Today on Screening Classic Hollywood, I’m going to be talking about Cecil B. DeMille’s film The Greatest Show on Earth. While this tagline could have easily been used for any of his spectacular showpieces (either Samson and Delilah or The Ten Commandments would also come in for consideration as the “Greatest Show on Earth”), this particular film is set in the circus and details the fraught connections and personal relationships among its key participants.
While it may seem counter-intuitive to think about a circus in epic terms, somehow DeMille manages to imbue this particular show with a certain larger-than-life scope and depth (in a similar way to which he took the relatively small narrative of Samson and Delilah and imbued it with world historical significance in the film of the same name). In DeMille’s imagination, the circus is a vast beast with a mind of its own, a reflection (perhaps) of the very culture that produced it. Indeed, it is precisely this emphasis on the personal and the sexual that gives the film its narrative energy.
Though surrounded by the typical DeMille-esque spectacle, the narrative itself is actually rather simple. It involves a circus runner Brad (Charlton Heston) attempting to draw in paying customers with the help of the renowned acrobat Sebastian (Cornel Wilde). In the process, however, he risks alienating his love interest, Holly (Betty Hutton). This being DeMille, however, the two separated lovers finally come together again, though they are at first separated by a number of other catastrophes, including a thunderous train wreck that almost costs Brad his life. There are also a number of other storylines woven through the film, including one involving the clown Buttons (Jimmy Stewart), who never removes his makeup (even when he’s not performing). Though each of the storylines is compelling by itself, they do not quite congeal into a coherent picture.
While the narrative often struggles to hold together the sprawling spectacle, several of the actors do deliver exemplary performances. Heston is competent as always, and it’s actually refreshing to see him as something other than an epic hero (his roles as Moses and Ben-Hur were still ahead of him). What strikes me as particularly significant, however, is the fact that his character, like so many other Heston heroes, ends up injured by the end of the film. In fact, one of the film’s last shots shows him, incapacitated in a chair, his skin betraying a certain waxy and pasty pallor. Such an appearance seems incongruous now, but as I have come to realize, Heston’s heroes often end their films incapacitated or injured in some significant way (consider, for example, El Cid, in which Heston’s eponymous hero perishes at the end, his lifeless corpse used as an inspiration for the remaining members of his army).
Further, Jimmy Stewart adds a note of humanity to this film as Buttons the clown, a fount of wisdom and mystery who never removes his makeup (even when he is not performing). As it turns out, he was once a doctor who ended his wife’s life in an act of mercy. Stewart is always a solid actor able to bring a great deal of depth to any character he plans, and although the persistence of the makeup makes Buttons a bit too creepy for my liking, he is also one of the film’s more fully-drawn and psychologically complex characters.
And, of course, no review of this film would be complete without mentioning the divine Gloria Grahame, that favourite moll of many a film noir. She brings some of that femme fatale biting wit to this role as well, with a number of witty one-liners and a refusal to be dominated by any of the men in her life (including the hubristic and jealous Klaus, played by Lyle S. Bettger).
What strikes me the most after watching this film, however, is how it comments on the actual act of spectatorship. DeMille had similarly commented on the act of viewing spectacle in Samson and Delilah, but this film brings it to the fore. There are numerous shots of avid viewers of the circus, and while these are no doubt intended to register for the theater audience the sense of awe and delight in viewing the circus brought to Technicolor light, there is also something puzzlingly and disturbingly grotesque about them, an unsettling reminder, perhaps, of the fraught relationship that always exists between the viewer and the spectacle being consumed.
Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable film, though it does sag during a few of the more mundane bits. It bears the dubious distinction of being one of the worst films to receive the Best Picture nomination (and I would agree that it is certainly not on par with DeMille’s more magisterial masterpieces such as S&D or The Ten Commandments). If the Academy voters had known that DeMille would produce a truly fine film just four years later, they would have awarded the Oscar to a more deserving film, such as High Noon.
Unfortunately, we will never know.