The Greatest Show on Earth (1952, Cecil B. DeMille)


Despite its poor reputation today, routinely shot down as one of the worst of all Best Picture winners, The Greatest Show on Earth is a monstrously entertaining delight — and deserves to be more widely seen by a modern audience; even if it isn’t exactly great cinema, it’s nearly three hours of actual, legitimate fun that doesn’t quit. It even boasts a performance by Charlton Heston that isn’t insufferably surly and arrogant, features a stunt-cast James Stewart as a clown wanted for murder (!!), and is easily as interesting and full of surprises as that which it rigorously promotes — the circus, specifically the Barnum & Bailey circus. Sure, it’s weird that a film unabashedly concerned with frivolous amusement took the Academy Award, but better that than fucking Cavalcade. Most impressively of all, it’s a film that, whether you like it or not, certainly does as much as possible to live up to its outrageous title (which in fact refers to the circus itself, but still).

Director Cecil B. DeMille has fallen out of critical favor in recent decades nearly as much as the film itself, but Hollywood owes him everything — and we actually could stand to get back to the forms of spectacle he pushed. A big popcorn-movie event in 1952 still showed some semblance of sensitivity and intelligence, in stark contrast to the bilge and/or self-conscious prestige of today. Greatest Show even boasts the intriguing innovation of setting its melodramatic story, an ensemble piece with many threads, against a documentary backdrop, an examination of the actual day-to-day operations of the touring circus. The effect of colliding fantasy and reality as such would be fascinating even if the subject matter wasn’t. One is inevitably reminded of George Lucas’ later nutty idea about shooting Apocalypse Now in the midst of the Vietnam War, but more pertinently of Billy Wilder shooting a sequence of Sunset Blvd. in the middle of DeMille’s set for Samson and Delilah on the Paramount lot, apparently replete with DeMille actually passing out directions of a scene; it’s hard not to wonder if DeMille drew some inspiration from this.

But forget all that. We come for the awe-inspiring sights and sounds, and we get all that in sometimes shocking spades. There are too many impressively complex sights and wild (and legendarily unfaked) stunts to count, but DeMille feels a need not merely to please but to push, which is why we have several truly harrowing moments involving principal characters, specifically a heart-stopping scene early on in which Betty Hutton is performing trapeze acrobatics with a chair involved and nearly loses her grip — a gasp scatters across the crowd — and more so, one later that features Cornel Wilde as alpha-male attraction the Great Sebastian attempting an elaborate maneuver and actually falling, without a net. The tension is nearly unbearable, yet so is the payoff! The suspense DeMille gets across in the high-wire sequences is as maddening as most any thriller.

The Greatest Show on Earth is only the third Best Picture winner not shot in black & white — and as you’d expect for a film about the high and mighty circus, it’s downright candy-colored, whirling around with an overwhelming dizziness that stands as a direct contradiction to the seedy, miserable circus shown by Tod Browning in Freaks twenty years earlier. DeMille’s major interest seems to be to put on display the arduous work involved in crafting a carefree day of entertainment for a multitude of patrons; he treats this matter with genuine respect and intrigue, manifested mostly in the documentary footage he presents but also in Heston’s performance as circus boss Brad Braden, the proverbial auteur of the show, who is shown to be in full control of his surroundings and constantly in command, with hundreds of things occupying space in his mind at a given time. His calmness, energy, and cognizance are unceasing, even when he’s severely injured toward the finale, and his conscience and duty to the circus give him just enough of a layer of doubt and crisis to keep him interesting despite his decent handling of his own power and responsibility.

But hey, this is a weird enough movie that it also features Heston engaging in a bitchy argument with Cornel Wilde while the two are in the middle of a blood transfusion. And I know I already said this, but Jimmy Stewart is a clown. Who is wanted for the murder of his wife. Also he’s a doctor. There’s little ring of truth, honestly, to the idea that treacherous high-wire performers would engage in risky competition like that employed by Sebastian and Betty Hutton’s raspy-voiced and adorable Holly, but maybe I’ve just seen Wings of Desire too many times. Across two and a half hours, we’re given enough information and intimate cinema vérité that we feel we’ve honestly got a stake in this thing, and we seem to have part of the inside track on the inner workings of the show. DeMille could’ve actually kept this going longer than two and a half hours without it becoming a problem.

After two or so, however, he decides to pull out all the stops and transforms the film completely into the realm of spectacular fantasy with the construction of one of the most outlandishly elaborate and harrowing disaster sequences in a classic Hollywood picture — a botched holdup leads to a train wreck that derails the entire circus, sends animals wandering about, and nearly kills many of the people onboard. DeMille was in his element here, and the result is the kind of bravura action sequence that can light an all-consuming fire under the climax of a movie; it’s alarming, involving, and most of all fun, a fine way to cap off this gigantic and lovable piece of utterly fine, utterly ageless entertainment.

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