Monday, May 30, 2011



There is a general consensus that 1952's THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH is the least deserving best picture winner ever, and I must say that that is an opinion I agree with whole heartedly, and I'll go further: it's one of the worst all star, big budget movies ever.  From it's terrible script to its leaden direction, it's truly a bloated, dumb, loud awful film.  The only possible entertainment it provides is in laughing at its ridiculous excesses.  Excesses brought to you by the king of overblown movies, Cecil B. DeMille.
DeMille's cinematic career stretched all the way back to the days of silent films, of which he directed many, and in which he showed a flair for big spectacle scenes.   Personally, I think DeMille hit his peak in those  days, (I consider his 1927 film KING OF KINGS to be the best version of the Christ story ever  filmed) when his gift for strong visuals and big crowd scenes overcame his poor direction of actors in more intimate scenes.  Indeed, many of the actors in his sound films seemed to use the same broad and dramatic gestures that silent actors used, to often laughable affect.

James Stewart, Cornel Wilde and Charleton Heston display some not so subtle acting
Matters of opinion aside, one thing was true, by the time he made THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, DeMille was one of the most famous directors in Hollywood, and one of the few who's name was known to the general public, as he often made radio and TV appearances as himself, and he also played himself in 1950's SUNSET BOULEVARD.  He was so successful that he had his own production company (called Cecil B. DeMille productions, he never lacked in ego!), and, in 1948, when David O Selznik's attempt to raise money for a behind the scenes look at the circus failed, he stepped in and bought the rights, holding a press conference to announce the start of production with none other than John Ringling of The  Ringling's Bros. Circus attending.  (He would also pay that circus $250,000 for the use of their facilities and rights to the film's title that the circus used in promoting itself.)  It is no surprise that DeMille would be attracted to the material, given his own penchant for hyperbolicly narrating his own films like a ringmaster, and he embarked on a tour with the circus for research purposes, while various writers worked on the script.  Eventually, writers Frederic M Frank, Theodore St. John and Frank Cavett would cobble together a bunch of show business stereotypes and cliche's and work them into a circus setting, while being sure to add a big (and utterly ridiculous) train wreck at the film's end to satisfy DeMille's need for spectacle, and he was satisfied. 
With a lousy script all set, he went on to some terrible casting: first, there is Charleton Heston as Brad, the idealistic circus owner.  Now you would think that a guy so dedicated to entertaining people might be a fun, good natured person, but instead he comes across as so dour, self righteous and stoic that he's hard to care about.  Honestly, his performance as Moses three years later would be less serious! Then there's Cornel Wilde as trapeze artist The Great Sebastian, an egotistical womanizer with a fake French accent that resembles that of the cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew.  Although Wilde does try to bring a little humor to the role, he's so unlikable that when an accident occurs that may lead to his never being able to perform again, DeMille's attempts to wring drama from the situation are utterly false; as with the Heston character, it's difficult to care. Then there is Betty Hutton as Holly, another trapeze artist; Hutton uses her brand of over the top perky blandness to an annoying extent, and even worse, she is at the center of a love triangle between Wilde and Heston in which nobody seems to deserve anybody!  Dorothy Lamour appears as generic circus performer Phylis, and fails to make any kind of impression, still she should be mentioned because she sings a song called "Lovely Luawana Lady" with lyrics that are as idiotic as its title.  Slinky Gloria Grahame as animal trainer Angel gives the film's least embarrassing performance, but even she has to suffer through a scene in which her jealous animal trainer boyfriend (Lyle Bettger) threatens to have her face stomped in by an elephant.  Finally, there is Jimmy Stewart as the clown Buttons, who never takes off his makeup because of his mysterious past(!).  Stewart is one of the great movie stars, but one thing he was never known for was physical comedy; casting him as a clown was an enormous error, as we see when none of his clowning scenes are even remotely funny (although, in all fairness to Stewart, none of the clowns in the film are funny, no not even the famous Emmett Kelly). And if casting Stewart as a clown was a mistake, having him sing was an even bigger one: yes, there is a moment when Stewart, Hutton, Kelly and a little person bounce on a trampoline  while singing a song intitled "Be a Jumping-Jack". (A typical lyric: "Keep on the hop, and if you flop, and everything looks black, stand on your head and holler 'hi there!' Be a jumping jack!" ) This moment is so jaw droppingly awful, so utterly misguided (it's not even performed before an audience, it's just supposed to show how circus performers spend their free time!) that it must be seen to be believed.  I consider it one of the worst musical numbers in a big budget Hollywood film ever.

Betty Hutton and James Stewart bounce through a terrible song

  And as a crowning glory to the lousy performances, DeMille himself narrates the film in such over the top, ham handed tones that he makes a circus moving into town sound like a play by play of the second coming.
Along with the terrible performances and moronic script, there is another, deeper flaw in the film's very conception; the reason that death defying circus performances are entertaining to a live audience lies in the fact  that the performers are risking life and limb right there in front of you, and that at any moment something might go wrong.  None of this excitement can translate to a movie, where watching actors pretend to perform dangerous tricks quickly becomes tedious, since we know nothing bad will happen until the script demands it.   Only live performance can give that sense of danger that's necessary to thrilling circus acts.  Other kinds of circus acts come across even worse on the big screen; honestly, the only thing in the world I find more boring than a never ending circus parade is a movie of one.  And  DeMille's desire to be authentic means that he usually places the camera in the circus audience's point of view  during the various acts; oddly, he gives the audience a lousy seat that's too far away from the action.  Even his direction of the extras playing the circus crowd is terrible; at one point we see a grown man get excited at the sight of a circus performer dressed as Mickey Mouse!


I think the reader can guess where I stand on that question; really, there is almost nothing good I can say about this film (unfortunately, it proved to an enormous box office hit, proving DeMille's quote: "Every time I make a picture the critics' estimate of American public taste goes down ten percent." ) The number of superior films released that year is long: HIGH NOON, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, THE QUIET MAN, VIVA ZAPATA!, LIMELIGHT, THE LAVENDER HILL MOB, and my personal favorite SINGIN' IN THE RAIN.  Really, I think almost any movie from that year chosen at random couldn't possibly be worse than THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH.