The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

The Academy Award for Best Picture has been bestowed on any number of unworthy candidates over the years, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one less deserving than The Greatest Show on Earth, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 circus melodrama. Now available on DVD, it is the standard by which all bad Best Pictures can be measured.

It’s also a study in empty spectacle before empty spectacle was Hollywood’s raison d’être. Even vaunted master of spectacle DeMille comes off as more of a wrangler, assembling a massive production. For the length of the film, DeMille is a cinematic P.T. Barnum, selling the audience a decorated crate full of nothing.

But if Barnum’s shams at least made fir good stories, the legacy of this burn is considerably less lively; screen it for anyone lacking a sense of film history, and you might turn her off “old” movies for life. It conforms to virtually every stereotype of a 50-year-old film: The dialogue is unintentionally hilarious, the special effects are primitive, and it goes on for what seems like forever (actually, 150 minutes).

It wouldn’t be so long if it weren’t for the endless breaks in the action for displays of real circus performances; there are lots of slow, long shots where the camera pans by multiple acts and curiosities, occasionally cutting to slack-jawed audiences. DeMille, ever the innovator, discovers something worse than reaction shots of children or reaction shots of animals (though both are present in abundance here): reaction shots of clowns.

Was the circus really so exotic to 1952 audiences? I suspect not, but the movie nonetheless treats it as a once-in-a-lifetime miracle. The voiceover during the behind-the-scenes passages breathlessly piles metaphor upon metaphor, mixing and matching like some kind of patent-pending random narration generator. Thus the circus crew perseveres, “no matter how tangled the stain of their lives may be.” (I rewound the disc several times to check this quote.)

Occasionally, the film pauses for a story that would fill about half an hour in a movie with any kind of economy, centered around Marc (Charlton Heston), a hard-boiled, no-nonsense circus boss. Heston is tossed into a love triangle with ingénue acrobat Holly (Betty Hutton) and smooth superstar acrobat Sebastian (Cornel Wilde). But the only sparks that fly come from a climactic train wreck (“You’re not gonna put that guy’s blood in me!” chokes Marc, referring to Sebastian, his romantic rival and possible blood donor, with more passion than he ever shows poor Holly).

Appearing as Heston’s love interest — even a young, handsome Heston — is never easy. Even so, Hutton is singularly charmless here. Of course, it’s an awful role: Holly is a screwball without comedy, running back and forth between a grim Marc and an oily Sebastian. Most of her romantic scenes feature some sort of complaining. Gloria Grahame’s Angel, the standard sarcastic gal pal, is more appealing, as she seems to regard the activity around her with appropriate disdain.

If The Greatest Show on Earth‘s flaws can be boiled down to a central failing (and I’m not sure they can), it’s DeMille’s inability to place these characters in a circus environment with the kind of flimflam that made Barnum so fascinating. The circus crew is depicted as a cross between Santa’s Workshop and the U.S. Army; they are impossibly virtuous, toiling endlessly for the delight of children. Even a clown with a dark past (Jimmy Stewart!) regards the big top as some sort of community service. The narrator refers to the circus as a “wild tangle of man, machine, and beast.” If that didn’t sound sort of entertaining, I’d say it describes this movie perfectly.