Critics often deride The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) as one of the worst Best Picture winners in Oscar history, but Cecil B. DeMille’s elaborate circus spectacle deserves a better reputation among classic movie fans. Yes, High Noon is the better film, but the blame for choosing the safer picture over that politically charged Western belongs to the Academy voters of 1952, not to DeMille or the very compelling actors who star in The Greatest Show on Earth. While the movie does favor the grandeur and leisurely pace of another era of filmmaking, The Greatest Show on Earth remains well worth watching for admirers of its many stars and anyone who feels nostalgic for the big top’s glory days.
Charlton Heston leads a star-studded cast as Brad Braden, the tough, no-nonsense manager of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The circus has fallen on hard times, but Brad takes a chance on a troublesome trapeze artist, The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), to bring in the crowds. Sebastian has a past with elephant trainer Angel (Gloria Grahame), but he quickly fixes his attentions on Brad’s girl, an ambitious trapeze artist named Holly (Betty Hutton). Other members of the circus family have their own problems, including gentle Buttons (Jimmy Stewart), a clown who hides his mysterious past beneath a painted smile.
The movie alternates between several distinct but overlapping plots, interspersed with documentary-style depictions of real circus life. The romantic entanglements of Brad, Holly, Sebastian, and Angel lead to various disasters, both inside the ring and out, culminating in a catastrophic train wreck that threatens to ruin the circus completely. The wreck is an amazing set piece, with animals running loose, injured people stumbling about, and plenty of smoke and chaos, but the scenes that come before it offer just as many thrills, especially with so many stars performing real circus stunts. Hutton, Wilde, and Grahame do impressive work, although dozens of the performers we see are real circus stars, including Emmett Kelly, Cucciola, The Alzanas, and The Flying Concellos. Their performances often suspend the progress of the narrative, but they provide a grand sense of the circus as a whole.
The Greatest Show on Earth has its flaws. It runs long, Hutton’s musical numbers don’t really work, and the romantic swapping of the protagonists seems arbitrary, especially at the end. Stewart, however, is in great form, and Hutton and Wilde have some fantastic scenes in which they try to upstage one another. People who love circuses will find plenty to admire, and kids will love it if they are old enough to sit still for the whole thing. Bonus goodies include cameo appearances by stars like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, as well as Hopalong Cassidy star William Boyd.
The Greatest Show on Earth also won the Oscar for Best Writing, with five nominations in all. If you want to see more of Cecil B. DeMille’s big shows, try The Sign of the Cross (1932), Cleopatra (1934), and The Ten Commandments (1956). Look for Charlton Heston in other early roles in Dark City (1950), Touch of Evil (1958), and Ben-Hur (1959). Betty Hutton stars in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) and Annie Get Your Gun (1950), while Cornel Wilde is remembered today for Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and The Naked Prey (1966), which he also directed. See more of Gloria Grahame in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), In a Lonely Place (1950), and The Big Heat (1953). Jimmy Stewart’s other roles from this period include Winchester ’73 (1950), Harvey (1950), and Bend of the River (1952).