Greatest Show on Earth

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The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

Apr 24, 2000 (Updated Apr 24, 2000)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:costumes, cinematography

Cons:script, characters, direction

There's a film critic for the local daily who has been there for years. Whenever the Academy Award season rolls around, he unfailingly cautions not to put too much stock in the Oscars. After all, wasn't The Greatest Show on Earth awarded Best Picture?

Yes, it's true. In a year with such great films as Singin' in the Rain, High Noon and The Quiet Man, it was Cecil B. DeMille's extravagant circus epic that won the Oscar.

The Greatest Show on Earth may be the worst film ever to win Best Picture. Admittedly, many people will enjoy the hammy performances, the overheated narration, and the cheezy special effects (especially the big train wreck, accomplished using models). And there are a few good lines scattered among the hokey script. My favorite is, "I'd hate to have your nerve in a tooth!"

But you have to be a very forgiving person to make it through the entire 153 minute film. There's a great deal of complete fluff, such as the 'gay nineties' costume parade, and the Hutton/Stewart duet, which obviously has been dubbed. The narration is dramatic to the point of parody. The comic relief mostly falls short as well: a woman deliberately burns a man's hand with a hot iron; a loudmouth father points out the Mad Hatter to a wide-eyed child.

Not to mention the various overlapping love triangles. Holly (Betty Hutton) is a pixie-headed high flier who is sweet on circus manager Brad (Charlton Heston), as is elephant trainer Angel (Gloria Grahame). But tough guy Heston, in the first of his many, manly epic roles (The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, Planet of the Apes) cares only for the circus.

Enter smiling, conceited, charming Frenchman Sebastian (Cornel Wilde). He is an aerial acrobat who is nearly as famous for his skills at seducing women. Having finished with Angel, he goes to work on Holly. Holly tries to make Brad jealous, while Holly and Sebastian compete for the center ring by attempting ever more dangerous stunts. Meanwhile, stupid, lovestricken German animal trainer Klaus (Lyle Bettger) tries to win Angel from Brad. But Brad will have nothing to do with Angel, at least not until she wins his heart by packing his pipe properly.

Apart from all the intertwined romances, we slowly learn why Buttons the Clown (James Stewart) never takes off his makeup. Surprisingly, it turns out that it isn't because he is embarrassed to be associated with the film.

Look for Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in a cameo as part of the circus audience.

Producer/director DeMille spent a year traveling with the circus in preparation for the film. He demanded that the actors learn the circus skills that their role required. As a result, that really is Grahame, with her lovely head resting inches below an elephant's raised, monstrous foot. She was also carried about by the trunk of an elephant. Allegedly, Cornel Wilde was afraid of heights, and was the complete opposite of his daredevil character. A trench had to be dug to place a camera creating the illusion that he was high up in the air.

The Greatest Show on Earth was later adapted as a television series, which ran for one season between 1963 and 1964.

In addition to Best Picture, the film also won the Oscar for Best Story. It was nominated for Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Costume Design. (35/100)



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