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Greatest Show on Earth

Some people are very afraid of clowns, which I guess would make 1952ís The Greatest Show on Earth the only horror movie to ever win best picture. Cecil B. DeMille actually went on tour with the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus in order to get every detail right for this story of life under the big top.

Charlton Heston plays Brad, the manager of the circus who struggles to keep the show financially solvent in an era when other entertainment options where forcing many circuses off the road. Brad is able to allay fears of the circus operating on a shortened schedule by hiring the Great Sebastian, a trapeze artist whose presence with the company threatens to unseat Holly, the center ring trapeze artist who happens to be dating Brad. As he explains several times, he separates his personal life from what is best for the circus. This leads to a romantic pentagon, involving Brad, the two trapeze artists, an elephant tamer, and an elephant rider.

Sebastian and Holly learn to share top billing by putting on a high flying game of one-upmanship. However this eventually leads to Sebastian getting seriously injured when he misses on a stunt while working without a net. Then the elephant tamer gets fired and tries to get back at the circus by robbing the circus train, which causes it to derail, nearly killing Brad, and leading Holly to put together a show in an empty field next to the accident site.

Wrapped around this convoluted mess of a narrative is a sort of documentary offering a behind the scenes look at life in the circus, including a fascinating sequence showing how they put up the big top. The documentary footage is far more interesting than the actual movie. Itís good enough that, were I to gain access to Paramount archives, I would throw out all the crap with Charlton Heston and re-release this thing as a straight up documentary.

Then thereís the acting. How in the hell did Charlton Heston ever earn a reputation as a top notch actor? Here he hams it up, and when he says lines like, "under that big top, youíre just another performer" I just want to laugh. Betty Hutton plays Holly, and she is simply painful to watch. Equally painful is the fake French accent of Cornel Wilde, who plays Sebastian. About the only positive in terms of acting is James Stewart as Buttons, the murderous clown/ doctor. Go ahead and read that last sentence one more time. The guy from Itís a Wonderful Life plays a former doctor who went on the lamb after killing his wife and became a circus clown. And heís the most sympathetic character in the entire movie. We never even figure out why he killed his wife. Throughout the last half hour of the movie I kept expecting some plea to legalize doctor assisted suicide, but no. We get no explanation at all. At one point he even tells Holly, "sometimes you have to kill the one you love," which was the single most psychotic line from a best picture winner up until Silence of the Lambs, yet Holly doesnít even bat an eye.

There is some worthwhile stuff here, including the documentary footage and the trapeze dual. However there is a lot of bad stuff here too. The acting is second rate from top to bottom. Some of it is because real-life circus folk, including John Ringling North as himself, get their first shot at saying lines on film, and one canít expect much out of them, but Heston made a living doing this. Whatís his excuse? Add to that the special effects of the train accident which are some of the worst Iíve seen in a major motion picture. Some shots are rather obviously model trains that are crashing, and it is very distracting.

Other nominees that year included High Noon and Ivanhoe. Ivanhoe staring Robert Taylor, Liz Taylor, and Joan Fontaine, is similar to Robin Hood, except itís one very good movie. High Noon is only one of the greatest westerns ever made, with Gary Cooper as the about-to-retire sheriff reeled back in for one last fight. High Noon is everything Greatest Show on Earth is not, with great acting, great cinematography, and a plot that doesnít have you saying "oh, come on" every five minutes. Sorry, Mr. DeMille, but High Noon is a far better movie. Also note that Akira Korosawaís Ikiru was released in 1952, but did not play in the US until 1956, making it ineligible to topple Greatest Show on Earth. It wouldnít have won anyway in all likelihood, but it is far better. But then most movies are far better than this.

Also, special programming note: William Shakespeareís birthday is Monday, so in a special My Year with Oscar double feature I will be reviewing the two best picture winners based on Shakespearean plays, 1948ís Hamlet, and 1961ís West Side Story (based on Romeo and Juliet). Stay tuned!


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