1952 was a very strange year for Oscar nominations and winners (Leo McCarey's noxious Red Menace potboiler My Son John was part of the vaunted pack), and while the bald gold statue has always symbolized the best in filmmaking within a specified year, it can also signify an unexpected (and maybe unwarranted) wave of support for populist escapism like Cecil B. DeMille's big tent soap opera that assembled three writers to craft a multi-character story involving girl-swapping.
That's an over-simplification, but most of the leading women (Betty Hutton, Gloria Grahame, and Dorothy Lamour) bounce or have already bounced between circus chief Charlton Heston, French flyer Cornel Wilde, and poor packiderm trainer Lyle Berger; this complicated relationship pinball game was designed to maintain our interest on who will ultimately snog whom and find true love while jealousy, tragedy, a killer clown named Buttons (played by spindly Jimmy Stewart), and a criminal element led by a slender (!) Lawrence Tierney could send the whole three-ring circus to a disastrous end.
DeMille's Greatest Show on Earth [GSOE] has aged very badly, and while an expansive, technically ravishing film – the train collision near the end is still pretty spectacular, as are the amazing trapeze feats – it also beholds some nose-pinching performances and dialogue by actors either playing their cartoon cutouts with utter sincerity (witness the definitive Heston School of Jaw-Clenched Thespianism) or are well aware they're in a goofball picture with hot actors and crazy animals.
Wilde seemed to have recognized DeMille's film was supremely silly, so his loose French accent forms a subtle wink at the audience when he's not grinning like a kid in a candy store; and unlike the exotica that forced the buoyant and athletic actor to redefine himself as a fleeting but fine director between 1955-1975, Wilde seems to have relished the balance of acrobatics, athleticism, and comedy, particularly the dueling scenes with Hutton as he tries to woo her by performing increasingly reckless feats.
Grahame plays her man-eating character tongue-in-cheek, yet she's convincing as the centerpiece of her Berger's elephant act, riding, tumbling and hanging from an elephant's maw with no signs of unease. (Unlike Wilde, who got stuck in roles that flattered his buffed physique, the slender Grahame had better luck in Elia Kazan's underrated and dramatically mature circus thriller, Man on a Tightrope, in 1953.)
DeMille may have believed a blend of actors from diverse disciplines made sense, but there are ongoing collisions of styles, which include Hutton playing her romantic scenes like friezes from a theatrical musical, which GSOE is not (although there are a few songs, including a pair crooned by Lamour), and Tierney playing a slickly attired thug otherwise reserved for brutal noir thrillers.
Heston, topped by a broad-rimmed hunting hat, often barks out orders to unseen workers, and it's part of the screenwriters' efforts to show he's a benevolent dictator who always cuts though the confusion, whether he's pointing out bad rigging, citing the trainers for not covering up the lion cages when the animals are in transit, or recommending treatment for an elephant's sore footsie; audience members with vivid imaginations, however, will undoubtedly conjure their own mental cutaways of the off-screen workers, flipping Heston the bird as soon as he walks away.
The circus backdrop, using the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey troupe, is spectacular, and DeMille milks every aspect via docu-styled footage of the massive tent erection and strike-down, and glossy footage of parading performers in blazing Technicolor costumes.
Had Paramount used original negative elements and spent money on a restoration akin to Warner Bros.' fine work for The Adventures of Robin Hood, a DVD of GSOE would've been another reference disc for fans of Technicolor cinematography; the source print is clean, but the focus is a bit soft and the colours lack that bursting quality which clean Technicolor achieves when played even on a blah TV set. The colour schemes are the vintage fifties turquoises, greens, reds and pinks, but they're extraordinary to watch on a big screen TV.
The audio mix is standard mono, and Victor Young's score is heavily canted towards dated tunes that evoke a bygone era of pageantry and elegance that must have seemed already stuffy and passé to some contemporary audience members.
There's little straight dramatic underscore, and the tunes feel twenty years out of date within the film's fifties time stamp. Worse still is Young's “Circus Song” that takes a familiar herald and applies lyrics to the closing sequence that has battered & bruised circus performers parading through town (some giddily pelting fruit at townspeople) like an Our Gang troupe to rally support for one really big funfest.
The hushed vocal style in Dimitri Tiomkin's eponymous tune for Circus World (1964) wasn't much better, but witness the extracted lyrics of Young's facile ode:
Come to the circus,
The Greatest Show on Earth!
Come to the circus,
See the circus
If we're not very careful life can overwork us
So take the day,
And make it gay,
For there are too many tears along the way!
So come to the circus,
It's Circus Day today!
The film's morality is also typical of the era – all killers, jealous hubbies and crooks get their just desserts – but the scriptwriters also tied up all the loose ends to ensure every guy ends up with a gal, and some multi-storey tumbles from the trapeze are just psychosomatic bruises (thereby diminishing any tragic character threads, which run along Carol Reed's far darker Trapeze).
Like Around the World in 80 Days, GSOE is a slice of fifties escapism inflated to epic scope, and while it makes for a fascinating and frequently funny film artifact, like several of DeMille's super-productions – including his final directorial effort, The Ten Commandments (1956) – the gooey melodrama and whiny archetypes ensure GSOE is not the idealized contemporary classic deserving an Oscar.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan