|The Greatest Show on Earth|
|Directed by||Cecil B. DeMille|
|Produced by||Cecil B. DeMille|
|Narrated by||Cecil B. DeMille|
|Music by||Victor Young|
|Edited by||Anne Bauchens|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Box office||$36 million|
The Greatest Show on Earth is a 1952 American drama film produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, shot in Technicolor, and released by Paramount Pictures. Set in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the film stars Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde as trapeze artists competing for the center ring, and Charlton Heston as the circus manager running the show. James Stewart also stars in a supporting role as a mysterious clown who never removes his make-up, even between shows, while Dorothy Lamour and Gloria Grahame also play supporting roles.
In addition to the film actors, the real Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus' 1951 troupe appears in the film, with its complement of 1,400 people, hundreds of animals, and 60 railroad cars of equipment and tents. The actors learned their respective circus roles and participated in the acts. The film's storyline is supported by lavish production values; actual circus acts; and documentary, behind-the-rings looks at the complex logistics that made big top circuses possible.
The film won two Academy Awards, for Best Picture and Best Story, and was nominated for Best Costume Design, Best Director, and Best Film Editing. It also won Golden Globe Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Director, and Best Motion Picture – Drama.
Brad Braden is the no-nonsense general manager of the world's largest railroad circus. The show's board of directors plans to run a short 10-week season rather than risk losing $25,000 a day in a shaky postwar economy. Brad bargains to keep the circus on the road as long as it makes a profit, thus keeping the 1,400 performers and roustabouts employed. In addition to keeping the show in the black, he faces some other serious problems.
Brad's first problem: his girlfriend, Holly, a flyer who expects to star in the show. He must tell her that she is out of the center ring. The management insisted on hiring the Great Sebastian, a world-class trapeze artist. Holly is furious. She is also heartbroken, because Brad refuses to acknowledge his love for her.
Brad's second problem: Sebastian, a ladies' man whose affairs always cause trouble for the shows' managers to the point a board member declares, "He's wrecked every show he's been with!"
His third problem: Harry, a crooked midway concessionaire who works for a gangster named Mr. Henderson. Ringling Bros. runs a clean show, and Henderson knows Brad won't put up with much.
Trouble is also brewing for the beloved Buttons the Clown, who never appears without his makeup. During one performance, Buttons is warned by his mother that "they" are asking questions. Buttons' skill at first aid suggests a medical background. Holly finds a newspaper article about a mercy killer, but does not connect the doctor who killed his wife to Buttons.
Sebastian arrives and is greeted by two former lovers: Angel, who performs in the elephant act with the pathologically jealous Klaus (Lyle Bettger); and Phyllis (Dorothy Lamour), who does a double turn as an iron jaw artist and a vocalist in a South Seas extravaganza. Sebastian is attracted to Holly and offers her the center ring. When Brad refuses, Holly vows to make her ring the focus of attention. The competition between the aerialists becomes increasingly daring and dangerous. The duel ends when Sebastian removes his safety net and suffers serious injuries in a fall when a stunt goes wrong. Buttons tends to him, and the show's doctor expresses admiration. Holly finally has the center ring and star billing, but not the way she wanted it. Brad cannot comfort her, because now she is in love with Sebastian.
When Harry is caught cheating customers on the midway, Brad fires him. Harry vows revenge. He is seen now and then on the periphery of the show, shooting craps and sowing disaffection, particularly with Klaus.
Several months later, Sebastian rejoins the show. His right arm is paralyzed. A guilt-ridden Holly professes her love for her former rival over the unfeeling Brad. Angel calls Holly a fool "for busting up the swellest guy in the circus" and makes a pass at Brad. They become an item. Klaus cannot accept that Angel does not want him.
At one stand, Special Agent Gregory of the FBI appears on the lot during teardown and asks Brad whether the circus doctor resembles a man he is hunting. Brad has never seen Buttons without makeup and does not recognize the man in the photo. The detective boards the train to continue his investigation. When Buttons tells Brad that Sebastian has feeling in his injured hand – a sign that his disability is not permanent — Brad makes the connection and casually observes that the police will be taking fingerprints at the next stand. He implies to Buttons he should make himself scarce until Gregory leaves the show to search elsewhere.
Harry and Klaus stop the first of the circus's two trains to steal the day's receipts. Klaus sees the second section coming and realizes that Angel is aboard. He drives the automobile head-on toward the train in an attempt to signal the engineer to stop the train. The second section smashes the car off the tracks and crashes into the first section in a spectacular collision that derails train cars, breaks animal cages open, shreds equipment, and injures people by the score. Brad is pinned in the wreckage, bleeding from a cut artery.
Buttons tries to slip away from the wreck site, but Holly pleads with him to save the man she loves. Buttons gives Brad a direct transfusion from Sebastian, who has the same rare blood type. Gregory assists him. Later, Special Agent Gregory reluctantly arrests Buttons, shaking his hand before handcuffing him and telling him, "You're all right." Buttons tells Brad to tell Holly that he will be keeping a date with his girl, suggesting that he may be facing the death penalty.
Holly takes command of the show, mounting a parade that leads the whole nearby town to an open-air performance. Brad now realizes how much he loves Holly, but ironically she now has no time for him because the show must go on. Sebastian proposes to Angel, and she accepts. The movie ends with the "spec" opening the program, the circus making a magnificent recovery from disaster to continue their tour.
- Betty Hutton as Holly
- Cornel Wilde as The Great Sebastian
- Charlton Heston as Brad Braden
- James Stewart as Buttons the Clown
- Dorothy Lamour as Phyllis
- Gloria Grahame as Angel
- Henry Wilcoxon as FBI Agent Gregory
- Lawrence Tierney as Mr. Henderson
- Lyle Bettger as Klaus
- John Ridgely as Assistant Manager
- Frank Wilcox as Circus doctor
- Brad Johnson as unnamed reporter
- John Kellogg as Harry
- Cecil B. DeMille as Narrator (uncredited)
The film features about 85 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus acts, including clowns Emmett Kelly and Lou Jacobs, midget Cucciola, bandmaster Merle Evans, foot juggler Miss Loni, and aerialist Antoinette Concello. John Ringling North plays himself as the owner of the circus.
There are a number of unbilled cameo appearances (mostly in the circus audiences) including Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour's co-stars in the Road to ... movies. William Boyd appears in his usual guise of Hopalong Cassidy. Danny Thomas, Van Heflin, character actor Oliver Blake, and Noel Neill are seen as circus patrons, among others. Leon Ames is seen and heard in the train wreck sequence. A barker, kept anonymous until the very end, is seen in the closing moments of the film. The voice is finally revealed to be that of Edmond O'Brien.
Art Concello, a famous aerialist in his day, was the General Manager of Ringling Bros. at the time De Mille was traveling with the show. It was he who gaffed The Great Sebastian's fall for the film, a difficult gag that had been the cause of great concern.
Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde had to learn how to fly on the trapeze for their scenes. It has been said that Wilde had difficulty with this, because he was afraid of heights. However, Hutton took to the trapeze like a duck to water and became quite proficient with the single bar. There is even film footage of De Mille presenting her with an award from Photoplay magazine while she was rehearsing, for which he had to ride a camera crane forty feet into the air.
The music for the song, "Lovely Luawana Lady", was written by John Ringling North, who appears briefly as himself during the discussion about whether the show would play the road rather than have a short 10-week season. North was a nephew of the five Ringling Brothers who founded Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. At the time the movie was filmed, John Ringling North was the owner of The Greatest Show on Earth.
The film earned $12.8 million at the box office in the United States and Canada, making it the highest-grossing film of 1952, as well as Paramount's most successful film of all time. It was also the most popular film in Britain in 1952 and the most popular film of the year in France in 1953.
On its release, Bosley Crowther in The New York Times called The Greatest Show on Earth a "lusty triumph of circus showmanship and movie skill" and a "piece of entertainment that will delight movie audiences for years":
- Sprawling across a mammoth canvas, crammed with the real-life acts and thrills, as well as the vast backstage minutiae, that make the circus the glamorous thing it is and glittering in marvelous Technicolor—truly marvelous color, we repeat—this huge motion picture of the big-top is the dandiest ever put upon the screen.
Time magazine called it a "mammoth merger of two masters of malarkey for the masses: P. T. Barnum and Cecil B. de Mille" as well as a film that "fills the screen with pageants and parades [and] finds a spot for 60-odd circus acts" with a plot that "does not quite hold all this pageantry together." and Variety wrote that the film "effectively serve[s] the purpose of a framework for all the atmosphere and excitement of the circus on both sides of the big canvas."
In 1977, Joe Walders wrote in TV Guide that a film's box-office success does not necessarily translate to continued popularity on TV, and cites this film as a primary example. It "was not only the top moneymaker of the year, but it also won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Yet it has rarely done well on television."
In 2005, The Official Razzie Movie Guide: Enjoying the Best of Hollywood's Worst includes The Greatest Show on Earth.
Some reviewers consider The Greatest Show on Earth among the worst choices the Academy ever made for Best Picture. In 2005, Empire listed it as the third worst Best Picture winner. The following year, in an article for MSNBC about the 78th Academy Awards selection of Crash as Best Picture, Erik Lundegaard called Crash the "worst Best Picture winner since the 'dull, bloated' film The Greatest Show on Earth" In 2013, the fact that The Greatest Show on Earth won over High Noon was listed by Time among the 10 Most Controversial Best Picture Races.
At the 25th Academy Awards, the movie won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Story. It received nominations for Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Costume Design, Color. It was the last Best Picture winner to win fewer than three Academy Awards until Spotlight (2015).
Many consider this film among the worst to have ever won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It also won that award over highly rated films such as High Noon, The Quiet Man, Ivanhoe and the non-nominated Singin' in the Rain. The American film magazine Premiere placed the movie on its list of the 10 worst Oscar winners and the British film magazine Empire rated it #3 on their list of the 10 worst Oscar winners. It has the second lowest spot on Rotten Tomatoes' list of the 90 films to win Best Picture.
Stanley Kramer alleged that the film's Best Picture Oscar was due to the political climate in Hollywood in 1952. Senator Joseph McCarthy was pursuing Communists at the time, and DeMille was a conservative Republican involved with the National Committee for a Free Europe. Another Best Picture nominee, High Noon, was produced by Carl Foreman, who would soon be on the Hollywood blacklist, and one of the scriptwriters of Ivanhoe, Marguerite Roberts, was also blacklisted.
Another likely reason The Greatest Show on Earth was voted Best Picture of 1952 was that it was seen as a "last chance" vote for Cecil B. DeMille, to honor him for a lifetime of filmmaking dating back to the silent movie era. DeMille's best work was done before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) was created. It may be that the members of the Academy (which included many veterans of the silent era) felt that as an elder statesman of Hollywood and founding member of the Academy, he deserved the honor even if other films that year were better than The Greatest Show on Earth. Many people today would agree that The Ten Commandments, DeMille's next (and last) film, which he produced and directed, was more deserving of the 1956 Best Picture Oscar than Around the World in 80 Days and more deserving of an honor to DeMille's magnificent and legendary career and his contributions to the growth and evolution of cinema than The Greatest Show on Earth.
A television series with the same title was inspired by the film, with Jack Palance in the role of Charlton Heston's character. The program ran on Tuesday evenings for thirty episodes on ABC during the 1963–1964 season.
The Greatest Show on Earth was the first film that director Steven Spielberg saw and he credits it as one of the major inspirations that led him into a film career. He pointed out the film's train crash scene as a major influence, and this influence was later reflected in the science fiction film Super 8 (2011), which he produced.
In Steven Spielberg's version of War of the Worlds (2005), an early scene shows two kids channel-surfing on their television, and the train-wreck scene from The Greatest Show on Earth is being broadcast.
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