Since its release, The Greatest Show on Earth has become a staple on critics’ personal lists citing the worst films to have won the Oscar for Best Picture. Not that one should always bend to the winds of the general society of film critics, but in the case I’m inclined to tip my hat in acquiescence to the professionals in this case. It’s not without a modicum of irony that The Greatest Show on Earth has become tethered to this dubious distinction because it retains many of the standard qualities befitting a Best Picture caliber film: It’s full of pageantry and spectacle, tension and romance, suspense and action, and all of the highest order. So where exactly did things go wrong? Unfortunately, it felt as though it placed a little too much concentration on all of those elements, and not enough on the ones that truly matter, such as plot and character development. The end product is a paradox, being an overstuffed epic that is generally hollow and empty.
Directed by the always ambitious and visionary Cecile B. DeMille, The Greatest Show on Earth secured five Academy Award nominations, adding to its troupe two Oscars, including the prize for Best Picture in 1952. The film marked DeMille’s only competitive victory at the Oscars, leading many to theorize that Academy voters considered this to perhaps be their last chance to honor DeMille, thus accounting for the film’s ability to take home the grand prize over fellow nominated classics such as The Quiet Man, High Noon and Singin’ in the Rain. But whatever the reason propelling it to victory, I think The Greatest Show on Earth stands as an example of a Best Picture winning film that is a reflection of its moment in time, like Going My Way or You Can’t Take it with You. For that reason, its Oscar glory has subsequently withered on the vine.
As its title suggests, The Greatest Show on Earth is set in the world of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. The center ring of the film’s plot focuses on Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde as competing trapeze artists who push each other to the edge in their bids to garner the most oohs, awes and applause. On the ground, they form two points of an obtuse love triangle, completed by the circus’ no-nonsense manager, played with steely resolve by Charlton Heston. Several other supplementary subplots occur in the peripheral rings with various members of the circus gang, most notably one involving the circus’ beloved clown Buttons, played by Jimmy Stewart.
In terms of visuals, there can be no argument that The Greatest Show on Earth is a shower of sequins, dazzling the viewer with a kaleidoscope of costumes, curiosities and conviviality. The film features several actual circus performers, who are all seemingly given their moment in the spotlight, whether it is the grand elephant ballet or the woman spinning an oversized ball on the soles of her feet. Not only are these moments entertaining to watch, but they also impart a certain sense of fascination in terms of seeing a somewhat old-fashioned form of entertainment near the height of its popularity. In fact, for considerable stretches of the film, The Greatest Show on Earth takes on an almost documentary-like tone, as several scenes present various performances in a single, unedited take. Further enhancing this mood is the insider, observatory view the film captures regarding such aspects as the life of a circus performer and the sheer logistics of packing up and moving the Big Top from city to city.
It’s clear that The Greatest Show on Earth is DeMille’s valentine to the circus. His intent with this film seems to be channeling his love and respect for the old past time by preserving the artistry and spectacle of it on celluloid for generations to enjoy. In a way, it’s endearing and compelling to watch what could arguably be called a really, really big passion project. But I think in trying to craft this film, DeMille is juggling too many plot lines, characters and other elements that it became inevitable that something would be left by the wayside. Unfortunately, in this case it’s the narrative and the characters that become the victims, as they never really achieve a level of depth and complication that even begins to approach significant and meaningful. The problem with the story is that DeMille ultimately sacrifices form over content. As I mentioned earlier, the film takes frequent and prolonged detours away from the story in order to put the circus on full display. It felt similar to The Great Ziegfeld when that film took endless amounts of time to showcase the Ziegfeld Follies in all of their feathered splendor. The resulting problem in The Great Ziegfeld is the same one experienced by The Greatest Show on Earth: The devotion of too much screen time in showcasing the circus creates a serious imbalance, killing any attempt at plot momentum, which ultimately prevents it from being able to gain any real traction.
One of the sour fruits of this situation is that the actors are left with a script that leaves them little material to work with, causing many of the performances to feel overly melodramatic and superficial. This negative effect is on full display, especially in the forms of the two sparring trapeze artists played by Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde. The tone of their acting is exaggerated and overly expressive; a style that feels more appropriate for the theater or a silent film. Hutton in particular felt overly cartoonish and almost childish to me in several scenes, specifically when she is engaged in her soapy internal tug-of-war in deciding whom it is she truly loves, which, unfortunately, is for a large swath of the film. It’s a shame that the script didn’t offer Hutton, Wilde and the rest of the principals a broader landscape on which to roam because it could have afforded a fascinating look into the emotional, mental and physical pressures rooted in touring with a circus. In the case of Hutton’s character, the interest factor is heightened and full of complex potential, stemming from the fact that she is a woman struggling for equality in a male dominated arena. More attention and exploration into that dynamic could have yielded a more multi-dimensional study into the endeavor of jamming social molds.
In the end, while the circus may actually be the greatest show on earth, The Greatest Show on Earth is not the greatest film on earth. It is far from it, a fact made all the more obvious given that some of its fellow nominees in the Best Picture category have proven themselves victorious opponents of time. Perhaps the fate of The Greatest Show on Earth was resigned to be an unremarkable one, given the decline of the circus’ popularity since the film’s release. It’s a difficult task for a film to retain classic status when its subject matter feels dated and slow, particularly in comparison with more evolved versions of the circus, like Cirque de Soleil. This serves to only enhance the core mistake made by The Greatest Show on Earth, which was to make its characters and plot secondary and underdeveloped. If a film has characters and a story that people care about, it won’t have to work so hard to keep its membership in the classic film club.
Favorite Line: During the film’s establishing shots, Cecile B. DeMille delivers stirring and thundering narration of the circus, making it a thrilling and captivating speech that sets up the film with an appropriate flare and style.
"We bring you the circus — that Pied Piper whose magic tunes lead children of all ages, from 6 to 60, into a tinseled and spun-candied world of reckless beauty and mounting laughter; whirling thrills; of rhythm, excitement and grace; of daring, enflaring and dance; of high-stepping horses and high-flying stars.
"But behind all this, the circus is a massive machine whose very life depends on discipline, motion and speed . . . a mechanized army on wheels that rolls over any obstacle in its path . . . that meets calamity again and again, but always comes up smiling . . . a place where disaster and tragedy stalk the Big Top, haunt the backyards, and ride the circus rails . . . where Death is constantly watching for one frayed rope, one weak link, or one trace of fear.
"A fierce, primitive fighting force that smashes relentlessly forward against impossible odds: That is the circus. And this is the story of the biggest of the Big Tops . . . and of the men and women who fight to make it — The Greatest Show on Earth! "