21 November 2009 | AlsExGal
An entertaining picture, just not the Best Picture
"The Greatest Show on Earth" is a good movie and it's entertaining enough, it's just not an Oscar-winning caliber movie. As other reviewers have noted, this film was probably given its Best Picture Oscar as a kind of life-time achievement award to Cecil B. DeMille. It wasn't that the Academy felt that they had unjustly snubbed DeMille in the past for any specific film, it was just that he had always made those kind of epic cast-of-thousands types of pictures that drew in the audiences but that rarely won Oscars. Plus, a large body of DeMille's work had been done before the Academy Awards even came into existence in 1927. The whole thing seems especially unjust when you look at the competition that year. Two of the other nominees - "High Noon" and "The Quiet Man" are considered unique and classic to this day. Also, there is a film in the top 10 of AFI Best Films from that year that didn't even get nominated for best picture - Singin' in the Rain - which is arguably the best musical film ever made. It's rather ironic that just four years later the Academy could have probably awarded DeMille more legitimately when he made his last movie, the epic "The Ten Commandments", in 1956.
This movie is basically a documentary on how the Ringling Brothers circus operated in the early 50's, and large chunks of film are taken up showing how the Big Top was assembled, the manual labor involved, how the entire circus - including wild animals - was transported via rail, and basically just all of the hard work that went on behind the scenes. There is also a pretty spectacular scene near the end of the film involving the two trains as they are transporting the circus from one town to another. I say "was" because the circus as it is portrayed in this movie closed down and ceased to exist in 1956. The truth is that the Ringling Brothers circus never fully recovered financially from the double whammy of the Great Depression and a fatal fire that killed over 100 people in Hartford, Connecticut in 1944 and thus was in the process of failing even when this movie was made. The plot of the movie is very thin, the main thread being an uninspired love triangle involving the two stars of the trapeze act, Holly and the Great Sebastion, played by Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde respectively, and the managing boss of the traveling show, Brad Braden, played by Charleton Heston. The subplots include an elephant trainer who is obsessed over a girl in the show who doesn't care for him, some small-time mobsters whose crooked games get thrown off the lot by Brad, and "Buttons" the clown, played by Jimmy Stewart, who never takes off his makeup and who seems to have a mysterious past. All of these plot lines are just there to hold the documentary part of the film together and also as a backdrop for all of the circus acts that are numerous and quite spectacular to behold, especially the acrobatic acts. Quite honestly, one-fourth into the movie you can see the outcome of the dramatic portion of the movie coming at you from a mile away. This makes the fact that this movie won Best Motion Picture Screenplay an even odder decision than the Best Picture award.
There is some interesting trivia involving the film. Famous clown Emmett Kelly can be seen at one point in the film without makeup - a fact that Mr. Kelly was not happy about. Also, Dorothy Lamour has a supporting role in this film, and during one of her musical performances in the show the camera pans to the audience -as it often does in this film - but this time you get a brief glimpse of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope enjoying the show. The inside joke here is that Lamour, Crosby, and Hope were the costars of the popular series of "Road to ..." movies of the 40's and 50's.