Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 21, 2021)
While there’s really no such thing as a forgotten Best Picture winner, not all flicks that nab this 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 80 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 stretches 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, as 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. Though the movie pours on the cheap tragedy to create artificial drama, 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 doesn’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 feel exceptionally broad and melodramatic, as every actor telegraphs their emotions. You’re not likely to see hammier work on display... pretty much anywhere.
On the positive side, The Greatest Show on Earth presents some decent cinematography as it depicts 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.