Greatest Show on Earth, TheReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/04/05 17:53:50
Cecil B. DeMille was known for many things, but subtlety wasn’t one of them. His early works helped make a trip to the local movie house an adventure, with such titles as “The King of Kings,” “Sign of the Cross,” and “Cleopatra” putting the “show” in “showbiz.” For DeMille, bigger was always better.The filmmaker saved his two largest works for last: his final work was the gargantuan hit remake of his own “The Ten Commandments,” ranking among the most epic of epic motion pictures; while his film before that, the box office smash “The Greatest Show On Earth,” was a surprise winner for the Best Picture Oscar (although DeMille lost the directing award).
“Show” has been called by many sources as the single worst film to ever win the top prize at the Academy Awards, but I must disagree. It’s arguably the corniest, to be certain, but the worst? Not at all.
A side note: To understand why it won Best Picture in the first place, one needs to look at its main competition. “High Noon” was the frontrunner, but its behind-the-scenes ties to the blacklist and its daring themes made it a hot potato for the Academy. Voters decided to play it safe, giving many other top awards to John Ford’s “The Quiet Man,” and naming “Show” Best Picture mostly due to its being the runaway top movie at the box office. By “best,” that year the Academy meant “most popular.”
Anyway. While the film may not be worthy of a Best Picture trophy, it’s certainly delightful entertainment. It’s a ginormous circus yarn starring Charlton Heston as the road manager of the Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey Circus This wildly fun, oversized entertainment isn’t deep cinema, to be certain, but at least it’s nifty storytelling. Consider this an early popcorn blockbuster - a bonanza designed entirely to thrill, never mind the thinking.
A solid chunk of the movie is devoted merely to filming the circus in action, a nice treat for audiences who desire a taste of circus joy but don’t have a local circus handy. This also keeps the movie from dragging too much - any time things get slow, DeMille could simply drop in more shots of daring acrobats or the goofy Emmett Kelly in action, and there you go.
It does have plenty of room to drag, however. At two and a half hours, it’s relatively short by DeMille standards. And there’s not much plot to require such a hefty running time. The film opens with a bit of office politics: corporate honchos want to cut back the size of the tour, limiting this year’s run to only big cities, but the unfortunately named Brad Braden (Heston) puts in a good argument for why the small town visits are good for the circus - and good for the people. Besides, he has an ace up his sleeve, having booked superstar acrobat The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) to bring in the crowd.
But hiring Sebastian moves Brad’s gal Holly (Betty Hutton) out of the center ring, which makes her furious, until she meets Sebastian and the swooning begins. As does the competition; most of the story involves the two acrobats’ efforts to upstage each other from separate rings. (Brad, meanwhile, shows little concern for losing his girlfriend to the hotshot star, perhaps because Gloria Grahame’s also vying for his attention.)
Rounding out (read: padding) the script is some nonsense about a couple of racketeers trying to muscle in on the money angle and some other nonsense about the head clown (James Stewart, of all people!) having a mysterious past. It’s all hokum and hogwash, to be sure, but it’s bound to be as entertaining as the words “hokum” and “hogwash” are themselves.
We have DeMille himself once again providing the movie’s narration, overselling every notion of how hard it is to put the circus together, how excited the townsfolk are to see the thrills. DeMille’s style behind the microphone is just as it is everywhere else, a push for grand heights, all in the name of spectacular entertainment.And “Show” truly is a spectacle. Clumsy, innocent, awkward, to be sure, but it’s never skimpy on the fun. From the giddy pleasures of the circus footage (a favorite scene involves an older gent who’s happier to see the show than the kid seated next to him) to the sheer bigness of the climax (involving an all-too-phony train wreck that works despite itself), “The Greatest Show On Earth” is a movie that’s desperate to live up to its title. It doesn’t make it, of course - not by a long shot - but it does supply an oversized dose of merriment along the way.
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