Cecil B. DeMille
Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame, Henry Wilcoxon, Lyle Bettger, Lawrence Tierney
Fredric M. Frank, Theodore St. John, Frank Cavett, Barré Lyndon
Step right up for Cecil B. DeMille's spectacular Academy Award-winning Best Picture - The Greatest Show On Earth. The master showman brings the thrills, chills and exhilaration of the Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Circus to the screen via an Oscar-winning story and an all-star cast that includes Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame, James Stewart and Lyle Bettger - plus a few surprises!
It's action, romance, laughs and treachery all under the big top, culminating in an incredible train disaster that threatens the very lives and livelihood of the traveling troupe. Grab a bag of popcorn, take a ringside seat and get ready to experience the excitement and drama of The Greatest Show On Earth!
Runtime: 152 min.
Release Date: 4/6/2004
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The Greatest Show On Earth (1952)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 14, 2004)
While there’s really no such thing as a forgotten Best Picture winner, not all flicks that nab Oscar are created equally. In the category of “Oscar obscurity” we find 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth.
Heck, not only is Show arguably the most forgotten of the decade’s Best Picture winners, it’s also not even its director’s most famous flick from the Fifties! Cecil B. DeMille put out the Easter perennial The Ten Commandments four years later. It didn’t win Best Picture – Around the World in Eighty Days took home the prize – but it remains the director’s most enduring cinematic evergreen.
Commandments never did much for me – would I prefer Show? Nope. If anything, I liked it even less.
The flick starts at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey winter headquarters in Florida. Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) runs the show and fights the management because they want to play a partial season and skip the smaller locations to maintain profitability. Brad brings in the Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) as a main attraction and gets the full schedule.
The arrival of the womanizing and disruptive Sebastian means the demotion of trapeze artist Holly (Betty Hutton) from the center ring. She happens to be Brad’s girlfriend, so this causes conflict. It sets up a competition between Sebastian and Holly for the center ring and also between Sebastian and Brad for Holly’s heart.
That theme follows the majority of the film, though other subplots come into play as well. Buttons the Clown (James Stewart) always wears his makeup and hides some secrets. Various tragedies pop up along the way and cause melodrama.
The Greatest Show On Earth may well be the worst movie ever to win the Best Picture Oscar. Granted, the Academy has awarded plenty of clunkers, but I can’t think of any that seem as uniformly terrible as Show. Maybe 45 minutes worth of story stretched to more than two and a half hours, this flick made me want to run away and join the circus just so I didn’t need to watch it any more.
Where to start with all the problems found in Show? For one, let’s look at that story, of lack thereof. This flick presents an awfully thin plot for a movie that runs more than two and a half hours. Essentially it’s just a love triangle placed in an unusual setting, but nothing exciting or compelling occurs. The movie pours on the cheap tragedy to create artificial drama, but this fails, as it all feels lame and manipulative.
The movie often comes across as little more than a very long commercial for the circus. We’re subjected to endless circus sequences, as we see various acts, parades, and whatnot. This really makes the dull film drag even more. Some of the acts seem decent, but the overwhelming amount of pointless pageantry makes this a tedious experience.
The incredibly overwrought dialogue doesn’t help. If I took a drink every time someone stated that Brad had “sawdust in his veins”, I’d have been trashed around the 60-minute mark. DeMille himself does the horrible narration; he starts with remarks like his reference to the circus as a “fierce, primitive fighting force” and it gets worse from there. Add to that lines like “Clowns are funny people – they only love once” and the dialogue seems insanely laughable.
The cast don’t help sell the material. It seems depressing to see a great actor like Stewart stuck in a cheesy role as a clown, and everyone works way too hard to sell the thing. Overall, the performances were exceptionally broad and melodramatic, as every actor telegraphed their emotions. You’re not likely to see hammier work on display... pretty much anywhere.
On the positive side, The Greatest Show on Earth presented some decent cinematography as it depicted the circus. However, that’s about all I can laud in this clunker. Badly written, poorly acted, and generally tedious, the film flops on almost all fronts.
The DVD Grades: Picture B/ Audio C/ Bonus F
The Greatest Show on Earth appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. A mix of highs and lows, Show fell short of greatness but mostly looked quite good, especially given its age.
Sharpness usually seemed fine. Occasionally the picture became a little soft, but not terribly so, and not with much frequency. For the most part, the movie remained nicely detailed and concise. Only a few examples of jagged edges and shimmering cropped up, but I noticed some light edge enhancement. As for print flaws, they popped up intermittently. At times I saw some spots, specks and marks, but much of the film passed without problems. Considering the flick’s vintage, it mainly looked clean.
Since Show concerned the bright setting of the circus, it came as no surprise that colors usually appeared vivid and lively. Sometimes the hues appeared a bit flat and drab, but they often were nicely dynamic and vibrant. Variations occurred, but in general I felt impressed by the tones. Black levels also seemed dense and firm, and low-light shots looked pretty detailed and clear. The mix of problems became a little too prominent to earn a high rating, but I still liked most of what I saw.
As for the monaural soundtrack of The Greatest Show On Earth, it seemed relentlessly mediocre, even when I factored in its age. Speech could sound a bit dull, but the lines always remained intelligible, and I noticed no issues with edginess. Effects were clear and lacked distortion, but they also failed to demonstrate much range and appeared fairly flat throughout the movie. The same went for the score and songs. Those didn’t present any noticeable problems, but they also didn’t offer any real range or vivacity. Low-end was bland, and highs lacked bite. Given the advanced age of the track, it seemed acceptable, and it didn’t suffer from any source noise problems. Nonetheless, the audio of Show was too lackluster to merit anything above a “C”.
Despite the film’s Oscar pedigree, Paramount didn’t see fit to offer any extras on this DVD. Not even a trailer – we find nothing to back up this flick.
In a year that saw the theatrical release of both High Noon and Singin’ In the Rain, for some unfathomable reason, The Greatest Show on Earth won the Oscar as Best Picture. However, even without that steep competition, it didn’t deserve the honor, or any honor, for that matter. It’s a dull clunker that fails in almost all conceivable ways. The DVD presents pretty good picture with average sound and no extras. Even with an appealing list price of less than $15, I can’t recommend this one to anyone other than those who simply must see every Oscar winner.
Viewer Film Ratings: 3.0444 Stars
| Number of Votes: 45