The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

Jesse Hassenger

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.

The Greatest Show on Earth

Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Cast: Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, James Stewart, Cornel Wilde
Studio: Paramount
First date: 1952
US DVD Release Date: 2004-04-06

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.





Ruben Fleischer's 'Venom' Has No Bite

Ruben Fleischer's toothless antihero film, 'Venom' is like a blockbuster from 15 years earlier: one-dimensional, loose plot, inconsistent tone, and packaged in the least-offensive, most mass appeal way possible. Sigh.


Cordelia Strube's 'Misconduct of the Heart' Palpitates with Dysfunction

Cordelia Strube's 11th novel, Misconduct of the Heart, depicts trauma survivors in a form that's compelling but difficult to digest.


Reaching For the Vibe: Sonic Boom Fears for the Planet on 'All Things Being Equal'

Sonic Boom is Peter Kember, a veteran of 1980s indie space rockers Spacemen 3, as well as Spectrum, E.A.R., and a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff. On his first solo album in 30 years, he urges us all to take our foot off the gas pedal.


Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!

The passage of time tends to make old films more interesting, such as these seven films of the late '40s and '50s from British directors John Boulting, Carol Reed, David Lean, Anthony Kimmins, Charles Frend, Guy Hamilton, and Leslie Norman.


Inventions' 'Continuous Portrait' Blurs the Grandiose and the Intimate

Explosions in the Sky and Eluvium side project, Inventions are best when they are navigating the distinction between modes in real-time on Continuous Portrait.


Willie Jones Blends Country-Trap With Classic Banjo-Picking on "Trainwreck" (premiere)

Country artist Willie Jones' "Trainwreck" is an accessible summertime breakup tune that coolly meshes elements of the genre's past, present, and future.


2011's 'A Different Compilation' and 2014 Album 'The Way' Are a Fitting Full Stop to Buzzcocks Past

In the conclusion of our survey of the post-reformation career of Buzzcocks, PopMatters looks at the final two discs of Cherry Red Records' comprehensive retrospective box-set.


Elysia Crampton Creates an Unsettlingly Immersive Experience with ​'Ocorara 2010'

On Ocorara 2010, producer Elysia Crampton blends deeply meditative drones with "misreadings" of Latinx poets such as Jaime Saenz and Juan Roman Jimenez


Indie Folk's Mt. Joy Believe That Love Will 'Rearrange Us'

Through vibrant imagery and inventive musicality, Rearrange Us showcases Americana band Mt. Joy's growth as individuals and musicians.


"Without Us? There's No Music": An Interview With Raul Midón

Raul Midón discusses the fate of the art in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. "This is going to shake things up in ways that could be very positive. Especially for artists," he says.


The Fall Go Transatlantic with 'Reformation! Post-TLC'

The Fall's Reformation! Post-TLC, originally released in 2007, teams Mark E. Smith with an almost all-American band, who he subsequently fired after a few months, leaving just one record and a few questions behind.


Masaki Kobayashi's 'Kwaidan' Horror Films Are Horrifically Beautiful

The four haunting tales of Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan are human and relatable, as well as impressive at a formal and a technical level.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.