The Greatest Show On Earth

The Greatest Show on Earth
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

“The Greatest Show On Earth” is as apt a handle for Cecil B. DeMille’s Technicolored version of the Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey circus as it is for the sawdust extravaganza itself. This is the circus with more entertainment, more thrills, more spangles and as much Big Top atmosphere as RB-B&B itself can offer. It’s a smash certainty for high-wire grosses.

If the names best known to the aficionados who crowd the Ringling show each year prove insufficient for the marquee, DeMille has also provided Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame and James Stewart. Add to that the dozens of circus acts, the animals, music, parades, aerial specs and plenty of authentic sawdust “feel.”

If this spectacle causes exhibs to do some palm-pounding of their own, they’ll be plenty justified. B.o.-wise, its attraction is for sophisticates as well as the hordes who’ve traditionally so well patronized DeMille epics of the past and/or any circus in sight.

As has come to be expected from DeMille, the story line is not what could be termed subtle. While it may draw some critical catcalls, it does effectively serve the purpose of a framework for all the atmosphere and excitement of the circus on both sides of the big canvas. In any case, what bleacher fan wants to get mixed up with a plot he’s going to have to wrestle with?

The RB-B&B end of the cast–actually some 85 acts, including vet clowns Emmett Kelly and Lou Jacobs, midget Cucciola and aerialist Antoinette Concello–can well take care of itself. Surprise is how superbly the Hollywoodites come off. Thesping is extremely effective, particularly as a result of the way DeMlile’s cameras and the special effects men have meshed the doubling to give the appear-ance of reality to Miss Hutton’s and Cornel Wilde’s feats on the flying trapeze.

Miss Hutton is pictured as the “queen flyer” who has a yen for Heston, the circus manager. Lad has sawdust for blood, however. To strengthen the show and thus enable it to play out a full season, he imports another aerialist, the flamboyant and debonair Sebastian (Cornel Wilde).

Much as it hurts, Heston deprives Miss Hutton of the centre ring to give it to Sebastian. Latter promptly falls for her and she rifts with Heston. That’s quickly exploited by elephant girl Grahame, who also finds Heston a pretty attractive guy. In turn, that makes her boss, trainer Lyle Bettger, jealous, resulting in one of the pic’s big thrill scenes–a jumbo with foot delicately poised on Miss Graham’s nose as the furious trainer threatens her with the word to the elephant that would mean death.

Bettger’s a thoroughly hissable villain–with a Teutonic accent yet — and when he gets fired by Heston rigs a robbery of the circus train. That provides what must be one of the most spectacular rail-road wrecks in the memory of Hollywood’s oldest special effects man. Bettger gets killed and Heston badly hurt–not so much, however, that he can’t shout directions in the best “show-must-go-on” style. A final parade and performance are given by the injured and tattered circusites in a nearby field for the happy ending.

Most spectacular of the aerial scenes has Miss Hutton and Wilde jealously vying to outdo each other on the trapeze. In the process, the film audience ganders such seldom-seen stunts as a double somersault through a hoop to a free-swinging bar. The aerialist misses and, working sans net, realistically crashes to the ground with a thud that can be felt in the theatre.

James Stewart is woven into the pic as an extraneous but appealing plot element. He’s pictured as a police-sought medico who never removes his clown makeup. He admits his identity as a doctor at the finale to save the life of the injured Heston and pave the way for the latter and Miss Hutton to get together for the bowout. Likewise, he finds the cure for Wilde’s paralyzed arm, hurt when he fails from the trapeze, enabling “The Great Sebastian” to walk off with Miss Grahame, who has switched affections under the circumstances.

DeMille has compounded the circus’s own feat of piling too much too much. With plenty that’s spectacular and exciting for anyone with any kind of affection at all for the Big Top, the train wreck sequence and the show that follows are excess baggage. Since the two hours and 31 minutes running time doesn’t allow DeMille to exploit the wreck (wild animals are pushed meekly back into cages and no one but Heston seems really to have gotten hurt), the whole business could have been better forgotten.

Imaginative color camera work has derived real kicks out of the sight of the roustabouts pounding stakes into the ground with their rhythmic sledges and the canvas itself slowly and majestically going up the poles in the early dawn in preparation for another circus day. Long tour which DeMille made with the show last year has certainly paid off in all these aspects.

RB-B&B technical staff at Sarasota and on the road obviously made a mighty contribution, too. In addition to John and Henry Ringling, all seen in person in the film, they include general manager Arthur M. Concello and performance director Pat Valdo. John Murray Anderson has staged the circus numbers, just as he does for the show itself. Miles White, who regularly does the costumes, has contributed some special ones for the pic, although the parades and specs were shot on location and thus the original circus dress is seen.

Likewise, aside from some special, rousing and effective scoring by Victor Young and Ned Washington, (“The Greatest Show On Earth” and “Be a Jumping-Jack”), tunes are out of last season’s circus. They include “Lovely Luawana Lady,” by John Ringling North and E. Ray Goetz, and “Popcorn and Lemonade,” “A Picnic In the Park” and “Sing a Happy Song,” by Henry Sullivan and John Murray Anderson.

Among the entertaining gimmicks inserted by DeMille are the frequent closeups of the circus audience, among them the celebs of the Paramount lot. There’s a sock laugh when two intent, peanut-eating bleacherites prove to be Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.


1952: Best Motion Picture (Cecil B. DeMille, Producer), Writing (Motion Picture Story) Frederic M. Frank, Theodore St. John, Frank Cavett

Nominations: Film Editing (Anne Bauchens), Directing (Cecil B. DeMille), Film Editing (Anne Bauchens)

The Greatest Show On Earth

  • Production: Paramount release of Cecil B. DeMille production (Henry Wilcoxon, associate producer). Directed by DeMille. Screenplay, Frederic M. Frank, Barre Lyndon and Theodore St. John, from a story by Frank, St. John and Frank Cavett.
  • Crew: Camera (Technicolor), George Barnes, with additional photography by a Peverell Marley and Wallace Kelly; editor, Anne Bauchens; circus musical and dance numbers staged by John Murray Anderson; score, Victor Young; songs, Young and Ned Washington, John Ringling North, E. Ray Goetz, Henry Sullivan & John Murray Anderson. Trade-shown N. Y. Dec. 13. '51. Running Time, 151 MINS. Original review text from 1952.
  • With: Holly - Betty Hutton Sebastian - Cornel Wilde Brad - Charlton Heston Phyllis - Dorothy Lamour Angel - Gloria Grahame "Buttons," A Clown - James Stewart F. B. I. Man - Henry Wilcoxon Klaus - Lyle Bettger Henderson - Lawrence Tierney Emmett Kelly - Himself Cucciola - Himself Antoinette Concello - Herself John Ringling North - Himself Harry - John Kellogg Asst. Manager - John Ridgely Circus Doctor - Frank Wilcox Ringmaster - Bob Carson Buttons' Mother - Lillian Albertson Birdie - Julia Faye and Cast of the Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey circus