Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth seems to be almost universally regarded as the worst movie ever to win the Best Picture Oscar. This is absolute nonsense. I could easily name a dozen worse Best Picture winners. The Greatest Show on Earth might not be Citizen Kane but it’s fine entertainment.
DeMille was able to secure the enthusiastic co-operation of the Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey Circus in the making of the movie and the results are nothing if not spectacular.
The movie covers one season in the life of the circus, focusing on the drama of the circus itself as well as the behind-the-scenes tragedies, joys and heart-breaks.
Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) is a circus boss with a big problem. Times are changing and the circus faces stiff competition for the public’s entertainment dollar. The owners want to cut down the season for the coming year to a mere ten weeks, concentrating entirely on the big cities. To them such a decision seems like a prudent way to avoid financial risk but Braden knows that circuses just can’t work that way. You can’t attract the best performers and you can’t keep such a complex organisation together if you can only offer ten weeks’ work in a year. In a desperate attempt to convince the owners to risk a full season he has taken a huge risk himelf. He has hired the Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) as the circus’s number one attraction. The Great Sebastian is the greatest trapeze artist of them all but he has a reputation for being difficult and for causing chaos wherever he goes.
Holly vows to win back her top spot by proving she can outperform even the Great Sebastian. The competition between the two performers proves to be great publicity for the circus and it really draws in the crowds. This is not the only competition going on - there is also a fierce romantic rivalry between Brad and Sebastian. They’re both in love with Holly and neither is the sort of guy who likes to finish second. To complicate things further Angel (Gloria Grahame) is waiting in the wings. She’s always had a thing for a Brad but she’s not the kind of girl who goes around stealing other women’s men. On the other hand if Holly were to decide to choose Sebastian then she’d be more than happy to make a play for Brad. This four-way romantic rivalry provides the movie’s central plot.
It’s very easy to focus on this movie’s flaws but if you do that you’re missing the point of it all. The plot is a bit thin for a two-and-a-half hour movie. Some of the sub-plots don’t go anywhere. The acting is rather hammy. The structure of the movie is very loose with the plot frequently coming to a complete standstill while the focus switches to a documentary style look at the circus behind the scenes, and the action also stops for lengthy performance scenes. What you have to remember though is that DeMille did not want to make a movie set in a circus, with the circus providing a colourful backdrop. The circus itself is the subject of the movie, and it’s the star of the movie as well.
And of course a circus performance doesn’t rely on plot. It’s a series of unconnected spectacles. The structure of the movie follows a similar pattern. Criticising the movie for being episodic and disjointed is like criticising a circus performance for being episodic and disjointed.
As for the acting, this is not a movie about angst-ridden urban intellectuals. It’s about circus people. People expect circus people to be larger-than-life and in general the actors deliver precisely the kinds of performances that the movie requires. Betty Hutton plays Holly like a hyperactive kid suffering from a serious sugar rush. She’s bouncing off the walls but while her performance would have been a bad one in most movies in this movie it works. As for Charlton Heston, he’s playing a circus boss and it’s impossible to imagine how anyone could hold an organisation as complex and chaotic as a circus together unless he was the sort of character that Charlton Heston just happened to be very very good at playing. Cornel Wilde pulls out all the stops as the wildly extravagant and exuberant Sebastian and again it’s just exactly the right sort of performance. Gloria Grahame, being the superb actress she was, manages to make Angel very sympathetic and even to hint as a certain amount of acting subtlety while also going just as over-the-top as the other main stars.
Despite the movie’s disjointedness DeMille knows what he’s doing. He knows the movie is corny. It’s supposed to be. Circuses are corny. They’re supposed to be. You don’t approach this kind of subject matter with any attempt at subtlety. It’s not a Bergman movie. It’s a circus movie. DeMille knows what is required and that’s what he delivers. The Greatest Show on Earth is as garish as a circus and it’s just as much fun.
The Region 4 DVD is barebones but it’s a reasonable transfer. This is a movie that really needs a Blu-Ray release.
If you accept this movie on its own terms it’s very enjoyable viewing and despite its length it can never be accused of dullness. Recommended.