Does it deserve its status as one of the worst Best Picture winners ever?
The Greatest Show on Earth is a 1952 drama film directed by Cecil B. DeMille and stars Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, and James Stewart.
The Greatest Show on Earth is a name for the travelling Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Show, which features trapeze artists, exotic animals, colorful clowns, and much more. Charlton Heston plays the no-nonsense manager, Brad Braden, who must oversee a host of backstage problems. He has a fuzzy relationship with his girlfriend, Holly, one of the trapeze artists, who he refuses to give the center ring of the show. Braden hires a big-name talent known as the Great Sebastian, who possesses a womanizing personality that spawns a love triangle with Braden and Holly. James Stewart plays Buttons, a clown who never removes his makeup and seems highly suspicious.
Despite featuring names like Charlton Heston and Jimmy Stewart, and being directed by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille, The Greatest Show on Earth is nowadays considered to be one of the worst and most undeserving Best Picture Winners of all time. Some speculate that the Academy tried to justify the film winning Best Picture by claiming that it was a way to pay tribute to DeMille for all his years as a director. How does a film with such a noticeable panache be seen so disdainfully today?
The answers seems to lie in the film being noticeably bloated, as well as in the thin plot. For the first 45 minutes, I felt quite invested and was about to tell myself that such critiques just mentioned above were inaccurate. Then the circus acts that are frequently displayed begin to drone on far longer than necessary, and it was at this point that I realized such critiques that I was about to dismiss were really true.
- The trapeze sequences involving the primary characters are fun to watch, and will perhaps make you envious of their atheltic ability. This is as close to edge-of-your-seat that the circus performances in this film get.
- The train crash near the end of the film (this is mentioned on the back of the DVD cover, so it's fair game to discuss), which comes as a bit of a surprise in a film that perhaps you thought was just going to be an artsy and goofy circus show for 2 and a half hours. One train runs over a car and crashes into the back of a stopped train, sending debris and human bodies flying everywhere, and letting animals out of their cages. It's a neat and memorable early 50's action sequence.
- The one word that might best describe The Greatest Show on Earth is bloated. The evidence is in how all of the circus act scenes overdue their stay, with an extra 10-15 minutes of showiness being put on after our main characters take care of their business. This is meshed with shots of audience members laughing and staring in awe at all the flashy costumes and vicious animals. I suppose that the audiences in the film are supposed to be reflections of us, laughing and cheering and supposedly having a wonderful time. The mirror would actually show people slouched in their seats with their head in their hands. This bloatedness has a domino effect of creating a way too long runtime, as well as pushing out more potential plotlines.
- Jimmy Stewart as Buttons the Clown. Jimmy Stewart did the best he could in this role, but the problem is that it is a completely unsuitable role for him. Buttons just seems sort of "there" for the first hour and a half, and then we begin to learn more about who he actually is in the last hour. I just could not buy the fact that Jimmy Stewart of all people was playing a clown who never takes his makeup off. Buttons might've been a better fit for someone like Jerry Lewis or even Bert Lahr, who played the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz.
There is sufficient reason to believe that The Greatest Show on Earth is one of the worst and most undeserving Best Picture winners of all time. The circus acts, while mildy entertaining at times, cause the film to become bloated by going on far too long, thereby diminishing the plot and making the film much longer than it needs to be. The film, though, does feature an impressive train wreck and some neat trapeze sequences. Not everything about the circus is bad, and perhaps you might grow more fond of the circus if you see this film.
Recommend? Yes. However, it should be one of, if not, the last thing on your to-do list. It's worth checking out if you find yourself bored and need something to do to kill time.
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