Friday, January 10, 2014

The Greatest Show On Earth (Best Picture 1952)

The Greatest Show On Earth is one of those movies that they just don't make any more.  Nowadays, movies like The Greatest Show On Earth are called "infomercials" or "A&E Specials." In fact, all the time I was watching this movie I kept thinking back to "Circus With The Stars," those TV specials in late 70s and early 80s where various actors and actresses performed under the Big Top.
I don't know if MGM paid Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey for the rights to film with them, or if Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey paid MGM to make this picture. As TV audiences began to bite into Hollywood's (and the circus'?) bottom line, maybe this was a match made in Heaven. As a jaded movie viewer of today, however, I'm here to tell you that this is another one of those What-were-they-thinking? Best Pictures.

Charlton Heston plays Brad the circus manager, the guy everyone depends on to make sure everything gets done. I'm sure it was only a coincidence, but in his first scene Heston is shown taking care of baby gorillas! Perhaps his role in Planet of the Apes was destined? Brad is in love with Betty Hutton's character, Pigeon, an over-eager trapeze artist who covets the center ring. Brad, however, has signed big-name aerialist Sebastian, played by Cornel Wilde. Because he is a "star," he gets the center ring. This creates the main story, the rivalry between these two to grab and keep the center ring. Pigeon thinks Brad loves the circus more than he loves her; she rushes off crying that he has sawdust in his veins instead of blood.
However, the more interesting story is the sub-plot starring James Stewart as Buttons the Clown.He is never without his make-up, and no one knows his real name. I don't want to give too much away about this story if you haven't seen this movie yet and you want to. Suffice it to say that Buttons' story is by far the best part of the movie.

The C-plot involves gangsters trying to muscle in on the concessions and arcade games. When Brad finally kicks them out, they end up sabotaging the circus train, and that leads to The Big Finale. This is when Brad is incapacitated, and Pigeon steps up to make sure The Show Must Go On. She realizes that *she* has sawdust in her veins, too.
I suppose as a product of its time, this film is okay. With more people staying home and watching television for free, and with the Red Scare still ongoing, I guess the Oscar went to this to try to bring more people into the cinemas. Also, the sheer amount of work that was required to get this film made boggles the mind. Just getting the elephants to do their tricks while a wonderful Gloria Grahame says her lines must have been a huge headache. (By the way, Grahame  won Best Supporting Actress this year for another film, The Bad & The Beautiful.) Likewise, Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde obviously didn't do all of their own stunts, but they did do some of them! Filming these scenes with dozens of extras as the audience, clowns, and roustabouts must have been a logistical nightmare. So there is that.
On the other hand, excessive effort doesn't necessarily mandate a Best Picture award. 

The Greatest Show On Earth
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1952*
Produced and Directed
by Cecil B. DeMille
Screenplay by Frederick M. Frank, 
Theodore St. John, and Frank Cavett

Cecil B. DeMille explains how he made the film.
Warning: this "trailer" is more than six minutes long.

However, I recommend watching this trailer in lieu of the film itself.

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
High Noon
Moulin Rouge
The Quiet Man
Believe it or not, this is the second year in a row where the Best Picture and Best Director were not for the same film. Although Cecil B. DeMille won Best Picture, John Ford won his fourth (!) Director Oscar for The Quiet Man. Obviously, Hollywood was hedging its bets. I have seen this film, and gosh, it is dull. Beautiful Irish landscapes, but, boy, the story goes on forever. Moulin Rouge is the non-musical film, the life-story of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as portrayed by Jose Ferrer. If you are interested in this turn-of-the-century artist, you should see this film. Ferrer was nominated for Best Actor, but lost to Gary Cooper in High Noon. Of course, nowadays most people think that this film should have won Best Picture. If you have seen both The Greatest Show and High Noon, I dare you to even try to convince me the circus story is better! And I have never seen nor had any interest in seeing Ivanhoe.

No comments:

Post a Comment