Rating: 2 stars (out of 4)
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952): Dir. Cecil B. DeMille. Written by: Fredric M. Frank, Barré Lyndon, Theodore St. John, and Jack Garris, from a story by Frank, St. John, and Frank Cavett. Starring: Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Dorothy Lamour, and James Stewart. Unrated. Running time: 152 minutes.
One of the more infamous winners in Oscar history, Cecil B. Demille’s tribute to the circus attempts to show the thrills of the big top and the intrigue behind the scenes. Filled with actual circus footage and silly melodrama, it’s a decidedly mixed bag of a movie.
Using the circus as both a focus and a backdrop, the film introduces us to no-nonsense circus manager Brad Braden as he struggles to keep the circus from bankruptcy. When he hires acrobatic phenom Sebastian for his show, he inadvertently creates a love-triangle with trapeze artist Holly as the woman pursued. What ensues is an vapid romantic romp, interrupted by displays of skill and daring in the ring.
As with some of the musical movies I’ve reviewed, I wonder why the big production numbers don’t comprise the entire film, because most of them genuinely entertain. An early sequence pits Sebastian against Holly as they try to one-up the other with death-defying trapeze stunts. It’s well-orchestrated and greatly informed by the talent of the circus, and I would have loved to see more. Instead we get a flimsy plot about the circus “people” whom don’t transcend the character-stock they’re drawn from.
Still, Charlton Heston impresses in his breakout role, and Jimmy Stewart manages a surprising pathos as a minor clown character. The direction from Cecil B. DeMille draws attention to the spectacle, but DeMille overdoes it with the excitable crowds, whom are always eager to remind us that circuses are thrilling (except for one scene where a young boy actually scowls at a circus act—guess he didn’t read the cue card).
While a minor entry, I found Show fairly watchable—one you might watch for the actual circus highlights. Inconsequential, yes, but definitely not the worst we’ve seen so far.
Next film: From Here to Eternity, 1953