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Film Review: The Greatest Show on Earth
In 1952, Cecil B. DeMille produced and directed The Greatest Show on Earth, set in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Starring Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston, James Stewart, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame, Lyle Bettger, John Ridgley, Frank Wilcox, Brad Johnson, John Kellog and about 85 members of the aforementioned circus, the film grossed $12.8 million at the box office. It won the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Story while receiving nominated for Best Director, Best Film Editing and Best Costume Design. The last Best Picture winner to win fewer than 3 awards, it was the last Best Picture winner to not win an award for Best Director or Best Screenplay until 2001.
Two rival trapeze artists compete for the center of the ring at a circus run by Brad Braden while Buttons the Clown mysteriously never removes his makeup. Even between shows. At the same time, Braden has to deal with the circus’ other problems, including a midway operator working for a gangster.
Though visually impressive, The Greatest Show on Earth is a merely decent film at best, especially considering its win of Best Picture.
It’s interesting to note the possibilities of why this film won Best Picture as a number of theories have surfaced with many calling it the worst film to have won the award, particularly seeing as it beat out High Noon, The Quiet Man and Ivanhoe. One presented reason is because of Hollywood’s political climate during the time as Senator McCarthy was holding his investigations into the political affiliations of suspected individuals. Not only was DeMille a well-known conservative, but he was also involved with the National Committee for a Free Europe. Further, the producer of High Noon, Carl Foreman, eventually ended up on the Hollywood blacklist as was Marguerite Roberts, one of the scriptwriters of Ivanhoe.
Another reason given is that since DeMille was a founding member of the Academy, the film was likely the last chance to honor him for his life’s work in film as what is considered his best work was done before the Academy was created. Ironically, a film considered more deserving, The Ten Commandments, was made the following year.
As for the film itself, the plot is mostly uninteresting and is primarily carried by the visuals and stunts carried out by the actors, who were interestingly trained in their respective circus professions. Nearly every plot point is predictable, from the rivalry between the trapeze artists and the shadily corrupt midway operator to the romance that develops between Braden and one of the trapeze artists and the background of Buttons the clown. There’s just too much going on for most of these stories to actually make the film enjoyable.
The most contrived of all these plots would appear to be the one involving the midway operator, named Harry, who works for a gangster that actually respects Braden. He’s caught cheating attendees and is fired, but not before being thrown into a mud puddle as the end of a fight he started earlier on in the film. Predictably, he’s seen wherever the show travels to, gambling and spreading strife on its outskirts, which affects one other circus member. Eventually, the two rob the pay wagon and cause a collision of two trains. All of this would be very interesting had it not been written so predictably as it’s immediately apparent that Harry won’t just leave when he’s thrown out of the circus. On the other hand, had more been written into the conflict, it could have made for a pretty good story on its own, with the most interesting of the film’s subplots being that story’s only subplot.
That said, the most interesting subplot of the film comes in the way of Button’s story. A clown that refuses to remove his makeup for any reason whatsoever, the reason for which being that he’s wanted for a mercy killing and he can’t be identified without his makeup, actually does make for a good side story.
It seems that had this film cut out half of the plots, beefed up Harry’s story and made Buttons the only side story, then this film might have been more deserving of Best Picture.
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