The Good: Decent capturing of the time and place of the circus in the 1950s
The Bad: Light on plot, character and acting, No DVD bonus features.
The Basics: Despite some technical problems, The Greatest Show On Earth was not entirely predictable, making this circus lovestory melodrama worth seeing.
My wife has been subjected to so many Best Picture Oscar-winning films lately that she more often refuses allowing me to screen them in the house these days. Because I've had a bad cold the last few days, or perhaps because I started working the part of her job that she has loathed for months, when we returned home today and showered, she did not put up a fight when I asked to watch one of my Best Picture winners. And it was about halfway through The Greatest Show On Earth that she turned to me and remarked, "This isn't the worst Best Picture we've watched."
She's right, but at the same time, I found myself far more lukewarm to the film than she did. This might be the first time she has liked one of the movies I've had on more than I have! The Greatest Show On Earth," the 1952 Best Picture Winner is an annoying melodrama mixed in with all of the spectacle of an actual Ringling Bros. - Barnum and Bailey Circus. For the record, the only circus-related film or program I can recall enjoying was Carnivale (reviewed here!) and that was not for the carnival/circus related aspects. For me, it reinforced the same idea that sports movies leave me with: it is better to be at the real thing than to watch it on television. One of the unsurprising Best Pictures where the film's director did not win Best Director at the same time, The Greatest Show On Earth has moments which use obvious bluescreen shots or are framed so the truth menace or spectacle are edited out.
As the circus season begins, the show's manager for the Ringling Bros. - Barnum and Bailey Circus, Brad, is fighting to keep the circus on tour for a full season. As the financers try to whittle the circus down to ten weeks hitting only the major cities, Brad hires the Spectacular Sebastian as a performer for the center ring. This upsets Holly, who was going to be the center ring performer for the first time ever, but buys the circus a full season's run. As Sebastian and Holly compete for the audience's attention, Brad is pleased because the show is in the black.
One of the clowns, Buttons, appears to be a man on the run and Brad has to break-up a mob connection that is scamming customers on the midway. Holly oscillates in her affections between Brad and Sebastian, with whom the bond over high-flying stunts is more than just competitive, and the show looks like it will be the best ever. But when an accident sidelines one of the headliners, the dynamic between the leads changes and Brad's heart comes up for grabs!
The Greatest Show On Earth is very much a 1950s film, reinforcing gender roles of the time and keeping alive the notion that the people then lived in a simpler time. The movie features voiceovers which annoyingly characterize (repeatedly) the circus as a war machine. As well, there is a very contrived notion to much of the movie. The love triangles - Sebastian, Holly and Brad and Brad, Angel, and Klaus - are melodramatic and seem added to the movie mostly to give a plot and narrative to the film. In other words, this is not just a movie showing off the circus, it has some education on the behind-the-scenes elements of the circus and the melodrama of people when they are not performing.
The plot and character elements, however, are intercut with long segments where all the movie is doing is illustrating just what goes on at the circus. For my wife, this was quite satisfying because she had never attended a full circus. For me, it became less impressive because I went to the circus several times as a child. However, while the spectacle of the circus is impressive in real life, it is less so on film. Editing and framing minimize the danger of some of the show's best stunts and as a result, the film actually falls short of capturing the full spectacle of the circus.
As well, director Cecil B. DeMille not only frames shots poorly, but edits the movie terribly. There are a ton of bad cuts, between poor bluescreen shots that have multiple cuts and choppy cuts, like when Klaus begins to beat someone with a bat. The Greatest Show On Earth is an odd mix of obvious and impressive. The character elements are often predictable in a 1950's sensibility. As a result, while some bad things happen to virtually all of the characters, there is a sense that things will work out. As well, the way women are treated is awful, not only by men but by the way they talk about themselves.
The odd element is that The Greatest Show On Earth is like a ridiculous war story. The melodramatic way the members of the circus rally in order to make sure the show goes on, it presented almost the exact same way classic war stories develop relationships between characters where buddy loyalty and the importance of the mission is prioritized above all else. And while in war scenarios where the actions of the platoon do have huge consequences that can be exceptionally important, the entertainment of the circus is far less immediate and important, no matter how one dresses it up.
Charlton Heston plays Brad. . . melodramatically, but adequately. Similarly, Betty Hutton (Holly), Cornel Wilde (Sebastian) and James Stewart (Buttons) give adequate performances, but nothing truly extraordinary. This is not a defect of the actors, but of the characters they play, who are more "types" than individuals. Buttons is a man with a past who seems kindly and good. Sebastian is a cocky performer and Holly is a lovestruck woman who just needs to pick a guy to love. None of these are terribly original or impressive, so the actors have very little to work with.
On DVD, The Greatest Show On Earth is presented with no bonus features or special programming.
While I would argue that this is hardly one of the best films of all time and it took a bit to make it more than just an extended advertisement for the circus, it was entertaining and it held my interest and my partner's interest for the duration. It is certainly worth seeing, especially for those who have never been fortunate to attend the real thing.
[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project available here! Please check it out!]
For other classic movies, please check out:
Raiders Of The Lost Ark
For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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