The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
Director: Cecil B. DeMilleProducer: Cecil B. DeMille
Writer: Fredric M. Frank, Theodore St. John, Frank Cavett, and Barré Lyndon
Cinematography: George Barnes
by Jon Cvack
Considered one of the least deserving Best Picture Winners of all time, beating out the perennial classic High Noon - likely do to McCarthy’s Commy Witch Hunt - Cecil B. Demille at least exudes the fortitude that most other silent era filmmakers failed to exhibit. This is not a great film, but aside from High Noon, none of the other Best Picture nominees (Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge, and The Quiet Man) were all that good either. It’s a big, long film, that I actually kind of enjoyed, having broken it up into smaller forty-five minute fragments.
The story is as simple as it gets - basically capturing the Barnum & Bailey Circus on screen, creating a decent story within the two and a half hour run time. It’s this latter point that pales in comparison to the former. Allegedly this was the first movie Steven Spielberg had ever remembered seeing. There’s something very magical about that bit of trivia, as this movie embodies the grandness that films should possess. I can’t imagine seeing this story in the theaters, having never seen the circus, or having any other method other than print photos or news reels to see what it was all about. Interjected between the hackneyed narrative is a voice over that highlights the “army” it takes to run the circus - everything from raising the tent (which was one of the coolest scenes) to herding the animals (which showed how aged the film is) and various performance acts involved (most played by actual B&B performers).
Charlton Heston plays Brad Braden, the manager of the circus, who has just been informed by the Executives that the circus is losing money and needs to either cut its tour down significantly, or find an act that could bring in new and larger audiences. Brad vies for the former, offering the coveted Center Ring to “The Great Sebastian” (Cornel Wilde), who’s a death defying trapeze artist and braggart, taking the position away from Brad’s kind of/maybe girlfriend Holly (Betty Hutton), whose endless whining and starfuckering really ends up driving you crazy by the end, as she first starts with Brad because he’s the top dog of the show, but then goes to Sebastian as he takes center ring, but when Sebastian gets hurt (in a really cool scene, involving getting rid of his safety rope), she then goes back to Brad for the final time, essentially demonstrating that she only wants to be with the person who has the most power and/or could elevate her in the quickest manner possible; that is, getting to the center ring, which she does when Sebastian falls. Added is Betty Hutton’s strident voice that makes her politicking all the more annoying.
Sebastian then finds a different woman who - counter to Holly - doesn’t care that he has a deformed hand and now sells peanuts. Charlton Heston finds his perfect role, as even though this entire movie is about the Circus, his conviction in the role feels as though it’s the most important thing in the world. I kept thinking of Brad Pitt from Moneyball and how strangely similar the parallels are between a Circus Manager and General Manager, as both have to answer to the Money Men and remain profitable, all while dealing with the seemingly endless colorful personalities.
And yet the best role goes to James Stewart, who I had no idea was even in this, playing Buttons the Clown, having his face painted up throughout the entire film, serving as the Master Guru who has an answer for every problem and done in a way that makes you love James Stewart all the more. However, Button has a larger secret in that he was once a Doctor who killed a man and the reason he’s a clown is because he’s hiding from the law. When the Detective finally comes into the show, for a reason that’s about as carelessly constructed as it can get - essentially, that for no reason at all, he just figured he’d come to this traveling circus in the middle of nowhere on this random day to see if the murderer was around. While Button repairs Brad’s ruptured artery after the train derails due to some Mafia People involved in the circus driving a car into an oncoming engine - where again, the Mafia characters seemed only here to get us to this disaster porn sequence, which is pretty cool. The Detective then sees Button helping the hurt, revealing his skills as a Doctor. When Holly decides to then set up the circus in a random field next to the train wreckage, even though people are hurt and they have no permit, Buttons decides he wants help, and the film’s most heart wrenching moment, no more than a flash, he forfeits the act. With those deeply expressive eyes, accentuated by Stewart’s untouchable prowess, we see him finally accept his fate.
Beyond the uninspired plot(s), this is a film that captures the Circus and its utter magnificence, provided with all the escape, grandeur, and mystery that cinema is supposed to provide.
BELOW: The thrilling moment where The Great Sebastian falls. Holds up well.
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