The Greatest Show On Earth is an almost unbelievably cheesy cornball movie, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, released in 1952. That year it won a very dubious Oscar for Best Picture, but is widely regarded as the least-deserving film ever to take that award (and that’s even if you consider Braveheart). The film is a schmaltzy but visually spectacular soap opera about circus performers, specifically those in the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, from which the film gets its name. Although it contains a number of adult storylines, it seems to have been conceived as a “family” movie, with a substantial amount of its turgid 2 1/2 hour running time given over to actual circus performances.
When I was a kid, about 8 or 9, The Greatest Show On Earth was one of my favorite movies. It was one of those sorts of “comfort movies” you sit around and watch when you’re home sick. I probably saw it last when I was not much older than 10, and then after my family’s early home video system–a Capacitance Electronic Disc (CED) system, if you can believe it–went obsolete in the early 80s, we never replaced the video of this particular movie when we finally got a VHS player. The movie wasn’t even available on DVD for many years. Not long ago, though, I searched for it on the web and found it. Despite the sometimes disappointing results of watching as an adult films you loved as a kid but haven’t seen since, I ordered it–it was only $4.
The truth is, as cheesy and groan-inducing as it is, The Greatest Show On Earth is actually a pretty interesting movie. As both a historical artifact and a piece of popular entertainment it has considerable merits. It’s probably not worth Best Picture, but it’s far from the total fluff that most people knowledgeable about film write it off as. Let’s examine some of the reasons why…but first, you must get a taste of exactly how corny this horribly corny film is.
The opening scene of The Greatest Show On Earth sets the stage for the kind of movie this is going to be. Want some wine with that cheese?
The plot, if you can call it that, is so thin it could be written on toilet paper. Brad (Charlton Heston), the circus boss, is in love with Holly (Betty Hutton), an acrobat. But in order to make the show profitable he has to hire another acrobat, Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), who steals Holly away from him while conducting a duel of aerial feats show after show. There are also a host of subplots, such as a crooked gambling game being run by the Mafia within the circus, a creepy elephant trainer who is stalking one of the performers (Gloria Grahame), and a clown (James Stewart) who’s secretly a doctor on the run from the law after having euthanized his terminally ill wife. (This subplot caused the Catholic Film Board to criticize the film and warn Catholics not to see it). Astonishingly, it took six writers and about $200,000, or so I read, to come up with this plot; the script wasn’t even finished when DeMille started shooting in 1951.
The plot is secondary, though. The real point of the movie is to show how the circus works, and TGSOE is a very interesting snapshot in time. In the early 1950s, the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, as an institution, was on its last legs. The company, which suffered horrible losses (and jail sentences for a few execs) after the tragic 1944 Hartford circus fire, never recovered from World War II. With mounting costs and shrinking crowds, the old days of a traveling circus under a Big Top tent were numbered. TGSOE was filmed at the tail end of the Big Top era. Indeed just five years after the film’s release, in 1957, John Ringling North–who makes a cameo appearance in the film–made the fateful decision to scrub the traveling Big Top format and perform in fixed buildings, which greatly changed the style and presentation of the circus.
Therefore, TGSOE shows the traveling Big Top circus not only in its decline, but in a curious way at its apotheosis–technologically and professionally. Though in the film we see a lot of circus numbers, all drawn from the Ringling Brothers 1951 season, we also see a lot of tractors, railroad cars, forklifts, an several extended sequences showing how the Big Top was put up and even where some of the circus’s labor came from. (Note, many of the day laborers were African-Americans). It’s clear DeMille wanted to tell a story against this backdrop, and it didn’t really matter what the story was.
The unbelievably badly-written lines uttered by Cornel Wilde in The Greatest Show On Earth are arguably the film’s low point. And this clip isn’t even the worst of it–there’s a love scene later on.
The movie naturally sanitizes the circus experience. You see crooked games and a spectacular train crash, the climax of the picture, caused from within the circus, but these threats have an external sort of feeling; they are forces acting upon the circus and threatening to sully its wholesome, squeaky-clean, fun-for-kids-of-all-ages image, but the movie never questions that image. You do not see animal cruelty, for instance, which has always been a major issue with circuses, and the very marginal on-the-fringe existences of many circus performers and employees is only hinted at. Thus, you have to look hard to see what must have been the real circus in the early 1950s: sick animals, low-skilled labor, the challenges of life and work on the road in a transient and unstable profession at the edges of the already most unstable of all businesses, show business. Trying to glimpse what the circus was really like, to live in it and work for it, between the frames of DeMille’s candy-coated bauble is one of the interesting things that makes the movie endearing in a very unintentional way.
But the film makes you pay for this insight, and pay dearly. The dialogue, particularly that emitted by Cornel Wilde, is so laughable that it sounds exactly like Pepe LePew, the smarmy cartoon skunk from Warner Brothers cartoons. The film deals out clichés like a blackjack dealer throws cards on the table. Women fall in and out of love too easily and all they want to do is please their menfolk–a portrayal of gender relations you can expect from a 1952 movie. DeMille himself narrates the film, and his narration is extremely heavy-handed and melodramatic. The happy ending, where the circus triumphs despite the disaster of the train crash, is so twee it just makes you turn away from the screen in embarrassment.
The train crash. This scene is reportedly what caused Steven Spielberg to decide, at age 5, that he wanted to be a filmmaker.
Why did this picture take the top award at the Oscars, especially when it was up against some heavy competition, like John Wayne’s The Quiet Man, or High Noon, one of the greatest Westerns ever made? The answer: McCarthy. The film, originally supposed to come out in the summer of 1951, was delayed until January 1952; this was the era when the summer was typically an off season for movies, and the studio, having lavished $4 million–a lot of money in the ’50s–on the production wanted to be sure to earn it back. By this time Joseph McCarthy was leading his witch hunt against Communists in Hollywood, and the number one informant was future president Ronald Reagan. One of the people Reagan fingered as a potential Communist was Carl Foreman, the producer of High Noon, who was later blacklisted. The selection of TGSOE for Best Picture is thought to have been a move by the Academy to demonstrate that Hollywood still approved of “all-American” pictures.
Despite its obvious faults, TGSOE is curiously endearing. The circus acts, most of which are genuine, are at least fun to look at; DeMille faced a number of technical challenges in shooting them (for instance, his crew had to invent new riggings for cameras that could shoot the acrobatic scenes, because cranes and scaffolds couldn’t be used in the Big Top). My favorite moment in the film is the lavish musical number in which Phyllis (Dorothy Lamour, of the Hope/Crosby pictures) croons a song called “Lovely Luawana Lady,” a suggestive ditty that seems to refer to sexual adventures by U.S. servicemen in the South Pacific during World War II–a theme you’d never dream would pop up in a kids’ movie about the circus. And the train crash. Of course, the train crash. If there’s one scene this film will be remembered for, it’s the train crash–though it probably deserves to be remembered for more than that.