THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (1952)

ImageThe Greatest Show On Earth? That’s a pretty bold move, giving your movie a name like that. Can it deliver? I know everyone has been waiting expectantly. Thanks for hanging in there. We started the movie, but had to take an intermission that lasted a month while both Katy and I moved to a new house.

The titular show is the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the story’s setting. Brad Braden is the business-minded circus manager who brings hires trapeze artist The Great Sebastian as the star performer. This doesn’t sit well with his girlfriend Holly, also a trapeze artist. Sebastian is a good natured narcissist and womanizer and a love triangle develops between the three. Although Holly and Sebastian are developing feelings for each other, the clash of their egos generates an intense rivalry in the circus rings. Meanwhile, Jimmy Stewart is hanging around as Buttons, a clown who never takes off his makeup and darts his eyes around when asked about his past. And there are some hoods running crooked games on the midway and they try to destroy the circus. And someone falls off their trapeze. And other disasters happen. And the lions get out of their cage. A lot of things happen, the movie was two and a half hours long.

First off, I have to acknowledge that we’ve had our own plot giveaway here – it is true that Mouse and I have entered into cohabitation. Perhaps you have not known until now that your bloggers were romantically entangled – but the story arc is now in Red Carpet Roulette for all to read! By the way, it should be noted that we have a bit of a jingle written to extol the virtues of our blog. If you see us in person, feel free to ask us to sing it for you.

We had to take about a month break between the first half and the second half of this movie. I pointed out that perhaps this film would have been better suited to the format of the mini-series, and Mouse noted that those weren’t really the order of the day at the time of its creation. The pageantry of the circus with its acrobats, theatrics, costumes and clowns was by far my favorite part and superseded any interest I had in the individual plotlines. It was fascinating but painful to see the animals performing tricks that seemed to have their basis in an abusive training and preparation. I couldn’t stop watching the elephants, but I was happiest when they were at ease and not “performing.” Hey, this is a blog written by two vegans – couldn’t ignore it.

Holly is a bit of a headache, and I enjoy her most when she is freewheeling around in the air or being passionate and competitive with the male characters. She is catty in a number of moments to Angel, the girl who has “been around,” but they have each other’s backs when it really matters at least. Angel has a thing for Brad, and had a fling with Sebastian in the past, so the two have a lot to spar over. But Holly’s histrionics and flailing around at the slightest bit of strife become a bit tiresome, particularly as the film stretches on so long.

We were both curious if the amazing circus scenes were real and what the nature of the relationship between the film and Ringling Brothers was, as their company name is written across the circus train depicted.

I’ve read that the consensus opinion is that 1952’s Oscar had less to do with actually awarding the year’s best picture and more to do with putting an Oscar in the hands of Cecil B DeMille. DeMille was a living legend and Hollywood institution at this point, with a directing career that stretched back into the pre-WWI era. He had a flair for grandiose epics. The Greatest Show On Earth may not have been his very best endeavor, but at a time when it was apparent his life and career wouldn’t go on forever, The Academy saw fit to make him a Best Picture winner. Or so the story goes. Either way, while I did my best not to let this shade my experience of the film, I got the feeling it somehow managed to be less than the sum of its parts. Those parts were often quite good. But in end it seemed like more for the sake of more and the movie just came across like it couldn’t decide what it wanted to be.

Obviously there was some level of cooperation or collaboration between the filmmakers and the real Ringling Brothers Circus. Well known performers such as Emmett Kelly appear as themselves throughout and there are sequences of actual big top performances. Some scenes are documentary style depictions of the enormous logistics behind traveling circus. Interesting, yes, but there came a point when I wondered just who was the star of this movie- the actors or the circus itself? The footage made the case of why the spectacle of the circus has had enduring appeal, and the story of how such a large operation travels from town to town is compelling enough, but at some point the documentary and performance sequences added length to the movie with diminishing returns to the narrative. Had we remained focused on the characters, perhaps I would have felt more invested in them and their plots and subplots.

Also, I know it was central to his character’s story, but there is just something about forcing the great Jimmy Stewart to go through a whole movie painted in clown face that I just had trouble with.

But enough of the bad. There was plenty to like in the movie, even if it added up to an underwhelming whole. The actors for starters. With all his right-wing posturing defining his later life, it’s easy to forget that Charleton Heston was just a great leading man. I noticed something as soon as Heston was on screen. I’ve been watching the TV show The Simpsons for many years, and only now realized that the voice of the character Troy McClure, played by the late Phil Hartman, was obviously based on Charleton Heston. As for the above mentioned Jimmy Stewart, I would probably watch a film of him reading the phone book.

There were a few scenes that were just masterfully executed. The trapeze duel between Holly and Sebastian was pretty thrilling and I still don’t know to what extent stunt doubles were used for those shots. The train wreck scene was pretty impressive too. I don’t think of this as an era known for its special effects, but that sequence looked convincingly real and captured the chaos of disaster.

Let the record show that it took this movie for me to truly realize – Charleton Heston is a total babe!!! Eeesh. Okay, back to reality. I liked it when the animals escaped in the trainwreck scene although I became a bit preoccupied with worrying how they would get food, if they would be hunted, if they would die, etc. There were moments like these in the film where I really was stunned at the cinematography. The train wreck WAS impressive, and I couldn’t fathom how they had a budget in this era big enough to manage all of these effects.

Mouse is right about this film not knowing what it wanted to be. I think in some ways it wanted to be a documentary. The circus footage was so extensive, with scenes of acts often spanning several minutes. Lots of time with no dialogue. I loved watching the expressions on the faces of the audience members, and the tricks performed – especially on the trapeze.

In the end, I think we agreed that we didn’t really care so much about the plotlines. In fact I had zero investment whatsoever in which character wound up with which, romantically. It’s hard to care when it doesn’t even seem like they really do – but I guess it made for good filler between circus footage!

Before the invention of the television miniseries, a movie was made that took a “more is more” approach, cramming plotlines, characters and styles into an ambitious whole. Perhaps due to the motion picture industry’s understandable veneration for Cecil B. DeMille, it took home the Oscar, beating out High Noon, a narratively focused but morally complicated Western probably more deserving of the award. The Greatest Show On Earth? Not really the Greatest, nor the Worst Show On Earth. Maybe a more fitting name would have been A Mostly Enjoyable Show, With Some Pretty Good Parts.

Next film: GANDHI (1982)

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