The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

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.

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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.

GreatestShow2The 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.

Charlton Heston and James Stewart in his full clown make-up

Charlton Heston and James Stewart in his full clown make-up

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.

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A dramatic scene after the train crash

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.

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14 thoughts on “The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

  1. Pingback: Twitted by 40s50sMovies

  2. Well Judy, it most definitely did not deserve the Best Picture in a year when SINGIN IN THE RAIN, HIGH NOON and LIMELIGHT (of the American films) were released, and it is certainly one of Oscar’s most embarrasing moments. Yet, in spite of this, I agree with you that it is still an endearing, entertaining film, and that it’s eternally-effervescent creator was receiving recognition that had eluded him for decades. Had he not won here, he probably would have later in 1956 with his THE TEN COMMANDMENTS remake of his own silent by besting the film that did win, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS.

    Yes, I loved Stewart’s clown character too, as he evinced some inner sadness in addition to (as you assert) his ‘clowning scenes being beautifully-performed.” I also don’t see any talent in Hutton, but as you note she was quite the headliner of her time. But Judy, at the end of the day, as you point out at the outset of this most accomplsihed review, the ravishing Techicolor (this is one of the greatest showcases of the process) and the costumes do count for something, and in this film, because of its subject more than most.

    Best Picture? Not hardly. But still a terrifically entertaining De Mille.

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  3. Thank you so much for visiting my blog and sharing your thoughts, Sam! I think it was definitely the Technicolor and the costumes that hooked me. I hadn’t realised all those great films were released the same year.

    I must admit I haven’t seen much DeMille – I have seen one of his silent films, ‘Carmen’ (1915), which I liked, but it was before I started blogging so I never wrote about it; I’d like to see it again, though. Even that film was on a grand scale with a bullfighting scene (worse than the animal scenes in the circus!) where there were thousands of extras, I think – quite something for such an early film – as well as colour washes for many of the scenes.

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  4. 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.

    If this is the only movie you have ever seen Betty Hutton in, then I suggest that you watch more of her work.

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  5. I have to agree with you and Sam, this film winning Best Picture has to be an embarrassment. Sam mentioned other worthy films from that year. A couple of others that could or should have been considered are Kazan’s “Viva Zapata” and “The Quiet Man.” “High Noon” was considered a leftist western and since this was during the McCarthy hearings it is probably safe to say, many who would have voted for it backed away. I actually watched bit and pieces of the film yesterday, (it was on TCM) while I was setting up my new DVD recorder (my other one inconsiderately broke down on me), and I do agree, with you both again the Technicolor is amazing in the film. Not a film I would particularly pick to watch, though those bits and pieces I mentioned become longer as I watched. A wonderful detailed review, Judy.

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    • Thanks very much for your kind comments, John, and hope your new DVD recorder goes well! As you may know, on the Packard Pictorial blog Kitty has been writing about the technical aspects of Technicolor, which is quite an eye-opener for me. I hadn’t realised why it tends to seem so much warmer/richer than other kinds of colour.

      I’m interested in your point about ‘High Noon’ possibly being voted against because of the McCarthy hearings. I did read somewhere that DeMille may have gained more support at these Oscars because of his backing for McCarthy, which I suppose is another side of the same coin.

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  6. I was born in 1952, and I love HIGH NOON and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, but I’m glad that the oscar that year went to THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH.
    Its one helluva great “feel good” overblown movie that I have to watch at least once a year. Heston as Brad Braden looks suspiciously similar to Indiana Jones, and guess what? this was Spielberg’s favourite movie as a child.

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    • Thanks for commenting, James – interesting to hear about the Spielberg and Indiana Jones connection! A feelgood overblown movie seems to sum this one up perfectly.

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  7. Hi Judy
    Another Heston connection to Indiana Jones is the movie SECRET OF THE INCAS.
    Btw – my daughter sent me a text while I was at work last week. She told me she was watching THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH on Channel 4 and that she was loving every minute of it. She added that it brought back rosy memories of us all as a family years before sat around the fire watching this great movie at Christmas. THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH really is a classic ‘feel good’ movie.

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    • Thanks for visiting and pointing out the further Indiana Jones/Charlton Heston connection, James. I agree that this is a feelgood movie, though it is a little while now since I saw it.

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  8. Pingback: Academy Monday – Watch: ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ (Cecil B. DeMille, 1952) | Seminal Cinema Outfit

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