devolves into a circus exhibition. In DeMille fashion, as in films like Cleopatra, Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments (twice), the film isn’t short on spectacle. But this one lacks any real depth of story and it heaps on the hokey relentlessly. The Greatest Show on Earth doesn’t feel like an Oscar-caliber film at all.
Calling these characters one-dimensional is being kind. Having one-dimension would be an upgrade for most of them, Sebastian most of all.
“We will make beautiful music together.” – Sebastian
“Cherie, the lights in your eyes are like stardust.” – Sebastian
“You are beautiful and exciting like wine.” – Sebastian
So corny. I was waiting for his hands to turn into candlesticks as he burst into song. Be… Our… Guest!
But Sebastian is there to help save the circus so he gets the center ring. He and a different trapeze act by a woman named Holly (Betty Hutton)…because it seems a circus needs two separate trapeze artists…perform simultaneously in different rings vying for the attention of the audience, trying to one-up the other with even more daring and dangerous feats, performing without a net.
This goes on for 10 full minutes.
In fact, throughout the course of the film there is a total of 38 minutes of uninterrupted circus performance scenes. That’s even more screen time than The Great Ziegfeld gave to follies performances and that film was over 3 hours long.
But I found myself longing for the circus scenes when DeMille’s narration would return for several minutes at a time explaining how the animals are fed, train cars are unloaded, elephants escorted to the grounds, tents erected.
“The all-important baling ring clangs into place. Bales of fireproof canvas, are hauled out, unwrapped, rolled out, stretched, laid on the ground, where it lies like the skin of a mighty dismembered giant, waiting for some magician to bring it together and give it life, waiting until, one by one, the giants ribs rise into place and are firmly fastened in the earth.” – Narrator (Cecil B. DeMille)
Seriously?!? Was this a propaganda movie financed by the circus industry?
At times it felt like a documentary about the circus. It reminded me a short film I saw on Mystery Science Theater 3000, Here Comes the Circus which, oddly enough, also had Emmitt Kelly in it.
Emmitt Kelly wasn’t the only celebrity cameo (although Kelly appears several times). Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Hopalong Cassidy are among those who show up, usually in the audience at the circus.
And boy does this audience LOVE the circus!
They marvel at every act with uproarious hilarity, awe, thrill and amazement. They gaze wide-eyed, shoving cotton candy in their gaping mouths. They’re incapable of looking away as they eat their ice cream smearing it all over their stupid faces. They applaud while still gripping their bags of popcorn, kernels flying everywhere. They can’t help themselves. After all, a midget on a horse just rode by wearing a silly hat. OMG!!!!
In-between circus performance pieces things happen. They don’t seem really connected to anything but I can confirm that they are things and they do in fact happen.
A duet with Holly and Buttons the Clown (Jimmy Stewart) on a trampoline breaks out accompanied by a jug band, washboard and all. Emmitt Kelly ends up on the trampoline and mayhem ensues.
There seems to be some flimsy subplot about Buttons’ mysterious past as a doctor wanted for murder. He euthanized his wife so now he’s a clown that never takes off his makeup so he won’t be recognized.
And there’s a cigar munching mobster called Mr. Harrison that seems to believe a travelling circus is the perfect place for a nefarious criminal enterprise of stealing wallets and ripping off customers with rigged games on the midway. Brad gets rid of Harrison’s henchman Harry when he stumbles across a shakedown.
But through it all Holly and Sebastian keep trying to one-up the other. Brad is concerned for their safety (and his financial investment in Sebastian) and insists on putting the net back in the act but Sebastian knocks it down before attempting a trick never before achieved.
“No Sebastian. Not without a net!” – Holly
Things don’t go well for Sebastian and it seems to lead to a muddled love pentangle with Brad, Holly, Sebastian, Angel (Gloria Grahame) and the German elephant trainer Klaus (Lyle Bettger). Klaus, jealous of Angel’s sudden interest in Brad, nearly has an elephant crush her head and Brad fires him on the spot.
Betty Hutton overacts so horribly it’s tough to watch at times. It seems like she’s trying so incredibly hard to… ACT! It’s such a departure from what I’ve seen in recent best picture winner. I’m not just talking about All About Eve. The acting in An American in Paris is better. Yikes!
Even in the moments that are supposed to be poignant and tragic the film lacks any emotional connection to the characters to make it work. And the writing and performances are so hammy it’s laughable.
With about 30 minutes to go a detective shows up looking for Buttons. Meanwhile Klaus and Harry get their revenge by robbing the money from the circus train as it rolls along to the next town.
Because there are two locomotives pulling two complete sets of train cars on the same track (???) with one stopped the other is closing in fast. Klaus realizes too late they’ll collide (???) endangering Angel. He pulls his car onto the tracks to try to stop the oncoming second train (???) but it can’t stop in time plowing right into Klaus and his car and both model trains crash… I mean… both trains crash sending cars flying everywhere.
I know it’s 1952 but this was a terribly fake looking visual effect. There are some really bad green screen effects in this movie too. I mean really, really bad. At one point Betty Hutton is on a trapeze and her body is semi-transparent.
After the crash the circus animals begin escaping from their cages. Brad is trapped under some wreckage but is soon freed when an elephant is used to rescue him. He’s on the brink of death and Dr. Buttons saves his life. As a result he exposes his identity and is later arrested by the detective who seems to feel bad about it.
Brad needs a blood transfusion and the only person in the circus with AB negative is Sebastian. What are the odds?!?
But the show must go on. Unable to make it to the next town they hastily decide to put on the circus at the site of the train wreck.
They put on a parade in the town inviting everyone to follow them out to the wreckage for the show.
Every single person in the entire town complies. Why? Because it’s the circus!
With Klaus dead the love pentangle becomes a more easily deus ex machinable square with Brad and Holly ending up together and Sebastian bizarrely proposing to Angel who, even more bizarrely, accepts.
This wasn’t as bad as The Great Ziegfeld. But it’s still pretty bad. The only people today I think would really enjoy it might be circus aficionados. Is that a thing? I probably shouldn’t Google it.
This was by far the highest grossing film of 1952 taking in 62% more than the 2nd highest that year (The Bad and the Beautiful). By comparison Finding Dory (2016’s top grossing film) only made 14% more than Rogue One.
The Greatest Show On Earth winning best picture is one of the great upsets in Academy history beating High Noon. Yep… High Noon, the classic western tale of a town marshal, torn between his sense of duty and love for his new bride, who must face a gang of killers alone lost the best picture Oscar to a movie about the circus.
But High Noon wasn’t the only great film to come out in 1952. Singin’ in the Rain and John Ford’s The Quiet Man were both released that year.
In the end The Greatest Show On Earth won two Oscars. One for best picture and one for best story. Since I still don’t know what the difference is between “best story,” “best story and screenplay” and “best screenplay” I have no idea how egregious that might be. I have a feeling the answer is “very.”
So… why did it win?
Some believe that in the early 50s The House Committee on Un-American Activities was coming into its height of Hollywood blacklisting. High Noon, was produced by Carl Foreman, who was a former member of the American Communist Party and wasn’t naming names. He would eventually wind up getting blacklisted. Marguerite Roberts, the screenwriter for Ivanhoe (another best picture nominee) had already been blacklisted. Cecil B. DeMille was a safe, conservative, anti-Communist choice.
Others believe it’s because the Academy loves them some Cecil B. DeMille! Three years before this film DeMille was awarded an honorary Oscar for being a “distinguished motion picture pioneer for 37 years of brilliant showmanship.” Not only was he nominated in 1952 for best director, they also gave him the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award that same night.
At this point in his life and career DeMille was starting to slow down. He’d directed 75 films between 1914 and 1944. But this was only his 4th film in the last 8 years. It looked like it might be the last chance for the Academy to honor him and it proved they were right. He would only make one more film, his 80th, The Ten Commandments, a remake of his own 1923 film. He re-teamed with Heston as Moses in the lead role. DeMille died 3 years later of heart failure.
After All About Eve the 1950s have produced two best picture stinkers. You’re starting to worry me 1950s. Get your act together!