- Director: Cecil B. DeMille
- Writers: Fredric M. Frank, Theodore St. John, Frank Cavett, and Barré Lyndon
- Starring: Charlton Heston, James Stewart, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame, Henry Wilcoxon, Lawrence Tierney, and Lyle Bettger
- Accolades: 2 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Story), 3 additional Oscar nominations (Best Director – Cecil B. DeMille, Best Film Editing, Best Costumes)
- Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), stream with subscription to Amazon Prime or Paramount Plus, Buy or rent of Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV
I knew that The Greatest Show on Earth was going to be interesting about the point the opening credits closed with “and Starring James Stewart as ‘Buttons,’ a Clown.” Not “Buttons the Clown,” mind you, but “‘Buttons,’ a Clown.” About half an hour in, I said, out loud, “Wow, this is terrible.” About an hour and a half in, I said, “I’m surprisingly interested in this, but I can’t believe there’s still an hour left in this movie.” By the end, I think I’d mostly swung back to the movie being terrible. There are bits of this movie that swing really hard into melodrama in ways that the script and the things that happen in the movie really do not support. There are other parts where it feels like the great director Cecil B. DeMille would have been better served (and would have been happier) had he just made a documentary about the logistics of putting on a circus instead of having to string along a weird romantic pentagon plot in which absolutely none of the individual points are convincing and which somehow leads to a spectacular train crash.
I am not alone in my somewhat derisive assessment of The Greatest Show on Earth. It generally comes in near the very bottom in rankings of Best Picture Winners from best to worst, and has only a 47% on Rotten Tomatoes currently. Even at the time of its win in 1952, it was considered a highly political and controversial selection. High Noon was considered the favorite, but was a thinly-veiled allegory for McCarthyism written by a blacklisted screenwriter, at a time when the McCarthy hearings were very much ongoing. Meanwhile, Cecil B. DeMille was both highly popular (and had never even been nominated for an Oscar before) and a known conservative Republican. The charitable reading at the time was that the voters were basically giving Hollywood titan Cecil B. DeMille a “Lifetime Achievement Award” (by coincidence, the Golden Globes Lifetime Achievement Award is now named after him). What anyone voting for the movie with that rationale could not have known is that his next, and final, movie, The Ten Commandments, would turn out to be almost universally thought to be both better and more popular over time than this one.
Cecil Blount DeMille directed his first movie, The Squaw Man, in 1914, so early that it is sometimes cited as the first American feature film, though that is probably not the case. He was credited at the time with essentially inventing modern movie lighting, having adapted lighting from his days in the theater to film. He would immediately transition to sound movies upon their invention, and is credited with being the first director to use a boom microphone and the camera crane. He became particularly well known for a series of “biblical epics,” a rare successful holdover from early, silent era Hollywood to mid-20th Century, Red Scare-era Hollywood. In 1949, he directed Samson and Delilah, which became the highest grossing movie Paramount had produced up to that time. In 1950, he appeared as himself in Sunset Boulevard, which ends with the Norma Desmond’s famous line, “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
The Greatest Show on Earth was a close collaboration between DeMille and the Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus (at one point, Betty Hutton’s character laments that she will always come fourth in the eyes of Charlton Heston’s circus boss, after “Ringling, Barnum, and Bailey.”). As such, it sometimes seems to basically serve as corporate propaganda in ways that my 2021 radar is probably way more attuned to than mass audiences in 1952. More than 60 different actual circus acts appear in the movie (sometimes, we just sit there and watch whole acts for no apparent reason in terms of the plot), so if you like the circus, I’m sure you’ll have a great time. Time Magazine called the movie, “A mammoth merger of two masters of malarky for the masses, Cecil B. DeMille and P.T. Barnum.” Mixed in with this, to varying effect, are a long litany of Hollywood stars. This was one of Heston’s first big starring roles, but he is surrounded by talent more popular at the time, including Gloria Grahame (who spends much of the movie being carried around in an elephant’s trunk), Dorothy Lamour (best known for starring alongside Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in a series of “Road To…” movies, both of those stars appear, along with many others, in brief cameos here), and Jimmy Stewart, whose mysterious clown never takes off his makeup.
The main “story” centers around the romantic conflicts between Heston’s “Brad Braden,” who runs the circus while it’s on the road, his sometimes-paramour of an acrobat, played by Betty Hutton, and a new, brash acrobat called “The Great Sebastian” (Cornel Wilde) who is supposed to be the show’s new big attraction that year. Meanwhile, there is also a conflict with vague criminal elements that are following the circus around for some reason. I guess they’re like the circus mafia? It is bizarre. The movie is at its best when Hutton and Wilde are competing with each other to do increasingly elaborate and dangerous tricks on the trapeze. DeMille never tires of switching between the tricks themselves, lazily transfixed audience members (he goes back to the well of kids absent-mindedly licking their ice cream while staring upwards a minimum of seven times during the running time of this thing), and circus members themselves, who know enough to understand that they should be very, very worried. Body doubles were reportedly only used for Hutton and Wilde in long shots, so they basically had to learn to physically do everything that they’re shown doing in the movie (albeit only a few feet off the ground).
I would say that, for me, of those 60 circus acts there are like 30 too many, and a lot of those are pretty boring. A bigger problem is that whenever the circus acts stop and the characters actually have to talk to each other things get much worse. The dialogue is just so overdramatic, and Hutton delivers lines like the one above about Barnum & Bailey with the absolute maximum of dramatic emphasis. Heston, meanwhile, basically wears an Indiana Jones outfit while biting off tough guy aphorisms, which would feel more earned if he were a world-weary Humphrey Bogart type and not a random dude who works at a circus. Can you tell the circus is not necessarily my thing?
This was more Betty Hutton than I’d seen in a while, so I did a dive into her story. Having grown up in a speakeasy run by her parents in prohibition-era Detroit, she got her first big starring role in Preston Sturges’ 1942 hit The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek. Just before this movie, she had played Annie Oakley in the big MGM musical hit Annie Get Your Gun, and at the time was one of the biggest stars in the movies. This fame would wane quickly, however. She suffered through pill addiction, multiple divorces, a nervous breakdown, the permanent loss of her singing voice, and a massive house fire that killed her mother. In 1977 she was featured on The Phil Donahue Show, where it was revealed that she was working, apparently happily, as a hostess at a “Jai Alai Arena” in Rhode Island. She went on to make a successful comeback on stage in the 1980s that included a popular role as Miss Hannigan in a Broadway production of Annie.
The Greatest Show on Earth’s biggest sin, really, is not being interesting enough to people who aren’t super into the circus to sustain its 150 minute running time. This was one of those movies where I found myself frequently checking how much time was left in it, and there was always more time left than seemed possible. That it’s remembered at all (moreso, say, than DeMille’s prior hit, Samson and Delilah), is entirely a product of it winning the Best Picture Oscar through a very specific confluence of circumstances. Unfortunately, that’s not a great reason to watch it today.