Greatest Show on Earth, The (1952)
Release Date: January 10th, 1952 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Cecil B. DeMille Actors: Betty Hutton, Charlton Heston, Cornel Wilde, Gloria Grahame, Dorothy Lamour, Henry Wilcoxon, Lyle Bettger, Lawrence Tierney
e bring you the circus … ” The film begins as if a documentary on the industry, with a narrator explaining the setting and that the following story will be about the people behind the scenes – the men and women fighting to make the circus the “Greatest Show on Earth.” It’s a mechanized army on wheels, taking 1,400 employees with strong discipline to set up and take down the enormous big top (with a canvas weighing 58,000 pounds), as well as all the props, rigging, and high wires, in quick time for transportation to the next venue. As the narrator insists, it’s also a show where death is constantly watching, since the stunts and daredevilry continually push boundaries.
Of course, it’s also a business, which needs to make money. So when the top brass threaten to skip all the small towns in favor of the money-making bigger cities, circus boss Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) raises hell. He has a trick up his sleeve to get the executives to stick with a full season of shows, however, and that is the surprise recruitment of aerialist “The Great Sebastian” (Cornel Wilde), a finicky, conceited showman who only performs in the center ring. Unfortunately, with Sebastian as the new star, Brad’s girlfriend Holly (Betty Hutton), boasting a stunning trapeze act, gets booted from the spotlight.
For further conflict, Mr. Henderson (Lawrence Tierney) and his lackey Harry (John Kellogg) try to stir up trouble in a crooked game booth, while a later robbery is intended to keep the circus’ profits out of the black (strangely, it’s never mentioned exactly why Henderson is so intent on putting a stop to the business right from the start, for whom he works, or whether or not he has ties to organized crime). Plus, there are even escaped lions and tigers and a murderous elephant handler. But nothing is as ferocious as the many scorned women of the circus.
“Best publicity gag in a long time.” The narrator pushes back into the picture from time to time, reinforcing the idea that “The Greatest Show on Earth” is predominantly an advertisement rather than a fictional story designed for entertainment. This isn’t unexpected, considering the participation of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which used many real performers and workers alongside the starring actors. It also doesn’t help when Brad rides a vehicle around the center ring, or when he visits the individual players with their various specialties, or when the camera simply observes the thrilling performances, or when audiences react with exaggerated phoniness (or provide commentary) – all of which suggest mere publicity.
Of course, there’s also plenty of drama, though it’s of the generic, stale kind. Rivalries flare up, love triangles abound, and Buttons the clown (Jimmy Stewart, who never removes his brightly-colored makeup) hides a troubled past, yet none of these things can muster tension or anticipation. Jealousy and flirtations help to populate the dialogue, which is comparably uninspired, lending to a lackluster series of melodramatic interludes that break up the footage of genuine performances and parades. The film incorporates a large ensemble cast into the random shows, perhaps hoping to emulate the style of “Grand Hotel” (and lending to “Around the World in Eighty Days” a few years later), but none of the separate misadventures amount to anything with gravity. A few musical numbers also make an appearance, but they’re far from good enough to be memorable or even worth staging in the first place.
In the end, this bloated, self-indulgent, insipid, hopelessly sappy, Technicolor monstrosity is about as exciting as watching the face-paint dry on Stewart’s lined visage (or watching old circus footage from the ’50s – which is essentially all that transpires onscreen). Aspiring to be more than an attempt (faulty as it may be) at cinematic artistry, “The Greatest Show on Earth” aims to capture the events of a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey combined show, as if to preserve it for future generations, which makes it effective during the documentary segments to a greater extent than the dramatized ones (though together, neither fully works). At least, Gloria Grahame as a scantily-clad elephant rider eats up some of the dreadfully plodding 150-minute running time.
– Mike Massie