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Hollywood's Big Top
by Asa Butcher
2008-04-24 08:48:03
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The Greatest Show on Earth
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
1952, Paramount Pictures

Regular readers of Ovi will have realised by now that I am a man on a movie mission and the goal is to review each of the 80 Academy Award Best Picture winners. This is a challenge that I have undertaken with enthusiasm, yet it doesn't come without its costs. Thankfully the majority of the winners were worthy winners, but there are others that are either horrific (I'm leaving Chicago until the end) or shouldn't have beaten another nominee. Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth falls into the latter category.

At the 25th Academy Awards DeMille walked away with the Oscar and left many in disbelief that both Stanley Kramer's High Noon and John Ford's The Quiet Man had been overlooked in favour of clowns, trapeze artists and the Big Top. The salt in the wounds is the allegation that DeMille had won because he was a supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy who had just begun his Communist witch-hunt in Hollywood and it was an effort to mollify the man.

1950's US politics and my own personal disappointment aside, let's take a look at The Greatest Show on Earth, the film that did win the coveted award and the first movie that Steven Spielberg ever saw at the cinema - GhostBusters was mine. Today films about the circus are about as rare as the circus actually coming to town - it is all Cirque du Soleil nowadays - and the only films that feature the circus that come to mind are Tim Burton's Big Fish and the James Bond film Octopussy.

I have never been a fan of the circus - hating the clowns, alleged animal cruelty and pointlessness to it all - but The Greatest Show on Earth did manage to change the way I think. However, I am getting ahead of myself… The Greatest Show on Earth follows the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (a real circus) as they begin a new season entertaining towns across the US.

Circus manager Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) hires a controversial, yet popular, trapeze artist named The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) to ensure the circus remains in the black while out on the road, but this means Braden has to move his girlfriend/trapeze artist Holly (Betty Hutton) from the centre ring. This begins a tempestuous relationship both on the ground and up in the air, while a couple of other subplots pop up occasionally.

The complete lack of story and total focus on the life in a circus makes this film almost feel like a Technicolor documentary about the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. It is certainly a great way to watch the circus, i.e. from the comfort of your own home, but I was expecting more in the way of storyline. The hardest aspect of the film is the flip-flopping romance of Holly between Brad and Sebastian; she just can't make her mind up and it eventually leaves you bored senseless.

It was the recent death of Charlton Heston in April that motivated me to watch this film, since this was his cinematic breakthrough (his professional movie debut was two years earlier in Dark City), while it was a surprise to discover that Betty Hutton had also only died recently (March 2007). It doesn't matter what film I have watched starring Charlton Heston he will forever-be Judah Ben-Hur and it was certainly strange watching the chariot racer capably managing an entire circus. Heston is Heston, what else can I say about the man? He exudes his usual on-screen arrogance, dominates the scene and broods like no other man… brilliant!

While Heston was beginning his career, this was actually the penultimate film of Cecil B. DeMille (his final film The Ten Commandments also starred Heston) and, though not his best, it is still a film that many directors wouldn't mind having on their résumé. It is colourful, loud, entertaining, has sensational costumes by the one-and-only Edith Head, features a circus consisting of 1,400 people, hundreds of animals, 60 carloads of equipment and tents that culminates in a spectacular train crash.

The Greatest Show on Earth may not have been the worthy winner of the Best Picture that year it still offers a glimpse into the excitement of life in the circus, although whether it will inspire you to runaway and join one is a different matter. And remember, if the circus isn't your type of thing, then watch Stanley Kramer's High Noon or John Ford's The Quiet Man instead… now they are fantastic!

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Emanuel Paparella2008-04-24 13:06:49
Federico Fellini would never have become the film director he became if he had not run away at the age of 12 to join a circus. The circus and clowns imbues all his films; he sees life as a big circus.

A corollary triviality perhaps but a secret worth knowing, for all those Europeans planning to come and visit Mickey Mouse in Florida. I understand there are millions of such visitors every year; even Paris cannot compete. There is another center of attraction in Sarasota Florida, perhaps not so glamorous as Walt Disney’s World but worth visiting. Even many Floridians don’t know about, so I’ll let the Ovi readers in on the secret. I mean the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Museum at Sarasota which portrays the history of the circus. Sarasota used to be the winter quarters of the circus. But there is more. Adjacent to this commemorative little museum there is a much bigger one which houses a plethora of beautiful paintings (ranging from medieval to modern and mostly Italian Renaissance) that the owner of the circus had acquired in their world travels. It seems they loved art, painting in particular. The museum is the official museum of the state of Florida and contains among other things, the largest collection of Rubens in North America. Oh, there is more, a stone throw away, overlooking the sea and within the same museum, there is the summer house of the Ringling Bros which is a beautiful Venetian style villa, also converted into a museum and well worth visiting.

James Byrne2008-07-24 13:57:06
I watched THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH las night and chuckled to myself when I saw Charlton Heston appear. He is first seen striding around the circus barking orders at all and sundry. His costume and actions point the way to three future Heston movies. Heston is geared up like Indiana Jones, ala SECRET OF THE INCAS, then embraces a chimp, ala PLANET OF THE APES, and in the middle of the film a guy rushes up to Chuck and exclaims excitedly "There's trouble at the MIDWAY!"

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