The Greatest Show on Earth is a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza, maybe the best one he ever produced and directed. Unlike his religious films or his historical films, this film is a nice tribute to an American institution, the Ringling Brothers&Barnum&Bailey Circus and as such it does not attract the controversy of some of his other films.
The Best Picture Oscar for 1952 that this film won was more of a tribute to a Hollywood institution. Cecil B. DeMille in fact directed the first Hollywood made film, The Squaw Man, forty years earlier and this Oscar was essentially a tribute to him for the work of a lifetime. Not the first time or the last time the Motion Picture Academy has done that.
This is DeMille spectacle at it's best. The circus as a cinema subject, so full of color and life, is ideal for a DeMille production. Wonderful camera work marks this film, both of the circus acts and the reaction shots into the crowd of the children of all ages.
Cecil B. DeMille himself narrates portions of the film showing the work involved in putting on the Greatest Show on Earth. His was a familiar voice to the American public because for 10 years DeMille came into American households via radio narrating the Lux Radio Theater. In fact until Alfred Hitchcock got his own anthology TV series, DeMille's voice was probably the most known to the American public of a film director.
And only his name and that of Walt Disney's of people behind the camera were guaranteed box office in the days of the Hollywood studio system.
Spectacle was his thing and DeMille was the master. As a director of players and a judge of good modern writing, DeMille left a lot to be desired. Because of the nature of the subject, no great historical or religious events, the grandiloquent dialog present in so many DeMille films is kept to a minimum here.
This was Charlton Heston's first big break as a star and his second film under a Paramount contract. He had done a film called Dark City, a good noir thriller that got good reviews, but did little for him personally. DeMille saw the six foot two Heston walking on the Paramount lot one day and just said to himself that this was to be the circus ramrod for this film.
But Heston was fourth billed behind Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, and Gloria Grahame, all better known than him at the time. Wilde and Grahame were independents as was James Stewart who played a clown with a hidden past.
Stewart in fact had always wanted to play a clown and took this supporting role with smaller billing just for the opportunity. At the time he agreed to do this, his wife Gloria was pregnant with their twin daughters. Stewart had it in his contract a clause that gave him permission to leave the film temporarily to be with Gloria when her time was near. In fact Gloria McLean Stewart had a rough time with the birth and Jimmy exercised that option and totally enraged DeMille who had to shut down production for a few days. He and DeMille did not get along after that though Stewart finished the film and was great in it.
Gloria Grahame may not have been the most beautiful woman in Hollywood, but she was the most seductive operating in 1952. That was a banner year for her. She got a Best Supporting Actress for The Bad and the Beautiful on top of this DeMille film. As the elephant girl she attracts the unwanted attentions of Lyle Bettger who plays an elephant trainer.
Bettger was a great player at that time who played a lovely variety of psychopaths on the screen. He pulls out all the stops here and its his unwanted attentions to Grahame that set up the final scenes.
Dorothy Lamour was here also in a supporting part and she gets to sing Lovely Luawanna Lady in sarong and the reaction shots of the crowd focus on a couple of familiar faces who panted after her in a few Paramount films.
The story itself is a standard four sided triangle involving Heston, Hutton, Wilde, and Grahame with Bettger horning in. You have to see the film to find out who winds up with who.
However the high point of the film involves a circus train wreck. DeMille got a lot of notice for wrecking a train in Union Pacific back in 1939. So he doubles the excitement and wrecks two trains here with circus animals pouring out of busted cages. Great stuff.
Betty Hutton was coming close to the end of her film career. This and Annie Get Your Gun would be her biggest triumphs. Given DeMille's limitations on directing players, Hutton is surprisingly subdued here and effective. She also sings a couple of nice songs here as she bids adieu to Paramount in her next to last film for them.
When The Greatest Show on Earth came out and was doing great box office, Charlton Heston related a story that DeMille came over to him on the Paramount lot and gave him a newspaper clipping and said he would never get a better notice ever, no matter how long a career he had. Heston read the thing and the critic from some small town paper praised all the actors like Stewart, Wilde, Hutton, Grahame, and Lamour said they were great, but that C.B. DeMille must be the greatest director in the world to get a performance out of that circus ramrod.
For all of DeMille's faults here, he created a circus picture that set the standard for any to follow.