This movie combines an interesting mixture of documentary and melodrama revolving around life under the big tent, with an occasional musical number(!) thrown in. Charlton Heston plays the head honcho of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the self-proclaimed “Greatest Show on Earth”. While he tends to his rounds among the cast and crew of the circus (even encountering the proverbial giraffe with a soar throat), he constantly divides his time between being the strict disciplinarian who makes sure everything gets done right, and the reassuring mother who allays fears the upcoming circus season will be foreshortened due to financial difficulties. In short, he does whatever it takes to make sure the show must go on.
Betty Hutton plays his star trapeze artist, who incidentally has romantic yearnings toward him. He feels similarly about her, but she long ago realized his devotion to the circus takes precedence over his love life (men! sheesh!). Then Gloria Grahame, one half of the elephant training duo, decides to make a play for ol’ Chuck herself. Hutton is understandably irked by this, which leads to some occasional catty exchanges between the two ladies. Cornel Wilde joins the tour as “Sebastian”, a hotshot trapeze artist whose strutting peacock persona is as brash as his acrobatics on the trapeze. Since Wilde is “strictly center ring” material, he displaces Hutton as the show’s main attraction, which leads to mutual resentment and two separate scenes where Wilde and Hutton take turns upstaging each other during live performances. Of course, underneath their animosity toward one another is a burning sexual attraction, which in turn makes Heston secretly jealous in spite of his posturing that, “Under the big top, one performer’s just like another to me.” And even Jimmy Stewart is on hand as Buttons the clown, who for some mysterious reason never removes his makeup even when the show’s over. Think maybe he’s hiding from the law or something? I did warn you this was melodrama.
Amid the soap opera storytelling, director Cecil B. DeMille mixes in some documentary style footage of life in the circus. The film was clearly made with cooperation from the real Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and several scenes present real circus performances. During these scenes, the film is not offering any comment on the performances one way or another, nor do the scenes advance the plot. They’re merely included for their entertainment value. At another point, we’re shown the step by step process of how the crew raises the big tent. Along the way, references are made to such former star attractions as Jumbo and Gargantua, presumably to give the film a more authentic feel by association with the history of the circus.
The film is occasionally marred by its overuse of composite shots. While some were inevitable to avoid placing the actors in danger, others seem to have no motivation other than cutting budgetary corners. In one scene, Hutton and Stewart chat inside the tent. Only it’s all too plain that they’re really just on a soundstage in front of a blue screen, and the tent background has been (rather poorly) matted in. Then there’s the recurring static shots of the ringmaster introducing the acts, and similarly static shots of the crowd reacting. No viewer for a minute will believe these people are actually anywhere near the performances they’re supposed to be watching. They’re totally unconvincing, and they make the film appear hopelessly dated in parts.
There are, of course, elements to recommend about this film. It’s pseudo-documentary approach, combined with its archival circus footage makes it interesting from a historical perspective if nothing else. The musical numbers actually fit in with the mood quite well, and may have some extra appeal because the approach seems so different from what would be attempted today (it’s almost like I’m saying they weren’t afraid to have fun back then). And I’ll be quite honest here – the scene where Cornell Wilde mistimes his stunt and goes plummeting to the ground far below caught me by surprise. Maybe I’m the only one who didn’t see it coming, but that was a memorable scene for me.
If there’s a single defining moment in DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, it’s the spectacular effects sequence where Moses parts the Red Sea. Almost half a century later, it’s still impressive. In similar fashion, The Greatest Show on Earth has at its climax the catastrophic wreck of the circus train. But after hearing about this sequence for years, when I finally saw it I felt a tremendous letdown. Although competent for their time period, by today’s standards the special effects are painfully obvious. The shallow depth of field, deliberate low lighting, and overcranking of the camera betray the fact we’re watching a small model train skittering off the rails. (I would have much preferred watching a large model train skittering off the rails.) There’s also only a half-hearted attempt to match the model to the live action train car which slams down and releases the lions. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. Upon subsequent viewings while making the vidcaps, I did warm to the sequence a little bit. At least they matted some fleeing people in alongside the train to try to create some illusion of scale. But the parting of the Red Sea this ain’t.
Everyone seems to encounter the inevitable train wreck once or twice in their lives (metaphorically speaking, anyway). But seldom do so many experience it together, as the circus people do in this film. The final sequence, with Hutton leading a parade through town to lure the townsfolk back to the circus (since the circus can’t come to them) is actually an inspiring scene. Sort of the same feeling that stirs within you when the charlie-in-the-box and the polka dotted elephant on the Island of Misfit Toys hear Santa’s sleigh bells approaching from far off in the distance on Christmas Eve. *sniff* I’d better stop now…
Incidentally, The Greatest Show on Earth won the Oscar for best picture in 1952.