PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Reviews

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

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