81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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Greatest Show On Earth, The

September 13th, 2009 · 1 Comment · 1952, Cecil B. DeMille, Charlton Heston, Color, Composer: Victor Young, Drama, Greatest Show On Earth, Jimmy Stewart, Original Screenplay, Paramount Studios

The Greatest Show On Earth There are a few things you should know about The Greatest Show On Earth before you commit to spending 152 minutes of your life watching it:

1. The acting and dialogue are some of the most cringe-worthy I’ve ever seen in my life.
2. James Stewart co-stars in the movie but does so throughout the entire film wearing clown makeup because he’s on the lam from the law.
3. The actors had to learn to do stunts, work with animals (such as big-as-a-barn elephants), and be as in-shape as real circus performers are.
4. This feels more like an extended commercial for Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey than a real movie.
5. Most of the cast of this film play themselves and are actually circus performers with Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey (see #4).
6. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby make a cameo appearance (one hour, 16 minutes in) as audience members.
7. There’s a train wreck scene about two hours and ten minutes into the movie that’s quite exciting and realistic. Without a doubt it’s the best scene in the film.
8. Clowns are creepy.

Betty Hutton (1921-2007), who plays Holly, certainly couldn’t really be as bad an actress in other films as she is in this. Otherwise, her career wouldn’t have lasted more than 26 seconds.

Charlton Heston (1923-2008), who plays circus manager Brad Braden, didn’t seem this stilted as an actor in such roles as Ben-Hur or even Planet Of the Apes. It has to be the dialogue.

Gloria Grahame (1923-1981), who plays Angel, was one sexy lady. You may remember her from her role as Violet in It’s a Wonderful Life. She’s equally as flirtatious in this movie, even without trying to be. Gloria’s the one who rides on the elephants and in their trunks. She did a fine job with such gargantuan co-stars.

James Stewart (1908-1997), who plays “Buttons” A Clown, is always Jimmy Stewart, even when he wears clown makeup and his real face is never revealed. He has an unmistakable voice and homespun manner that make him endearing.

Dorothy Lamour (1914-1996), who plays Phyllis, is unmemorable.

Lawrence Tierney (1919-2002), who plays crime boss Mr. Henderson, has a colorful (some would say checkered) career. I encourage you to read about him on IMDB. Lawrence appears as Elaine Benes’ father in an early episode of Seinfeld.

Cornel Wilde (1915-1989), who plays The Great Sebastian, is the most enjoyable character in the movie – and that despite the fact that he’s a flamboyant playboy trapeze star known equally for his conquests on the ground as in the air. It’s hard not to like this character and this actor.

The Real OscarThis time, I wholeheartedly agree with the curmudgeonly author Peter H. Brown who wrote in his book The Real Oscar: The Story Behind The Academy Awards that The Greatest Show On Earth is one of five movies that won Oscars that shouldn’t have:

When this tawdry soap opera about the circus plays on TV even children turn it off. With a silly script and even sillier acting by Betty Hutton, James Stewart, and Charlton Heston, the movie beat High Noon, The Quiet Man, and Moulin Rouge…but the vote was taken at the height of the McCarthy era, and the obvious winner High Noon, was caught up in the House UnAmerican Activities furor (because of its scriptwriter Carl Foreman). Hedda Hopper personally campaigned against it.

Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959), known for his epic films (such as The Ten Commandments) produced and directed this steaming pile.

It’s worth noting that no fewer than four writers are credited with creating this movie: Fredric M. Frank (story) and Theodore St. John (story) and Frank Cavett (story) Fredric M. Frank (screenplay) and Barré Lyndon (screenplay) and Theodore St. John (screenplay). I have no idea why so many wordsmiths were necessary. One chimp with a typewriter and a bottle of gin could have done as well.

Even the subplots (gangsters plotting a train heist…and Buttons’ shady past) were written on the nose. You could see them coming a mile away. The way Buttons is forced to reveal his true identity is reminiscent of the scene in Field of Dreams in which Moonlight Graham, as a young ball player, chooses to step off the playing field to save the life of Ray’s little girl who had fallen off the bleachers and was choking to death on a hot dog. As soon as Moonlight steps over the chalk line, he can’t go back.

In the same way, when the trains collide, Buttons chooses to set aside his clown identity to save Brad pinned in the wreckage. But as soon as he does that, the detective on board who’s been searching for the doctor who killed his wife, watches Buttons in action and knows he’s found his man. Buttons can never go back to the circus.

Once a doctor, always a doctor, I guess.

As a movie The Greatest Show On Earth doesn’t live up to its name. But as a cautionary tale about how not to write a movie, The Greatest Show On Earth is a winner with a capital “W.”

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Caroline

    That poster looks like it was an inspiration for Indiana Jone’s wardrobe. I avoid circus movies at all costs because I can’t help but think of what they do to the animals in order to beat them into submission to do those tricks. But the train wreck scene sounds cool, I always like watching scenes with older trains anyways, the ones that have those separate compartments (Harry Potter, Murder on the Orient Express) as opposed to the Amtrak style rows of seats. I also remember an episode of Millenium that involved a train going underwater which I thought was “filmed” memorably. Thanks for the writeup!

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