The Greatest Show On Earth (1952)

The Show Must Go On

The DVD release for The Greatest Show On Earth plays down its Best Picture win. Hang on, isn’t this supposed to be the highest accolade in the film world? Why would you downplay that your film won the award? Probably because the Academy Awards are a farce. Yeah, total shocker. I normally have a rule when reviewing movies not to mention the Oscars because I feel it is so redundant to do so. “How did this beat ‘x’ picture?”, “Why didn’t ‘x’ get an Oscar nomination?”, such tiring statements. Best Picture winners attract viewers to a film which they would unlikely watch otherwise and because of this many films get a bad reputation as the film which beat such and such for Best Picture.

The Greatest Show On Earth is one such film, made out to be worse than it is due to attracting an audience who would otherwise never watch it if it wasn’t for its Best Picture win. The Greatest Show On Earth is tons of fun; at times I had a carefree feeling that I was at an actual circus, minus the smell of elephant dung. There is even an appearance of people wearing costumes of Disney characters; good luck trying to put that in a non-Disney film nowadays! The acrobatic scenes are suspenseful and you really get a sense of the scope and awe; the whole thing even feels like it has weight to it so I can forgive the odd jumpy edit. You could look at it cynically and say it’s a commercial for Barnum and Bailey, well it’s a very entertaining commercial at that and a very informative one offering a documentary-like look at how the circus operates. It’s not an easy job, therefore someone as commanding as Charlton Heston is perfect for the role as the person who runs the operations and pulls the strings behind the scenes. The movie packs a lot of material into its runtime and I felt like I got my money’s worth.

When your movie stars James Stewart (albeit a supporting performance), isn’t any surprise he’s the best aspect of the film. I believe his role of Buttons is an underrated performance of his and one of his most tragic. He has a permanent smile on his face (really, his makeup never comes off at any point), yet has a dark, troubled past. Ok, its obvious symbolism but you can feel his pain throughout thanks to his quiet, subtle performance. As the movie progresses it takes a surprisingly dark turn, not only with the shockingly intense train wreck sequence but also the implication that Buttons assisted his wife to kill herself, surprising that a mainstream blockbuster would have an assisted suicide subplot in an era controlled by censorship.


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