The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

 

Like The Great Ziegfeld’s focus on the vaudeville stage, this film seems less an earnest use of the circus as a setting to tell a story than a showcase of a dying form of entertainment that also happens to feature a basic plot for the sake of the stars. This film opens with a really dramatic voiceover that evokes the sense of a war newsreel, which might or might not be intentional. It was directed by Cecil B. DeMille, who also directed The Ten Commandments, among other epic religious pictures.

Supposedly, this was Charlton Heston’s breakout film. I’m pretty much only familiar with him from Planet of the Apes, so it’s interesting to imagine that TGSoE could be a prequel, considering it features a pair of baby gorillas and other assorted monkeys, some of whom presumably grew up to be damn dirty apes. He plays the responsible circus manager, which means he’s basically the most boring guy in the whole show, but ultimately more desirable as a love interest than the dashing trapeze artist who, let’s face it, is kind of rapey in a couple of scenes.

I’m not sure who the appropriate audience of TGSoE might be – people who love the circus and went to the cinema because the circus wasn’t in town, or people nostalgic for childhood? I don’t think the circus had faded quite so much as a form of entertainment at that point, certainly not as much as today. I haven’t been to the circus since I was a kid, but then, it’s not really the sort of thing you do for fun as an adult unless you’ve got kids of your own.

That said, I liked certain things about this movie. Buttons the Clown (played by James Stewart entirely in clown makeup) – the clown with a secret – was an intriguing side mystery that could have received a little more screen time. For that matter, I find clowning the most fascinating part of the circus. What is its origin as a pursuit? Is it related to the court jesters of yore? Are all the people who run off to join the circus just trying to be clowns? Why are people as likely to be frightened of clowns as entertained by them? I really need a narrative nonfiction book on this subject, pronto.

If the film had focused a little more on the characters (less on romantic entanglements and more on their lives as circus performers, perhaps), I would have enjoyed the film a bit better, I think, especially if it also managed to do so in about two hours rather than nearly three. While it’s kind of interesting to see scenes of parades and elephant tricks and trapeze artistry, mostly it just made me think how much cooler it would be if I were sitting in a giant tent, surrounded by the smell of sawdust and animals, gawping up in the air as ice cream dribbled down my hand – instead of watching audience members doing so on screen. A movie about the circus just makes you want to go to the circus, which seems a bad strategy for the film industry.

If you take nothing else from this post, I want to share a line, mostly without context, that was surprising in part because I’m not sure whether it carried the same meaning then as it did today. Woman circus performer (who is for some reason drenched in water), about the dashing trapeze guy: “Why is it whenever he’s around, I’m all wet?!”

 

Theme: Showmanship

First Time Watching? Yes

Final Verdict: Not enough monkeys

 

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