The Greatest Show On Earth (1952)

The Show Must Go On

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The DVD release for The Greatest Show On Earth plays down its Academy Award win for Best Picture. 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?  I guess Paramount are fully aware of the film’s reputation as one of the “worst Best Picture winners”. 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. I believe 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) with actual circus equipment being used for the movie’s filming. The Greatest Show On Earth beautifully captures this un-PC relic of another age (“you mean we all got to play in blackface?”) full of clowns, animals in captivity and human freaks. There is even an appearance of performers wearing costumes of Disney characters; good luck trying to put that in a non-Disney film nowadays! Likewise, 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. – The film packs a lot of material and dramatics into its runtime and I felt like I got my money’s worth.

You could look at The Greatest Show On Earth 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 with the guidance of DeMille’s passionate narration. This was a change of pace to DeMille’s usual fare of historical and biblical epics but he still manages to throw some Christianity in there with the scene in which a priest and his Alter boys bless the circus train before it begins its season.

Tasked with Herculean effort of running a circus, you couldn’t get a more commanding choice than Charlton Heston in the Clark Gable type role as a man under great pressure to keep the operation running and pull the strings behind the scenes; not even a train crash or near-death deter him from putting on a show. However, 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 the Clown 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. Yep, it’s 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 (which really set a standard for special effects) but also the implication that Buttons, a former doctor had assisted his wife to kill herself. It’s very subtly implied but it’s still surprising that a mainstream blockbuster would have an assisted suicide subplot in an era dictated by the censorship of the Hay’s Code.

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