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Best Picture: The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

Witney surmises that the 25th film to win the Best Picture Oscar was perhaps the Academy’s first “legacy” award. It’s the only way he can explain the victory of such a bloated, bad movie like The Greatest Show on Earth.

Prior to the following essay, I hadn’t seen Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 opprobrious flick The Greatest Show on Earth, and, I must be honest, I was very much looking forward to seeing it. The Greatest Show on Earth is often listed by critics and cineastes as one of the the worst – if not the worst – Best Picture of the 86 to win the award to date. Could it possibly be that bad? If it was bad, I was about to bear witness to a genuine cinematic curio. If it was good, then I could play devil’s advocate, and run to the rescue of a maligned classic. Either way, I win.

Sadly, I’m here to report that the reputation of The Greatest Show on Earth reputation is perfectly accurate. This really is one of the worst Best Pictures I have seen so far. It’s not as stodgy as something like Cimarron, or as blandly forgettable as something like Cavalcade, but it is a bloated, painfully sentimental, frustratingly paced, too-long, obvious, shallow über-melodrama of the highest order. Even in terms of its mere spectacle, The Greatest Show on Earth feels limp and unimpressive, easily outstripped by the bubbly showmanship of a lightweight musical like An American in Paris from the previous year.

Greatest Show on Earth Heston

There are – I must immediately admit – two prejudices at work here. For one, most of us have already seen Cecil B. DeMille do better work. I think we’re all familiar with the impressive Technicolor super-Hollywood charm of The Ten Commandments, and some old world classics aficionados have likely seen some of his earlier historical epics like Cleopatra. This was a man who famously said he could make a hit film out of any few random pages of The Bible. We know that he can make legitimately huge movies. When we compare the scope and spectacle of his reputation to The Greatest Show on Earth, we can only see DeMille at a low ebb.

The other prejudice at work is more personal: While I admire and respect the old institution of the big top circus, and can’t help but stand in awe of all the hard work and skill that went into putting on a show that was – before movies – one of the most popular and lucrative entertainments in the country… I just never liked actually going to the circus. Even as a child, I didn’t laugh at clowns, I thought the animals looked unhappy, and there was something just overwhelmingly corny about the entire idea. Oh sure, the stuntmen, contortionists, trapeze artists, and high-wire acts were always impressive. But overall, I was always uncomfortable and a little restless on those few occasions I was taken to the circus. Although maybe it was all the weird candy I ate.

So watching a 152-minute film about the ins and outs of the circus – a films that takes long, long, long intermissions to do nothing but show us a pretty straightforward circus act – can feel tiresome and a little uncreative. The backstage melodrama is not enough to keep the three-ring antic afloat. Charlton Heston plays the no-nonsense manager of the real-life Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, and he knows the circus is flagging financially. He hires a suave European trapeze artist (Cornel Wilde) as the new star, upsetting his girlfriend Holly (Betty Hutton). Hutton is a brassy and excitable triple-threat actress who was very good in Annie Get Your Gun, but who feels out-of-place here; her whiny energy – and this may be an odd comparison – reminded me of Chloe Webb’s intentionally grating little-girl desperation in Sid and Nancy. Hutton and Wilde will end up having a professional rivalry that will – natch – lead to a horrible accident. There is another romantically interested party in the mix as well played by Gloria Graham. The wise old sage looking over the varied love triangles that form is a clown known as Buttons (James Stewart) who is hiding out in the circus for secret reasons of his own.

Greatest Show on Earth lobby card

There are two reasons I think this film may have won Best Picture over generally superior flicks like High Noon, The Quiet Man, and Moulin Rouge. One is nostalgia. By 1952, the circus was pretty much a moribund institution with its glory days behind it. Oh sure, circuses still toured and still hauled in a lot of money in 1952, but movies and television were essentially tearing down this old venue, killing off that particular medium. The Best Picture Oscar for The Greatest Show on Earth was a tribute. A way of paying homage to an entertainment that many of the Academy voters likely partook in over the course of their childhoods. The Academy, as we will learn in many of the ensuing weeks, is a very nostalgic institution.

The other reason, and I feel this is more likely, is that the Academy wanted to essentially award Cecil B. DeMille less for this film, and more for a decades-spanning career in film. DeMille is one of the most famous and successful film directors of all time. He was 71 when he made The Greatest Show on Earth, and was clearly slowing down in terms of production (although he remained robust until a heart attack in 1956). He would only go on to make one final film (The Ten Commandments) before his death in 1959. The Academy, rather than let this giant slip away without their coveted award, elected to give him what may be the very first “legacy win” in Oscar history. I’ll talk more about “legacy wins” in future Best Picture essays.

So, yeah, The Greatest Show on Earth is as bad as you’ve heard. It’s too long, the stories are not engaging, and you have to sit through a lot of not-very-interesting-no-matter-how-impressively-staged circus pageantry. It’s not hideous or unwatchable or anything. It’s just not very good.

Although Bob Hope and Bing Crosby have cameos. That part’s cool.

Join me next week for From Here to Eternity.

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