Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Greatest Show on Earth ( 1952 )

For Cecil B. DeMille there was no such thing as a regular feature always had to be a spectacle

Circus films were a dime a dozen in the 1930s, but none of them really captured that thrill of seeing a circus in person. A circus was meant to be a spectacle, and the circus itself had to take the center ring in a film; it couldn't be relegated to merely a background setting. 

Cecil B. DeMille knew all this, and he also knew that if he wanted to see a honest-to-goodness tribute to the American circus he would have to make the film himself. 

As early as 1949, DeMille started the wheels of production spinning. He spent over a year touring with Ringling Barnum and Bailey Circus, photographing the best acts in the business and discovering ways to transport that thrill of a real circus onto the big screen. What resulted was indeed The Greatest Show on Earth, a spectacle beyond all spectacles. This film really packs a punch and captures everything audiences love about the circus - daring acts on the flying trapeze, elephants on parade, glittering costumes, the smoky atmosphere within the tent, the heroic natures of the stars of the rings, even the drama of the circus people themselves. 
This drama centers around Brad Braden ( Charlton Heston ), manager of the Ringling Brothers circus. He has just engaged The Great Sebastian ( Cornel Wilde ), a popular trapeze artist, to ensure a full profitable season, even though it means moving his girlfriend Holly ( Betty Hutton ), another trapeze artist, from her hard-won center ring. Sebastian and Holly begin a playful, but dangerous, one-upmanship duel in the ring until the inevitable accident stops the show. 

James Stewart also has a big part as a former doctor now in hiding from the police for a mercy killing several years back. To keep his identity a secret he never removes his makeup as Buttons the Clown. It is not until Brad's life is endangered in a massive train wreck that Buttons must reveal his true profession. 
Gloria Grahame, Lyle Bettger, Dorothy Lamour, and Henry Wilcoxon make up the rest of the cast, in addition to 85 acts from the Ringling Brothers circus including aerialist Antionette Concello, midget Cucciola, and veteran clowns Emmett Kelly and Lou Jacobs. All of the scenes within the tent were filmed at Ringling Brothers' winter home in Sarasota, or live during one of their performances. Obviously, the circus pros had no issues doing the stunts, but what was most impressive was how well Cornel Wilde ( who had a fear of heights ) and Betty Hutton performed on the trapeze. It took them months to learn their technique and it clearly showed. Had their Hollywood careers fizzled, they could have easily joined up with a circus. 

When The Greatest Show on Earth premiered its box-office receipts were higher than even The Great Sebastian could soar, with kids of all ages packing the theatres in droves. It's no wonder, too.....Cecil B. DeMille paralleled the real Ringling Brothers circus and gave audiences one great moment after another to behold in this star-studded spectacle. 

Fredric Frank and Barre Lyndon penned a cotton-candy script with a straightforward plot line because, after all, who comes to a circus to be engrossed in deep drama? We want to have fun, ooh and aah at some thrilling acts, and see plenty of spangles and sawdust. 

So next time you're itching to go to the circus, get yourself some popcorn, and sit back and enjoy The Greatest Show on Earth. 

This post is our entry in the "At the Circus Blogathon" being hosted by Critica Retro and Serendiptious Anachronisms. Be sure to head on over to their blogs to read more reviews about circus films!


  1. Great post! This is a great big cotton candy check-your-mind-at-the-door fun film for sure. However, I have to admit James Stewart as a clown kind of creeps me out.....

    1. Glad you enjoyed our write-up, Marsha. I never saw anything scary about Buttons, but then it's probably because I can see Jimmy Stewart under all that face-paint. No disguise can hide is inimitable walk!

  2. Wow, I had forgotten how vibrant the color was! I don't think it's a great film, but it certainly is an entertaining one.

    1. Yes, it really is entertaining. It's amazing how many "great" films are really a drudge to watch...especially many of the Best Picture Oscar winners. I can't wait to see the film on Blu-Ray, that should really have vibrant color.

  3. Great review!
    I was sooo nervous during the trapeze numbers! They were the best thing in the movie in my opinion. I found the rest to be a bit dull. I think the film would be much better if Buttons's drama had more room.
    Thanks for joining us, girls! It was a pleasure to have you among our guests.

    1. Thanks for hosting, Le! A circus themed blogathon was a fabulous idea. :-)

  4. This is my all-time favorite circus film, you ladies really captured what makes this film so special! DeMille really understood the spectacle of the Circus and depicted it brilliantly, thanks for an entertaining and delightful review of a classic film!