I've been watching all the movies that have won the Oscar for Best Picture. Next on my list was the 1952 winner, Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth. Incredibly, this was famed producer DeMille's only Oscar win. (He lost Best Director for this film and Best Picture for the 1957 film The Ten Commandments.) He also received an honorary Oscar in 1950 for his 37 years of "brilliant showmanship."
Part documentary, part drama, part musical, the Technicolor film blends real circus performances with the fictional story of some performers. A visual extravaganza, the movie strives to bring the circus alive but sometimes drags as a result.
The competitors in the Best Picture category were High Noon, Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge and The Quiet Man.
The movie also won the Oscar for Best Writing for screenwriters Fredric M. Frank, Theodore St. John and Frank Cavett. It tells the behind-the-scenes story of Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus, following the show on its summer tour, where love affairs, accidents and crime add to the excitement. DeMille purchased the rights to use the circus title and facilities for $250,000, then spent two months touring the Midwest with the circus, collecting anecdotes, slang and behind-the-scenes ideas. He also advised the writers to watch the German film Varieté (1925) for inspiration.
Throughout, the film blends actual scenes of circus performers working and performing with fictional behind-the-scenes vignettes. While the circus acts are usually fascinating, the lengthy scenes of the tents being put up and struck, the train cars being loaded and pulled out, accompanied by florid narrative, seem out of place.
The grandness of the production must have impressed contemporary audiences, who might have watched circuses but had never seen it from all angles. Sadly, I had to watch it in pan-and-scan format, since a widescreen copy was not available from Blockbuster.com.
Charlton Heston, as circus manager Brad Braden, glowers through most of his scenes, in typical Heston tough-guy mode. No wonder his long-suffering girlfriend, Holly (Betty Hutton), accuses him of having sawdust in his veins. Heston, legend has it, won his role with a particularly manly wave. He was driving through Paramount Studios when he spotted DeMille, whom he'd never met. Heston waved, and DeMille was so impressed that he made inquiries leading to Heston being cast. This was only Heston's third film.
Hutton as Holly is alternately breathy and composed in her role of a trapeze artist who longs for glory. She is first jealous of a dashing new trapeze artist, The Great Sebastian, and then begins to fall for his charms.
For his part, Cornel Wilde as The Great Sebastian, is convincing as a charming womanizer whose bravado is ultimately his undoing. At DeMille's insistence, he and Hutton learned to truly perform the circus stunts they enacted on screen. This was especially difficult for Wilde, who had to perform both on the trapeze and the high wire and who was seriously afraid of heights.
Gloria Grahame, in her role as Angel, an elephant trainer and performer, had to actually learn to ride an elephant, to be carried in its trunk, and to allow it to rest its foot an inch from her face. Lucille Ball was DeMille's first choice for this role, but when she got pregnant, Grahame replaced her. Paulette Goddard strongly campaigned for the role but was turned down when she refused to learn the stunts.
Jimmy Stewart, infallibly charming, is perfectly cast as Buttons the Clown, who continually wears makeup because he's running from a terrible secret.
Despite the grand circus performances, the most captivating part of the movie is, indeed, the story. DeMille could have trimmed down the 152-minute running time by cutting back on the heavily narrated sections, and the story might have had even more impact.
Just as the movie fascinated contemporary viewers by its depiction of circus life, it will fascinate modern viewers for capturing the impressive feats of long-gone performers.
Rating (out of 5): **
A little flash and dazzle is all you need.