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The Greatest Show on Earth

The Greatest Show on Earth
Paramount Home Entertainment
1952 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 152 min. / Street Date April 6, 2004 / 14.99
Starring Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame, Henry Wilcoxon, Lyle Bettger, Lawrence Tierney, Emmett Kelly James Stewart
Cinematography George Barnes
Costumes Edith Head, Dorothy Jeakins, Miles White
Art Direction Hal Pereira, Walter Tyler
Film Editor Anne Bauchens
Original Music E. Ray Goetz, Henry Sullivan, Victor Young
Written by Fredric M. Frank, Theodore St. John, Frank Cavett and Barré Lyndon
Produced by Cecil B. DeMille
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Cecil B. DeMille's Best Picture Oscar winner is one of the least-deserving recipients of that award, and testifies more to the director's publicity clout than anything else. In 1952 DeMille's power on the Paramount lot was still considerable, enough that Billy Wilder, then smarting from a failure with his Ace in the Hole, felt obligated to say yes when corralled into a screening of the legend's newest movie about the circus. When it was all over and Wilder didn't know how to handle the praise DeMille expected, he solved his problem by telling the old man excitedly, "Mr. DeMille, you have made the greatest show on Earth!" Or so it's been repeated by Wilder's many biographers.

The Greatest Show on Earth has too much color and too many varied circus acts to be boring. The services of the Ringling Bros. circus provided most everything on-screen, making DeMille's contribution rather easy: one silly (but Oscar-winning) plot and a lot of hyped conflict. The actors do well considering the 3rd-grade level of the drama, and Charlton Heston proves himself a real star by authoritatively holding the center and not looking foolish. Too bad for Betty Hutton though, as her failed efforts to enliven a truly dumb character almost outweigh her previous excellence in gems like The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Annie Get Your Gun.


The Ringling Bros. circus wants to scale back its touring season but tough circus boss Marc Braden (Charlton Heston) uses intimidation to keep a full schedule, provided the show stays in the black. This means kicking aerial star Holly (Betty Hutton) out of the center ring to make way for the famous headliner The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), a womanizer already well acquainted with elephant wrangler Angel (Gloria Grahame). Braden has to contend with this drama while staving off the demands of crooked sideshow gangster Henderson (Lawrence Tierney) and keeping the 'circus army' on the move and ready for the next show. Observing all is Buttons the Clown (James Stewart), who never removes his clown greasepaint and appears to have a guilty secret.

The Greatest Show on Earth is hyped from one end to the other. The biggest issue with the circus in 1952 was how to keep the shows going, as the dozens in operation before the war had shuttered forever or were consolidating. DeMille's pompous narration couches the circus tradition in warlike terms. It's an army fighting threats on all sides, and only the vigilance and brute muscle of fighters like Marc Braden can hold it together. It all reminds me of the non-drama of an old Budd Boetticher WW2 drama called Red Ball Express that hypes the gritty spirit of behind-the-lines truck drivers: Potholes! Flat tires! Nothing stops them!

Anyway, DeMille's Cold War circus gets more interesting away from the combat metaphors. This is by far the biggest movie showing authentic circus acts and a lot of the running time is padded with okay Technicolor coverage of real performances. But the hype factor gets in the way. Circus performers are meant to be viewed from 40 yards away and people who can do wild tricks and great stunts rarely look like Hollywood stars. So we have plenty of big-names to hog the attention of the camera. Dorothy Lamour is pleasant enough as an all-purpose performer, handling the interchangeable, bad dialogue with Gloria Grahame's elephant girl. The attempt at snappy comeback lines is pitiful, probably the fault of DeMille's taste.

Betty Hutton is the main casualty. She's convincing as a trapeze artist and presumably had a great match in a stunt double. But she just plain doesn't look that attractive. When lothario Cornell Wilde zeroes in on her from fifty yards away, it's simply laughable. Add to that the character's insipid non-personality, always expressed in exclamations and excited declarations, and she becomes really tiresome.

The men come off much better. Heston is great when he's allowed to exude understated command. He's ridiculously bigger than life, but a circus movie needs that. Marc Braden routinely barks stupid orders at people, telling them how to do their jobs, which DeMille equates with authority at work (like a movie director). The silliness becomes even more obvious at the end when he's incapacitated - Hutton takes over by suddenly snapping out a string of meaningless orders at people already heavily engaged in their work. I think they'd hit her with a shovel and be finished with her.

Not at all bad is Cornel Wilde, the much-maligned actor (The Big Combo) with a physique like an action hero. In realistic movies he often seems to be made of plastic, but as an overbearing and wolfish trapeze star he's fine. The strained foreign accent helps too. The character goes a little odd when DeMille sticks him with a Lon Chaney-like gnarly claw to represent a paralyzed arm (!), yet Wilde handles it well. By that time we've had two hours of cornball theatrics, and little things like gnarly claws no longer seem as foolish as they should.

James Stewart gives one of his most overrated performances as Buttons, the Clown With a Dark Past. As Bill Murray said, he's the "crying on the inside" type. Three year-olds could decipher the grossly unsubtle "hints" that Buttons isn't what he seems, and the drama of the clown risking capture to help out his fellow circusites is incredibly phony. It's also odd that The Greatest Show on Earth has the most famous clown of the 20th century, Emmett Kelly, but uses him only for a few cutaways. Stewart stumbles around doing mostly unfunny clown schtick.

Poor Lyle Bettger is the "evil" German elephant tamer. Neither his malice nor that of the bad guys headed by Lawrence Tierney make a whole lot of sense outside of a 1915 melodrama. Like Bettger's really going to threaten to crush Hutton's head under an elephant's foot? Are circus trains really good robbery targets?

The Greatest Show on Earth wraps up with an exciting variation on the disaster ending. That already worked well for DeMille in the bizarre Madame Satan, in which a crazy party on a dirigible is cut short when it crashes. Here there's one heck of a crash that uses model trains fairly well. The general panic afterwards is pretty tense, and there's a really strange feeling of chaos when the tigers and lions are set loose. Otherwise the effects are just so-so, with the mighty Paramount optical department trying its best to enliven unconvincingly-designed travelling mattes. DeMille uses them as frequently as he does rear projection, adding to the artificial atmosphere. The aerial trapeze action, however, isn't bad and doesn't rely too heavily on effects.

No matter how much it's hyped, the circus still comes off as an entertainment from another era that seems like more trouble than it's worth. The performers immediately stage a show at the site of the train wreck. Yes, Savant's wicked, I couldn't help but imagine the faceless crowds tripping over a forgotten disaster victim on the way to the improvised grandstand. During performances, DeMille cuts away to audiences faking awe and delight (are those all studio employee kids?) peppered with familiar faces (Mona Freeman, the dreamy Nancy Gates) and a few cameo ringers. As kids, we responded heartily to the cameo appearance of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby munching popcorn. Kathleen Freeman and Noel Neill are supposed to be in there somewhere too. For who-knows what reason, Edmond O'Brien delivers a kiss-off line at the very end, sticking out of a circular graphic like Bugs Bunny in a Merrie Melody cartoon.

Paramount's DVD of The Greatest Show on Earth looks fine. The studio clearly no longer sees this as a prestige title like The Ten Commandments as the disc is a budget release with no extras. But the picture is bright and snappy and the (mostly terrible) songs nicely recorded. I skipped the awful Be a Jumping Jack tune ... it's just too painful. There are a few really good circus movies. Carol Reed's Trapeze is a vastly superior circus drama, and the guignol-inflected Circus of Horrors generates a pretty-good circus atmosphere too. The movie fantasy with by far the best circus nostalgia is still the animated Dumbo.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Greatest Show on Earth rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 3, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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