The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) Review

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) Director: Cecil B. DeMille


The Greatest Show on Earth is widely regarded as one of the worst Best Picture winners of all-time. It is a mostly dull, milquetoast technicolor movie that was a suspiciously odd choice to have won Best Picture in 1952 especially when considering the competition –films like High Noon and The Quiet Man. Some have suggested the win was a strategic decision because the Academy Awards sought to deflect attention away from Joseph McCarthy’s crackdown on suspected communists in Hollywood at the time (hence why a blacklisted Carl Foreman did not win for his clearly superior film High Noon). Thus choosing a shockingly neutral, uncontroversial film directed by an old Hollywood legend (Cecil B. DeMille) would draw the least amount of unwanted attention. However, even with an all-star cast of Charlton Heston, Jimmy Stewart, Cornel Wilde, Dorothy Lamour, Betty Hutton, and Gloria Grahame, this film does not stand up to scrutiny.

The plot is strange and mostly bewildering -“what did I just watch?” I kept asking myself. It follows The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as it travels around the country for the better part of a year. Charlton Heston plays Brad Braden, the circus leader (and future inspiration for Indiana Jones) who strikes a deal with the company’s general manager to balance the tour gigs between big cities and small towns. As part of the agreement he hires The Great Sebastian (played by Cornel Wilde), a leading acrobat, which spawns several odd side-plots and love triangles that plague the main characters in unusual ways. Sadly even Jimmy Stewart’s character “Buttons the Clown” is extraneous and confusing. He appears only in a few scenes donning full clown make-up. There is a famous scene near the end of the film of an extended train wreck which Steven Spielberg cites as one of the chief reasons he became interested in film-making.

The narrative of the film was shot alongside hours of actual footage featuring the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, much of which is showcased prominently in the film. When all is said and done, however, I found myself asking: what is the point of this movie? Nothing seems to be at stake in the plot, and sitting through it feels more like a cheap advertisement for the circus. I’m sure some sophisticated PhD students in Film Studies have written pages about how The Greatest Show on Earth is a deeply subversive commentary on the art of film-making and so on, but for now I cannot find much merit in this movie. Is it an all-around terrible movie? Perhaps not if viewed episodically. Is it deserving of its Best Picture win in 1952? Certainly not.

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