THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, 1952
Cast: Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame,Henry Wilcoxon
To ensure a full profitable season, circus manager Brad Braden engages The Great Sebastian, though this moves his girlfriend Holly from her hard-won center trapeze spot. Holly and Sebastian begin a dangerous one-upmanship duel in the ring, while he pursues her on the ground. Subplots involve the secret past of Buttons the Clown and the efforts of racketeers to move in on the game concessions. Let the show begin!
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Not many shows on this planet can claim to be the greatest, but apparently Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus can. Itís quite a statement to make, but have no fear because Cecil B. DeMille is here to fulfill this prophecy and deliver another one of his larger than life films of epic proportions. The title didnít scare the prolific director from adopting the nickname and undergoing the task of filming The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). DeMille is infamously known for directing the worst film ever made Planet 9 From Outer Space. He's also known for directing sprawling religious epics. So, surely Catholic children forced to suffer through The Ten Commandments every Easter can be grateful for DeMille's shift from the holy land to the circus tent.
In this colorful flick, DeMille cast his future Moses, Charlton Heston, as Brad Braden (a name that sounds like they made up on the spur of the moment), manager of the traveling circus. Also, Jimmy Stewart stars as Buttons, a clown we never see out of makeup and for good cause, seeing as it is hinted at that he is running from the law. When there are threats of cutting some of the acts due to low ticket sales, Braden promises heíll do anything to keep the show on the road.
The show goes on and, trapeze act, Holly (Betty Hutton) and The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) begin trying to one up each other through their dangerous feats. Their mounting flirtations create jealously from Braden. However, when an accident with the safety net occurs, The Great Sebastian permanently injures his hand, rendering his future in the company useless. Things take an unfortunate turn when the circus train collides with another train, releasing the circus lions and causing injuries to many of the performers. Braden, gravely hurt, is saved by Buttons, and Holly admits her love for Braden. On a bit of a side note, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby make a hilarious cameo as overly intrigued members of the circus audience.
This film is a bit weak in plot and characterization, relying heavily on its stunts and circus performances to entertain its audience. Focusing more on Jimmy Stewart and his story could have been useful because the little glimpses we get of him are a whole lot more interesting than the Braden/Holly/Sebastian tired out love triangle. It almost seems like DeMille just really loved the circus and wanted to show it on the big screen, good story or not.
The Greatest Show on Earth might have been a completely different film experience if viewed on the big screen, but unfortunately it loses something in the transition to the living room television set. Granted, the movie viewing experience may be very different through the eyes of an eight year old child in 1952. When it was released, this film may have really wowed children, and maybe even adults, with its spectacle. After all, not everyone could make it to see the circus in person and this would have been a good alternative, perhaps similar to how eight year old girls feel watching the Hannah Montana concert movie today.
Obviously, The Greatest Show on Earth was better received at the time of its release, bringing in huge box office numbers, as well as winning Best Picture and Best Writing at the 25th Academy Award.