I didn’t particularly mean to watch this movie at all. As a Cecil B DeMille epic, it isn’t the sort of thing that normally appeals to me, since I tend to like movies which are on a smaller scale. But I noticed in the TV listings that James Stewart played a clown, which seemed like such surprising casting that I was tempted. So I turned it on as background viewing while doing some paperwork – and within a few minutes the paperwork was thrown to one side.
I suppose the initial attractions for me were the lavish costumes and the amazing Technicolor, which add up to a breathtaking mixture and make it hard to tear away your eyes from the screen. There is also masses of circus action – with the whole film almost seeming to be one long parade and series of stunts, and the human dramas just happening in snatched moments in between.
The main story revolves around the circus struggling to stay on the road despite financial pressures and manage to run a full profitable season. Charlton Heston plays Brad, the workaholic ringmaster who seems to be married to the circus. To ensure its success, he brings in a famous trapeze artiste, handsome womaniser The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) – but this infuriates Brad’s on-off girlfriend, also a trapeze artiste, Holly (Betty Hutton), who is thrown into Sebastian’s shadow. She is determined to prove she can outdo him, and the two begin a series of reckless stunts high above the crowd, night after night – inevitably leading to disaster, when Sebastian plunges to the ground and is badly injured. These scenes of rivalry on the high wire are compelling to watch, probably the most exciting sequences of the whole film, with the stunts seeming to go on and on. Surely parts of these scenes must have been performed by expert members of the Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey’s circus, but on the screen it’s all seamless and looks as if it really is Wilde and Hutton doing it all. And, of course, there was no CGI, so it is all really happening.
I don’t think I’d seen any films starring Betty Hutton before, so I was slightly surprised to see that she gets top billing in this star-studded production. I’m not sure a woman would get top billing in an epic production like this nowadays (assuming one was made in the first place!), so it’s good to see that it could happen in the 1950s. As well as Hutton getting top billing, I find it impressive that her character is shown as truly loving her job and absolutely dedicated to it – she talks about how much she loves being so far above the earth, and how only another “flyer” can really understand it. At the end of the film Holly is still performing gleefully, rather than being brought down to earth – and in fact it’s up to her character to ensure that the show goes on after a dramatic train crash leaves preparations in ruins and several stars injured.
Having said all that, I don’t quite see why Hutton was such a big star at the time. Yes, she is beautiful and she has a distinctive, breathy speaking voice, but, at any rate in this film, she doesn’t seem to have all that much personality, and her occasional songs soon start to grate – as does the love triangle between Holly, Brad and Sebastian, with her apparently unable to make up her mind between the two men.
Although James Stewart must be the most famous name in the cast and was at the height of his career at the time, he’s not given top billing , so presumably was attracted by the opportunity to take a featured role and play against type. His clowning scenes are beautifully performed, and it’s soon clear that his character, Buttons (I’m not sure if we ever learn his real name) is a clown crying inside. He wears his greasepaint all the time, in and out of the ring, and it becomes apparent that he is doing this to hide a secret. There’s a scene where he is doing his best clowning, with his huge painted smile, while his mother, in the crowd, whispers to him how worried she is about him and how she fears he will be caught.
It seems the clown is a top surgeon on the run, after the mercy-killing of his sick wife. There’s a short scene where he talks to Holly about love, without telling her his own story, but quoting Oscar Wilde’s ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’ – “Each man kills the thing he loves” . He doesn’t say he is quoting, but recites two or three lines from the poem and it makes a powerful impression. I’m now trying to remember other scenes in classic films where characters recite poetry.
One aspect of the movie which is probably worrying to many modern viewers is the use of performing animals – especially in the visually stunning train crash scene, where big cats are seen slowly climbing out of the wrecked carriages. I wouldn’t go to see a circus which used animals nowadays, but, in all honesty, this aspect didn’t ruin the movie for me.
All in all, I found this Paramount Pictures production, which also stars Gloria Grahame as Holly’s love rival, and Dorothy Lamour as another member of the circus, an exciting epic to watch, although I don’t quite see why it won the Oscar for best film.