1952 / Best Director / Best Picture

Film #180: The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

The more Best Picture winners I watch the more interested I am in lists that have been devised by critics ranking the Best and Worst decisions made in that category. One film that has often been considered one of if not the worst Best Picture winner of all time is the movie that triumphed at the 1953 ceremony; The Greatest Show on Earth.

To give you a little background the film is Cecile B De Mille’s circus-set extravaganza and is based around the Bingling Bros., Barnum and Bailey Circus. Charlton Heston plays circus manager Brad Braden who is trying to convince his bosses to give the circus another full season and to entice them he has hired famous acrobat and well known lothario The Great Sebastian. After agreeing to hiring Sebastian and getting a full season Brad has to deal with the fact that his acrobat girlfriend Holly will be bumped from the centre stage although she claims she will one-up Sebastian so the audience focuses on them. Throughout the film a love triangle develops with Sebastian enchanting Holly with his risky attitude and his competitive spirit while Brad is more focused on getting the circus working. After Sebastian and Holly get together another performer Ginger goes after Brad but this infuriates her lover Klauss who vows to get revenge. James Stewart also appears in the film as Buttons the Clown, Buttons has an intriguing story where he never takes off his make-up clues throughout the story lead us to believe that he was a surgeon who mercy killed his own lover and is on the run from the police. During one of the journeys on the circus train a disgraced former employee along with the jealous Klauss plan to rob the train but Klauss has a change of heart when he realises he may hurt Ginger and there is a massive train crash. Brad is injured and with the Doctor unconscious Buttons operates on him but is caught by an FBI investigator who knows his suspect is somewhere in the circus after saving Brad’s live Buttons is carted off to jail while Holly realises she loves Brad and Ginger and Sebastian decide to be together.

I have to say of the Best Pictures I have watched so far The Greatest Show on Earth is definitely not the worst but at the same time not the best. It does have some good points for one it is incredibly realistic with 1,400 members of the actual circus troupe starring alongside the actors accompanied by the whole ring set-up crew and a menagerie of animals. The film also lapses into documentary at times with De Mille providing a voiceover at various points to illustrate how hard it is to deconstruct and erect the tent each day and how hard the travel is on the performers. Heston provides a great leading man while the James Stewart story is very compelling and I wish I’d seen more of it while the camerawork for the most part is done well especially when focusing on the audience reactions. However at the same time it is far too long and there is no reason at all that we needed to see entire parts of some of the acts. While the acrobatics acts are pivotal to the plot everything else could be just viewed in clip form and this is one of De Mille’s main problems. In addition Betty Hutton is a bit of a damp squib as Holly and Cornel Wilde is almost too much as the exotic lover Sebastian. I also didn’t really get the motivation for Klaus’ momentary change of heart which caused the train crash. The theory is that this film won the Oscar because of De Mille’s Hollywood pull and the fact that this would be his last chance to win a Best Picture Statuette. Overall the film is spectacular but it needs about 45 minutes cut from it to make it a worthy winner of the Best Picture prize.


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