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THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame, James Stewart
Director:  Cecil B. DeMille
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  None
Length:  152 Minutes
Release Date:  April 6, 2004

“The performance ends…but the drama never stops!”

Film ***1/2

Trivia question:  what was the movie that beat out Singin’ in the Rain for the Best Picture Oscar?  Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth!

For a lot of film fans, that makes DeMille’s picture the killer of the goose that laid the golden egg.  Which is more than a little unfair…though Singin’ in the Rain is one of the most heralded movies ever made, The Greatest Show on Earth still pretty much lives up to its title.  It’s grand, colorful, fun in the tradition of one of cinema’s master showmen.

Everything you’d expect from DeMille is here, from the scope of the canvas to the spectacular visuals contained therein, from the rich cast of wonderful performers to the hokey dialogue they’re sometimes required to utter…even the usual pomposity of DeMille’s narration is present, regurgitating over-the-top metaphors at a gleefully absurd rate.

Cecil B. DeMille was to the motion picture what the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey were to the big top, so their combined creative forces were a match made in showmanship heaven.  The film is a celebration of circus life, from the daring-do of the performers, to the music and costumes, to the animal acts, and even to the gritty, unglamorous behind-the-scenes wheelings and dealings.  If you want to see a big show, you’ve come to the right place…there’s enough circus action to keep you laughing, clapping, and cowering in your chair.

Against this colorful calliope driven brouhaha come our characters:  Brad (a very young Heston) is the big boss and the epitome of the “show must go on” mentality.  Threatened with a possible short season that wouldn’t include small town America, he hires a big name to insure the show’s success:  Sebastian (Wilde), who is almost as well known for his escapades with the ladies as for his aerial bravery.  His arrival means taking the coveted center ring from the show’s regular trapeze star Holly (Hutton), who won’t give up without a fight.  Their high flying rivalry produces some of the film’s most exciting and tense moments, but their possible romance isn’t helping to keep their feet on the ground!

Holly had been in love with Brad, but Brad’s single mindedness has kept him focused on the show to the exclusion all else…will the charming Sebastian steal her heart away?  And will Angel (Grahame), the lovely assistant to a jealous elephant trainer, seize the moment and Brad’s love as well?

The performances are all spirited and winning, but best of all is James Stewart as Buttons, the lovable clown who never takes off his makeup.  His back story is one that slowly unfolds, and comes to fruition in a terrific payoff.  But DeMille put his whole cast through the ringers for the sake of the film…Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde actually had to do a lot of their own trapeze stunts, even though Mr. Wilde was reportedly afraid of heights.  And Gloria Grahame had to entrust her life to an elephant whose massive foot hovered only millimeters away from her lovely face!

Though the film also won an Oscar for Best Story, the truth is that it’s not so much the story, the spectacle or the characters that make the film work.  Rather, it’s a genuine affinity for these wonderful circus performers who risk life and limb night after night for a little applause.  As Federico Fellini would later do, DeMille celebrates both the artists and their lives with warmth and dignity.  He loves to show them in the air, as though suspended between heaven and earth.  He understands how much work comes together to bring audiences the greatest show on earth…and we certainly appreciate it by the time the film is over.

But DeMille’s name has become synonymous with grand spectacle first and foremost, and this Technicolor production offers plenty of that…not only with the terrific circus acts and the camerawork that captures them, but with a tremendous train wreck sequence that threatens to ground the show once and for all.  It’s there where everything resolves, and where we fully understand that “the show must go on” is more than a mantra…for these people, it’s the driving force of life.

Occasional bits of goofy dialogue and DeMille’s insistence that his own voice be heard throughout the production are flaws, but not fatal ones…though I have a feeling that DeMille could narrate a documentary on crabgrass growing and make it sound like an event of biblical proportions.  No, there’s too much fun to be had here for inconsequential mistakes to weigh it down. 

The Greatest Show on Earth is designed to bring a smile to your face and to keep your heart soaring as high as the daring young man on the flying trapeze.  Even with the passage of fifty years, it hasn’t lost its touch.  

BONUS TRIVIA:  Keep an eye out for Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in the audience!

Video ***1/2

DeMille’s glorious, colorful vision comes to vivid life on this terrific disc from Paramount.  With only one or two darker shots seeming a bit muted, the rich tones of the circus with all its splendor, costumes and props come across with great integrity.  Technicolor isn’t supposed to be accurate as much as heightened, and for a movie like this, that’s what you want out of every frame.  Detail level is strong throughout, and shots are frequently filled with information to all sides of the frame…nothing is missing here.  High marks.

Audio **

If there was ever a movie that called out for a 5.1 remix, this might be the one.  The original mono serves fine, but the lack of dynamic range doesn’t help the drama any.  Music, dialogue and effects are all clearly rendered, but with no real punch to get the levels up. 

Features (zero stars)

Nothing.

Summary:

The Greatest Show on Earth is a joyously balanced look at the spectacle of the circus as well as the drama behind the scenes.  It’s one of Cecil B. DeMille’s kindest and most fun offerings, and as such, it deserves to be remembered for more than just its Oscar night usurping.