Step right up. Now in the center ring is the Blu-ray debut of The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), producer-director Cecil B. DeMille‘s penultimate film, and one of the big hits of its decade. Many critics have pointed out that the romantic story is uninspired, and it is. Mind you, that’s kind of like going to the circus and saying that the band could play hipper music.
This film functions as one big promo for Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Circus, whose members appear as themselves in dozens of acts. In this sense, the film isn’t so much a drama as it is a documentary. We see passages on how the circus travels and how roustabouts raise the Big Top, plus many montages of the glittering spectacle: costumes, elephants, clowns, dwarfs, bareback riders, jugglers, tumblers, high wires, family acts identified by Italian and Polish and German and French surnames, and parades of music and pageantry. They don’t make circuses like that anymore, partly due to economics and partly the ASPCA.
Much like the numbers in a musical, all this stuff is the true purpose of The Greatest Show on Earth, not the flimsy story acting that works as a place-holder between the acts. The film isn’t about story; it’s about spectacle and how people make a living fabricating gargantuan, silly, and sometimes dangerous fodder for the gawping public. The circus signifies all such activity, including cinema, in the age of the rising threat of television.
In opening scenes, a sense of conflict is generated when broad-shouldered circus manager Brad Braden (Charlton Heston, billed third in his second mainstream film), is seen from behind as he strides in his Indiana Jones-like hat (though that’s not what it was yet). He’s going in for a tussle with the bottom-line, fuddy-duddy, front-office executives who claim it’s no longer profitable to make a season-long tour. The small towns are out, they say.
“The kids haven’t changed,” Brad insists, staking his claim for nostalgic purity. “The prices have,” says an anti-romantic pencil-pusher. Ah ha, it’s about money, and that’s what it means when one of the money boys declares “times have changed”. Nobody says the shrinking audience is about people staying home to watch TV, versus the increasing cost of a colossal endeavor employing over a thousand people and countless animals. Nobody has to. For the circus and implicitly for cinema, the shadow of the future spells the passing of an era.
From this start, money is a recurring motif and driving passion. The circus packs ’em in amid constant concern about remaining “in the black”. The honest circus spectacle is contrasted to crooked midway concessions backed by gangsters who cheat customers. They’re the unsavory flipside of the money boys fretting about the bottom line; both gangs care more about money than art and magic. An early scene relevant to this finds a big wad of cash stuffed into a bag of peanuts. The climactic action begins with a robbery encouraged by gangsters.
DeMille is a natural for this material, as his films specialized in their own expensive spectacle and the bigger-is-better ballyhoo to promote such outlay. Like the Big Top, DeMille was somewhat old-fashioned. His films present a strong and clear vision of extravagant physical activity wrapped around simple stories and characters. He could be called the Steven Spielberg of his day, though Spielberg’s work tends to be more complex. As film critic and historian Leonard Maltin‘s introduction points out, Spielberg quotes this film’s train wreck in War of the Worlds (2005).
Here I’d like to observe that one of the best Technicolor “circus pictures” I’ve seen is Henry King‘s Wilson (1944), another piece of Oscar-bait serving as a biopic for the President of that name. There’s what the film was saying on the surface (something about the lost opportunity for the League of Nations leading to the current war), and what it really showed: the increasingly circus-like spectacle of politics as a party machine orchestrated from quiet rooms.
As much tinsel and confetti were spilled in Wilson as in The Greatest Show on Earth. That’s partly why I was amused at the throwaway gag when Brad, trying to locate a missing elephant, advises someone to check out the nearby Republican convention. He’s suggesting it quite seriously. Today, we see the moment as an unwitting wink at Heston’s future.
We might as well mention the story. Brad supposedly has feelings for trapeze artist Holly (top-billed Betty Hutton), and she’s forever frustrated that he, described as more machine than man, puts the circus before her, even though she’s highly ambitious for the center ring herself. She’s shunted aside when the circus hires a star trapezer: the Great Sebastian, as played by second-billed Cornel Wilde, usually shirtless and just as much a part of the eye candy as the yards of colorful silks and satins around him.
Will Brad ever speak up and stake his claim, or will Holly fall literally into the arms of Sebastian? Will Sebastian fall literally for Holly, and will he want her love or her pity? Will Brad and Sebastian’s rivalry turn to bromance, with Sebastian exclaiming “You crazy wonderful fool!” and Brad announcing “They warned me about you but I had to learn the hard way”? Seriously, Sebastian turns into a big flirt over a blood transfusion.
What of Angel (Gloria Grahame), the elephant charmer who’d set her cap for Brad if he’d give her a tumble, and who makes Brad say, “I didn’t know a woman could fill a pipe”? What of her jealous whip-wielding trainer, the German-accented and buzzcut Klaus (Lyle Bettger), who avers “I keep vhat is mine”? What about trampy, loud-mouthed Phyllis (Dorothy Lamour), who’d cast her net for Sebastian in a New York minute?
Wait, a circus picture about romantic triangles on the trapeze? Don’t stop the presses. This was tried and true in the silent era, which is where DeMille learned to craft spectacle. Suffice to say, this is a film where all the women are at odds over whether they’re getting enough attention from Brad and Sebastian, which is certainly flattering to the boys.
Standing apart, immune from all this and set off by his smiley makeup is lead clown Buttons (James Stewart), who harbors a dark secret that will take most of the film to reveal because all clowns are secretly sad. Laugh, clown, laugh! (That’s another film or 20).
The film’s two-and-a-half hours might be 30-minutes shorter without all the reaction shots from the crowd, now gasping in fear, now screaming in hilarity, always consuming the junk continually hawked to them, whether to stuff in their mouths or their eyes and ears. These spectacles of spectatorship are part of the movie’s theme. The audience is crucial; they’re paying for all this.
The camera always focuses on carefully placed moppets, who are usually more petrified and wide-eyed than the gesturing grown-ups around them. Tiny and overwhelmed or loud and vulgar, these rubes stand in for the film’s audience, including the awestruck young Spielberg. We’re watching them watch the spectacle, and they’re part of it, so we must be too. We too have paid for our tickets and popcorn.
Circles are a primary visual motif, as you might expect of a three-ring circus. There’s a Busby Berkeley-type overhead shot of roustabouts in a circle pounding a stake into the ground. One of the first shots in the picture is an overhead image of the cotton-candy machine spinning its feathery pink poison while a narrator describes the circus as “a tinsel and spun-candy world”.
Some of the film’s setpieces are musical parades or actual musical numbers. One is performed by Lamour while the film tosses in a cameo of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, her fellow travelers in the “Road” pictures, sitting in the audience. Another amusing song is performed by Hutton on a trampoline, accompanied by a surprisingly game Stewart and famous clown Emmett Kelly as himself. This number is pure Hutton, and more of that would have been welcome.
George Barnes handles the photography with assistants, 2nd unit and process specialists. You’d expect process shots amid the trapezes, but many are on the ground, and some are quite visible. This may partly be an effect of high resolution digital restoration. Some of the seams show, but usually it’s not distracting. Meanwhile, Hutton and Wilde’s trapeze scenes remain convincing because they mostly did their own stunts, as did Grahame with the elephants.
Gordon Jennings was responsible for the model work on the train wreck, including process shots integrating models with real people. The sequence is very effectively edited by Anne Bauchens, kicking off a final act of sublime absurdity with never a dull moment.
The fact that The Greatest Show on Earth won an Oscar for Best Picture is often held up for ridicule by people who can’t help pointing out that its fellow nominees included Fred Zinnemann‘s High Noon (1952), for which Gary Cooper won Best Actor, and The Quiet Man (1952), for which John Ford won Best Director. Not even nominated: wait for it–Stanley Donen‘s Singin’ in the Rain!
Even from the point of view that Oscars aren’t important, that’s…well, yes, ahem. Anyway, Wikipedia supplies two theories for the vote: DeMille’s conservative politics (a theory put forth by Stanley Kramer), and a sentimental gesture for what voters assumed was his final chance.
Here’s a theory that doesn’t involve second-guessing. Maybe many Academy voters picked it for the same reason that audiences made it by far the top-grossing movie of the year: people just loved it as big, splashy entertainment. The New York Times review upon the film’s release (published here on Wikipedia) is a gushing love letter.
Let’s regard The Greatest Show on Earth as an hyperbolic ode to spectacular cinema and the cash cows they can be when the stars align. As such, it’s about time the thing showed up on Blu-ray. This disc, taken from a 4K transfer of the negative, is eye-popping from the get-go and does much to justify DeMille’s well-earned reputation as a “showman”. There are plenty more DeMille pictures I’d like to see on Blu-ray, so let’s bring them on please. Hurry, hurry, hurry!