The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

The circus, as we are told by the narrator, is a glorious time of fun and festivities on the outside. The clowns smile and the elephants dance around—the ladies look beautiful and the men, handsome. But this is all a facade, for the circus is no...ahem...circus.
That's right ladies and gentlemen, the circus is a vigorous lifestyle that demands that you always stay on your toes and no one knows this more than Brad Braden (Charlton Heston), a man who is described more than once as having 'sawdust in his veins'. He lives and breathes the circus, no one could possibly manage it better than he.
The circus is also home to Holly (Betty Hutton), a high trapeze artist who is also romantically involved with Brad.
At the beginning of the movie, the men with the money want to cut the circus back to just major towns and leave out small cities, therefore eliminating the chance of loosing money. Brad doesn't like this idea and voices this to the men. He thinks that children of all economical status should be able to enjoy the circus as if they were no different...he really lays the drama on thick. The men all refuse but Brad has a card up his sleeve, The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), a daredevil, sexy trapeze artist who sets the ladies ablaze. He is a rumored destroyer of circuses, going through so many women that it jeopardizes the show itself.
But Sebastian is a big money maker, people love to come see him. So the men with power agree to take on Sebastian...ah-ah-ah, not so fast. Brad makes them agree to a full season and in return, they get Sebastian.
"The Greatest Show on Earth" seems like a big advertisement for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey; because it's those combined circuses that Brad oversees, and what spectacles they produce.
There is showing off and then, there's showing off and Cecil B. DeMille goes way beyond the lines of normal hubris.
The circus—although we have been told that it's a hard place to work and live—is a picnic. It's easy going and most people get along with each other. There's no blood, no blemishes, and certainly no cliche 'hey-you're-new-go-scoop-the-elephant-poop' scene...because there's no elephant poop to be seen. This circus is rather immaculate.
The animals are all treated well, Brad makes sure of that, and the performers love what they do.
My biggest issue with the film is how it treats the animals, circuses were notoriously evil to animals (this was made famous by Sara Gruen's novel Water for Elephants). But in this film, we don't see what goes on behind the curtain—everything seems pleasant. Most of these animals were probably abused but all we see is a menagerie, loud and fun.
Okay, I'm off my soapbox now.
Animal cruelty aside, the film doesn't really give the politics and the hardships of the circus its due. Although it was the 50s and everything needed to look nice on film, it could have been a little deeper. I got the feeling that DeMille wanted to make a circus picture, and an epic one at that and then later decided that throwing some plot in here and there wouldn't be a bad idea.
The amount of time that is eaten up on screen from just watching people watch the circus is quite staggering. I felt like the movie should have been renamed "Watching Children Eat Ice Cream".
But the time not devoted to the people watching the big top is filled with the parade itself. So many acts and side acts appear on screen that it no longer is about the plot—which has promptly disappeared in these scenes that can stretch up to twenty minutes long.
The actual plot is filled with cliche items, such as: a man with a shandy past, a man who loves his job more than his girl, and any number of several forms of a love triangle.
Yet, there is something powerful about watching elephants stand up on their hind legs and seeing people balancing on each other's heads.
It's more about the spectacle than the characters, and the melodramatic tendencies of the script and the actors only helps sink this picture.
The only notable exceptions to the acting are a sassy-mouthed Gloria Grahame and a clown-faced James Stewart.
"The Greatest Show on Earth" is too long, too flashy, and too predictable.

Score: 2 out of 4 stars

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