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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The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

The Great Ziegfeld holds the distinction as the first biopic to win Best Picture at the Oscars, which might surprise you, if, like me, you’d never heard of the man. Florenz Ziegfeld, the great showman of the early 20th century, who brought his Ziegfeld Follies to Broadway. Vaudeville! Ladies dancing! Blackface! …oh. Um, awkward.

This movie seems to come from an era in movie history when filmmakers were still trying to figure out what made a movie a unique form of entertainment. Like some of the other pictures I’ve seen during this project, this seems to be less a film in the way I think of it now and more of a set piece for a different kind of entertainment, namely, the on-stage Follies that made Ziegfeld famous.

What starts out as a relatively straightforward biographical film about a guy running a Strong Man sideshow quickly detours down a creepy path, when Ziegfeld playfully discusses his “engagement” with a 6 year old girl. Even in jest, it reads as questionable considering Ziegfeld’s already shown himself to be a ladies’ man, and it certainly doesn’t improve when the little girl shows up again some fifteen years later to throw herself at the now-successful Ziegfeld (who, I don’t need to point out, is now fifteen years older than his previous self as well.)

But all that personal backstory is really just a framing for the true point of the film: the recreated stage performances. The first big number is Irving Berlin’s “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” (which I only knew of in parody form as the Magnetic Fields’ “A Pretty Girl is Like…”). It’s an impressive performance, with this giant rotating set of steps filled with dancers and curtains, and I find it really difficult to describe. As a neat side note, it was filmed in one long shot (with a cut for a close-up). Curiously, even though I could appreciate the technical precision of such a segment, I wasn’t really moved by it emotionally. I can imagine that seeing it on an actual stage would be different, but all this film proves to me is that you can’t expect the same effect when you try to transfer something from one form to another. Something gets lost in the process.

It’s strange how quickly celebrity fades. This is sort of a theme in the film, though not entirely in the way I read it today. Ziegfeld lost big in the stock market crash (I find that in the movies of the 1930s, the stock market crash is viewed with the same sense of Nothing Was Ever the Same Again that our generation has with 9/11), and he couldn’t manage to pull another show together out of sheer hubris the way he’d done in years past. He died in 1932, just a few years before the movie was released. His wife at the time was deeply involved in production, probably hoping that his star would last forever. But now? He’s just another name soon to be lost to time.

 

Theme: Showmanship

First Time Watching? Most def

Final Verdict:  As an American girl, I certainly felt glorified.