Title: The Greatest Show on Earth
Release Date: 10 January, 1952
Oscar Ceremony: 19 March, 1953
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Starring: James Stewart, Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton
Nominees: High Noon, Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge, The Quiet Man
“How long do you think this can go on before something happens?” – Buttons the clown
Funnily enough, this quote perfectly illustrates my sentiments while watching this movie. When a Best Picture contender markets itself as “The Greatest Show on Earth,” approach it with caution. To be perfectly honest, it wasn’t as bad as I’ll make it sound, but it just didn’t feel like it had the caliber of an Oscar winner.
I saw this movie over a week ago, but then I left for Las Vegas where all hell broke loose, and thus had no time to write much. I feel rather detached at this point, but I’m still committed. Interestingly enough, two things happened during my trip that gave me a new perspective on the film: I saw Singing in the Rain (which was released the same year) and I saw O by Cirque du Soleil (which directly relates to The Greatest Show on Earth’s subject: the circus). More about that later.
An hommage to the grandeur and raging popularity of the circus, which at this point was beginning to be somewhat of a lost art, The Greatest Show on Earth tells the fictional story of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and the complicated lives of its performers. The manager of the circus struggles to convince his board of directors that the circus should run its usual long season of travelling despite the hardships and risks of the post-war economy. He finally succeeds, but under one condition: he has to tell Holly, his star trapezist and girlfriend, that she can no longer be center ring. Instead, he has to hire the famous heartthrob the Great Sebastian to take her place. Naturally that doesn’t sit well with her, and this Great Sebastian guy also turns out to be pretty hard to keep under control. Most of the movie deals with the competition between these two artists, as well as the general happenings of a typical circus troupe.
In the background, we also have the story of Buttons the clown, whose identity remains a mystery to everyone. He never removes his makeup and stays very secretive about his past. We wonder what he could possibly be running away from. I want to add that Buttons is wonderfully portrayed by James Stewart, who miraculously manages to make me feel more comfortable around creepy clowns. I might even consider watching It if he would take on the lead role.
Honestly, by the end of the movie, you kind of feel good about watching it. However, throughout the movie, you wonder what could possibly have led the Academy to pick this as its Best Picture. The acting is a bit embarrassing, the story is melodramatic, there are occasional weird bits of narration about the circus in general which mislead you into thinking you’re watching a documentary… and the whole thing runs for almost 3 hours! This has to stop! When a movie is meant to be 3 hours, go for it. The Wolf of Wall Street, for example, is perfectly justified when it comes to its length. However, there is NO reason why The Greatest Show on Earth could not have been shortened. I understand that it is interspersed with actual circus performances, but I came to see a movie, not a circus show. It’s good to include a few here and there to really give viewers a sense of the atmosphere, but if all I wanted to see was some people flipping around in the sky trying to catch each other, I could buy a Cirque du Soleil DVD. Moreover, this was difficult for me to watch as the concept of a traditional circus (with animals and “freaks”) makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like watching animals forced into acts they’re clearly not meant to be doing, and I don’t appreciate people being put on display for others to laugh at. It just feels unnatural and frankly unfunny.
Another element that puzzled me is the fact that this movie was praised for its special effects. What a laughing stock! Even Wings from 1927 had better special effects than this. For some reason, there is an overuse of green screen in instances where they clearly could have just shot things normally, and you can really tell; there’s a slight green ora around the actors’ heads and the movements look off. I have seen so many movies from this time where the effects were much better handled. This would have been fine for a low-budget TV show that you watch for the story rather than the visuals, but not for a Best Picture winner that practically HAS no story. If you try to justify its win by saying “it’s not about the story; it’s about the show and the grandeur,” then at least focus on making the visuals spectacular. If not, add something more interesting and meaningful to the story.
Now let me go back and address the two experiences I mentionned at the beginning of this post. First of all, seeing Singing in the Rain made me despise this movie even more. They were both released at the same time, but Singing in the Rain did not even get a nomination. I have to pull a Kanye on this one and say “Yo, The Greatest Show on Earth, I’m really happy for you, I’ma let you finish, but Singing in the Rain was one of the best movies of all time! One of the best movies of all time!” So frustrating. On a lighter note, my second experience -watching a Cirque du Soleil show- made me appreciate the movie a bit more. The entire time I was watching the performers, I couldn’t help but remember the movie and think about what must be going through their heads in those moments and what their lives are like backstage. It’s nice to get an insight on the performers’ perspective of it all, which is something you usually don’t know much about.
Now let me finish by sharing a little fun fact with you. Apparently, this was the first movie that Steven Spielberg ever saw. I believe that’s a good thing, because he probably thought one of two things: either “How can I make something this grand, but actually add substance?” or plainly “I’m sure I can do better than THIS.” Whatever happened there, I can at least thank The Greatest Show on Earth for playing a small role in bringing us the genius that is Spielberg.