The Greatest Show on Earth, quite simply put, is far from the greatest movie on Earth. While the film definitely deserves some credit for the spectacle it provides, that’s really the only credit it deserves. There are really only two highlights to this movie: cool circus stunts, and laughing at how ridiculous it is.
Brad (Charlton Heston) is the boss of the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus. They’re gearing up for their new season, and manage to still put on a full season by bringing in a new hot shot trapeze artist, The Great Sebastian (Colonel Wilde). This angers Brad’s girlfriend Holly (Betty Hutton), who resents being upstaged by a new guy. They develop a rivalry, and Sebastian, a notorious womanizer, tries to win her heart. Eventually their competitive antics result in Sebastian falling from a great height and injuring his arm, drawing them even closer together. But as through all of the circus’s troubles, the show must go on.
Though most of the film is devoted to the behind the scenes romantic drama of the circus performers, that’s isn’t the whole story. Hands down the best part of this movie (besides some cool circus stunts) is Jimmy Stewart as Buttons the Clown. There is a small subplot where he’s clearly on the run from the law, and a doctor in disguise. It’s not touched on a lot so it’s actually easy to get involved with the subplot because it’s not lathered on too thick like the rest of it. Stewart does a good job with the clown stuff, and it’s cool to see him in a different sort of role. He’s also hands down the best actor in this movie. I sort of wish the film had been from his point of view, and the romantic stuff pushed to the background. Jimmy Stewart on the run from the law is definitely a better movie than what The Greatest Show on Earth actually is.
I’m also a big fan of Gloria Grahame though, and here she plays Angel, a performer who rides elephants. She ends up being increasingly important to the plot over time, as she eventually sees Holly leaving Brad and goes for him herself. Since Betty Hutton was so annoying, she seemed like a perfect match for Colonel Wilde’s phony French accented Sebastian. Grahame has the advantage of seeming like a much more authentic human being.
Speaking of authentic human beings, that brings up the main theme of the film. The Greatest Show on Earth is basically designed to make a movie out of the circus, and the way they bring human drama into it is by contrasting the unstoppable force of the circus with the human lives it takes up. Sure it’s a great and amazing entertainment, but it takes a lot of manpower to put up, and is comprised by death defying stunts which don’t always come off. This theme would come across a lot more effectively if Cecil B DeMille himself weren’t speaking it to us directly through voice-over narration all throughout the film. The characters all have dialogue to that effect as well.
So besides the amusement that the plot provides with its “dramatic” twists and turns, the biggest attraction is definitely the circus performances. A lot of them are relatively boring parades, but it is cool to see the elephants and such doing tricks. A lot of the trapeze stuff is pretty good as well. However, like a musical that really only has good musical numbers, some might find it enjoyable but it can’t really be considered a good movie.
For some reason, the Academy disagreed back in 1952. The Greatest Show on Earth, up against High Noon, Ivanhoe, Moulin Rogue, and The Quiet Man, only took home two awards out of five nominations. It won best picture and best original screenplay (which is ridiculous because 90% of the dialogue is horrible), and it lost out on best costume design, best director, and best editing. What the Academy didn’t realize is that one of the greatest films ever made was released in ’52, and it wasn’t the one they picked. Singin’ in the Rain should have won guys, come on.
“That is the circus. And this is the story of the biggest of the big tops, and of the men and women who fight to make it ‘The Greatest Show on Earth.'”
Long story short: 2/4 stars
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