The Greatest Show on Earth
(152 minutes, Not Rated)
As I continue to see every Best Picture winner, there has always been an indication that some would not stand the test of time. Out of the many I have already seen, there were several candidates that could be considered the worst winner. Meanwhile, many deem the spectacle known as The Greatest Show on Earth to be one of the weaker selections: needless to say, my expectations were not high. Yet, somehow these extremely low expectations were not met and though I have only seen half of the 86 winners, this relic could be the Academy Award’s worst choice.
The plot revolves around Brad (Charlton Heston), the man who keeps the circus running; at the beginning, Brad convinces the executives that the workers benefit from a full tour, instead of the recommended ten-week schedule. The executives agree but stipulate that the company needs to ‘stay out of the red’ or they will cancel the trip. After the first ten minutes of exposition, any sense of a plot is lost; the rest of the film shows the day-to-day lives of the circus entertainers and workers. But the executives’ plot point gets barely mentioned throughout; yes, Brad briefly talks about it in certain scenes, but the so-called driving force of the circus never feels like a looming issue. Which makes the viewer question, why have this in the picture; Heston’s character is so devoted to his job that his drive would have been there with or without this dim-witted plot point.
And speaking of Brad, he has to be one of the most unlikable heroes in cinema. I understand I am supposed to like him because of his devotion and his sly tongue; the character mixes the strong silent western hero and a ‘silver-tongued’ con man and this aspect of him is cool. But his ‘sawdust veins’ reveal a character that thinks with his wallet before his heart; and this prevents the viewer from fully backing his situation. And his main conflict, the ‘love triangle’ (between him, Holly, and Sebastian), takes backseat to his real love, the circus.
Yet it does not even matter because the romance gets completely mishandled: Holly’s (Betty Hutton) ‘flip-flopping’ between Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) and Brad causes the audience to be ambivalent about the outcome. On top of this, it just does not feel that Sebastian or Brad have any real feelings for Holly; there is no grand romantic gesture by either character. Furthermore, while Charlton Heston’s acting is passable, both Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde performances leave a lot to be desired. Though Wilde has the physical stature to play ‘The Great Sebastian,’ he never properly inhabits the suave womanizer. And Hutton’s whiny melodramatic Holly made me dread every moment she came on-screen.
Now, by far the weirdest character has to be Jimmy Stewart’s Button the clown. Not only is the famous actor miscast, but his dark storyline does not belong in a mostly upbeat picture. Yet for all the criticism of Stewart as Buttons, some of his circus performances indicate that the actor was genuinely trying. As for the rest of the cast, it is filled with terrible actors and uninteresting characters. The movie introduces a ton of personas in order to enlarge the scope of the day-to-day circus life. However, these side characters have futile sub-plots that lack any type pay-off, which causes the viewer to question their purpose. And lets not forget the other roles with racist and sexist undertones: now or then, the idea of ‘black face’ or the inferiority of women should not be laughed about.
This leads back to the idea that The Greatest Show on Earth has to be the most dated Best Picture winner I have seen thus far. The circus scenes are cool to watch because it contains the actors doing their own stunts. At the same time, the movie’s lack of a plot results in more than half of the picture being these circus acts; furthermore, there is an odd documentary style voiceover that describes the circus’ ‘behind the scenes’ activities, which furthers the idea that this is one large advertisement for the Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Circus. In retrospect, the big screen viewing of all these stunts may have been enthralling in the 50s, but in this modern day and age, when the ability to see this spectacle is one search engine away, The Greatest Show on Earth is a boring 152 minute promotional video: which could have been cut down to a tighter 90 minutes.
With that said, there are a few positives, particularly DeMille’s directing. First and foremost, the previously mentioned scale makes some of the shots gorgeous; each shot has several layers with so many things going on, which, at times, makes The Greatest Show on Earth enchanting. And on top of this, the somewhat dated train sequence is masterfully edited, paced, and shot; yes, one can tell that DeMille used a train set, but the radical sequence results in an epic set piece that was unlike anything else in the 50s. But again, the 1953 Best Picture winner’s negatives heavily outweigh the positives: even if one can argue that the other nominees were less deserving of the win, which is quite true. The true winner of that year should have been the criminally forgotten Singin’ in the Rain.
Again, in retrospect I can understand why The Greatest Show on Earth won; it was an epic family adventure with a train sequence unlike anything people have seen. In many ways this picture could have been an innovation in the 50s: winning because of DeMille’s technical prowess. However, this does not change the fact that this dated mess has no direction. I would not dare call this a character study because that would imply the characters grew: or were anything more than one-dimensional. Therefore, this misguided advertisement does not deserve the industry’s highest honor: in fact, if it did not win, it would be a forgotten experiment of the past. And to be honest, I wish I did not have to waste 152 minutes to figure that out.