Film Score: Victor Young Cinematography: George Barnes
Starring: Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde and James Stewart
The Greatest Show on Earth is generally acknowledged to be a bad movie and an undeserving winner that year, especially with films like Stanley Kramer’s High Noon and John Ford’s The Quiet Man in the running and criminally snubbed pictures like Singin’ In the Rain and The Bad and the Beautiful not even earning nominations. The film is essentially a three-ring soap opera, one of the earliest versions of The Love Boat, two years before The High and the Mighty cemented the format in the public’s mind. Had the Academy waited a few years they would have been able to give the award to DeMille’s most enduring film, The Ten Commandments, and in a cruel irony it is likely that picture didn’t win because the award had already been given to DeMille for this one.
The film opens with DeMille in voiceover, images of the Barnum & Bailey Circus both in performance and behind the scenes. The film begins in winter camp in Florida, foreman Charlton Heston going around the camp to check on the animals and crew. Then he’s called into the office by the owners who want to limit the season to ten weeks, playing only the big cities. Heston convinces them otherwise by hiring temperamental trapeze artist Cornel Wilde. But then he has to tell the equally temperamental Betty Hutton that she’s being pushed out of the center ring. The two are having an affair and she angrily marches off after accusing Heston of having sawdust in his veins. At the same time one of the clowns, Jimmy Stewart, is in love with Hutton and, like the Lon Chaney vehicle He Who Gets Slapped, she barely notices him and only wants to talk to him about Heston. There’s also a sub-plot involving organized crime, with Lawrence Tierney running a scam with the midway games to trick circus patrons out of their money. Once on the road, Wilde attempts to ingratiate himself with Hutton, inviting her to perform at the same time he does, though Hutton takes it as an opportunity to best him, much to the consternation of both Heston and Stewart who worry she’ll fall during their impromptu competition. It’s strange that Stewart wears his makeup all the time, until his mother shows up and tells him people are looking for him again and it’s clear he’s using the circus to hide.
Every once in a while DeMille comes back to narrate a section of the film that is accompanied by color documentary footage of the real circus. Except for his voice, the writing and the visuals could be from a Disney film. It turns out Gloria Graham, as one of the beauties who rides the elephants, knew Wilde as a womanizer back in Europe and tries to steer Hutton clear of him. But Hutton thinks she wants him for herself and won’t listen, providing the conflict for the rest of the story. The worst part of the film by far is the overacting by Betty Hutton, if not the overacting by everyone involved. But it almost can’t be helped given the inane dialogue by longtime DeMille screenwriter Fredric Frank and TV writer Barré Lyndon. Cornel Wilde comes off like Pepé Le Pew with his French accent pawing at Hutton all the time. And the criminal sub-plot doesn’t even make another appearance until halfway through the film. In fact, it’s not until the climax, where the circus performances are over, that the film really takes off and works like a film. A couple of things that date the film are unavoidable. The first is the trapeze act by Cornel Wilde and Betty Hutton, which is much more a balancing act than the kind of gymnastics modern audiences are used to seeing. The other thing is the training and treatment of the animals, one of the reasons that most circuses thankfully no longer exist.
If there’s a positive aspect to the film it’s the confident camera work by George Barnes, who worked for the likes of Hitchcock and Capra, after getting his start with Busby Berkeley in the thirties. The most impressive part is the numerous tracking shots that go all over the circus grounds and inside the big top, usually following Heston. Another bright spot is Jimmy Stewart as Buttons the clown. His work in the real circus brings to mind Buster Keaton working at the Paris Medrano Circus a few years earlier. Normally what a patron at the circus watches depends upon the ring they’re seated nearest. What DeMille attempts to do over the course of two and a half hours is give the viewer every seat in the house, filming all of the acts that perform in every ring. In terms of the documentary aspect of the film, DeMille should be credited with capturing the end of an already dying art form. But in terms of cinematic quality, the film doesn’t hold up because of how much of that footage the film is forced to carry. Had a similar film been made today it’s likely that it would have had a running time well under two hours, and with much of the documentary footage trimmed it might have made for better viewing, even with the poor dialogue. As it stands, The Greatest Show on Earth is a film by one of the greatest directors of all time, but considered undeserving of the Academy Award by many of today’s viewers and critics.