"The Greatest Show On Earth" ** 1\2 (out of ****)
Cecil B. DeMille's "The Greatest Show On Earth" (1952) on the surface is a story which celebrates life under the big top, the circus. However, watching the movie recently, I don't feel it is much of a stretch to say the movie is a celebration of showbiz. It has a "the show must go on" mentality.
Watching "The Greatest Show On Earth" I thought this circus theme is also a parallel for the movies. In "The Greatest Show On Earth" we follow a circus manager (Charlton Heston) as he and his circus performers head out on the road to various towns for a full season.
Traveling town to town, as everyone prepares for the show, much happens behind the scenes. People fall in love, get hurt, have trouble with the law...ect. There is so much life going on behind the curtain and through it all, the circus manager must keep things on schedule and make sure the show goes on.
You could compare this lifestyle to the life on a movie set and the role of a director. This is a big splashy movie and Cecil B. DeMille was known as a "showman". A man who made lavish historical, religious epics such as "King of Kings" (1927), "Cleopatra" (1934) and "The Ten Commandments" (1956), his final film.
Much happens on a movie set. Actors fall in love with co-stars, some are fired, directors clash with producers about falling behind on schedule, going over budgets...ect. In fact as I watched "The Greatest Show On Earth" I thought of Francois Truffaut's "Day For Night" (1974, which I have reviewed), a movie which shows the struggles of life on a film set. It emphasizes all the decisions a director must make; which lens to use, which color shoes an actor should wear, where to position the camera, which props should be in frame. And so, the circus manager must make several decisions about various acts.
The circus performers are Holly (Betty Hutton), a flying trapeze artist who falls in love with a fellow trapeze artist, Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), as they fight for the center ring. Meanwhile, Holly is in love with the circus manager. Then there is Buttons, the circus clown (Jimmy Stewart) who is hiding something about his past. Other performers are played by Gloria Grahame and Dorothy Lamour and Emmett Kelly appears as himself.
Given some of the film's theme this would have actually made a fitting final film for DeMille. A showman celebrating his field, the world of entertainment.
For some reason though I was never really brought into this movie. Some of the circus acts are fun to watch but I found the personal stories somewhat dull. No one really shines, really stands out. Maybe that was the point. No individual is bigger than the show. But, I tend to think the movie just wasn't written very well. No one really feels fleshed out. There really is no sense of who these people truly are.
There are those to claim this is one of the "worst best picture Oscar winners". It won in a year where its competition was "The Quiet Man" (1952), "High Noon" (1952) and even though it wasn't nominated in the best picture category, "Singin' in the Rain" (1952, which I have reviewed). I won't weigh in on that, what's the point? What's done is done. The movie won best picture. Though I wouldn't go as far as to say this is a terrible picture. Maybe it would improve upon multiple viewings. Still, I couldn't help be feel unimpressed by this movie.
The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards and won two; best picture and best writing. It was nominated for best director (DeMille), best costume design and editing.
Not a classic in my opinion but not a disaster either. I see it not so much as a "circus movie" but a celebration of showbiz.