Saturday, 15 January 2011

One to Avoid: The Greatest Show on Earth

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
Dir: Cecil B. DeMille


Whether you like Cecil B. DeMille's epic, Best Picture winning film 'The Greatest Show on Earth' or not will rest at least partially with your answer to the following question: Do you like the circus?

I HATE the circus. HATE it! From the ill-treated animal acts to the grotesque, unfunny clowns and the death-defying snooze-fest of the acrobats, there's few things I dislike more than this splashy, over-egged pudding. It was a pretty safe bet, then, that 'The Greatest Show on Earth' was going to bore me rigid. At two and a half hours in length, this brightly coloured, lavishly produced epic is very much aimed at the ever dwindling market of circus appreciators. There is a story, which involves a determined manager called Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) who has "sawdust for blood" and is determined to put on the best show he can, while still running a good, clean operation. The various exploits of Brad and his repertory company provide 'The Greatest Show on Earth' with its narrative thrust.

But DeMille's intention was to make a film that really captured the experience of going to the circus. So, at tiresomely regular intervals, the story is interrupted by lengthy circus acts performed by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey's circus troupe, captured in all their tedious glory. The only thing more boring than attending the circus yourself is surely to sit through documentary footage of it. DeMille anticipates this problem and attempts to solve it by intercutting the acts with shots of amazed punters, all of whom have a pre-rehearsed wonderstruck comment to share with us. It's horrendously corny and not even in that charming way that many films of this era make into a virtue. It feels like the equivalent of DeMille ramming the gaeity of his show down our throats while shrieking "IF YOU RESIST YOU ARE UNAMERICAN!"

A subtler form of this statement comes in DeMille's own opening narration, in which he informs us that the circus is a "Pied Piper whose magic tunes lead children of all ages, from 6 to 60, into a tinseled and spun-candied world of reckless beauty and mounting laughter". It's all so insistently wholesome that it borders on agressive. DeMille's oratory is accompanied by more documentary footage of the circus being set up and the massive amounts of effort that goes into making the "magic" happen. These fleeting moments are probably the most fascinating parts of 'The Greatest Show on Earth'. Also worthy of applause is the fact that DeMille's starry cast made the effort to learn their acts to a certain extent, allowing them to participate in the action.

But that makes little difference when the action is so feeble. For anyone whose idea of fun doesn't correspond to sitting through a second-hand circus experience, a strong plot is required to hold interest. What DeMille serves up in the dramatic sections of the film is an intensely annoying, hackneyed love triangle between Heston and his two trapeze artists, Cornel Wilde and Betty Hutton. The actors mostly enter into proceedings gamely and are likable enough. Heston does his well-practiced rugged, salt-of-the-earth routine, Wilde hams it up appropriately as the showboating new trapeze star and Gloria Grahame is agreeable cynical as the elephant trainer and Wilde's ex-lover. The one bum note is hit by the intensely irritating Hutton as the love interest of both men and, unfortunately, she gets the majority of the screen time, constantly changing her mind over who she loves until any right-thinking person draws the conclusion that whoever she settles on is ultimately the loser.

There's also a very weird subplot which involves one of the strangest bits of miscasting in film history. Dear old Jimmy Stewart, one of my own personal acting heros, is Buttons the Clown, a performer who never takes his make-up off even when the show is over. This turns out to be because Buttons is actually a former doctor who mercy-killed his terminally ill wife and is hiding out from the police. It seems like the perfect cover, if only medical emergencies didn't keep arising for him to deal with in a suspiciously expert way. Seriously, I'm not making this shit up! Watching Stewart trying to act beneath half a ton of clown makeup is somewhat disturbing and his distinctive persona clashes badly with this oddest of characters.

It's been a constant source of disbelief over the years that 'The Greatest Show on Earth' could possibly have won the Best Picture Oscar, especially since it beat 'High Noon' (1952). Suspicions that 'High Noon's chances were affected by its allegorical indictment of the blacklist, coupled with its screenwriter Carl Foreman's refusal to co-operate with the House Un-American Activities Commitee, a force which DeMille actively supported, seem likely to have had some bearing. But even more unbelievable in my book is that fact that 'The Greatest Show on Earth' won the Oscar for Best Story, quite an achievement for a film that barely has a story!

'The Greatest Show on Earth' is often cited as the worst film to ever win the Best Picture Oscar. While it's certainly up there with the worst, it does have one or two saving graces that put it ahead of some other weak winners. The sheer gloss of the lavish production values make 'The Greatest Show on Earth' undeniably attractive and complex technical scenes such as the disasterous collision of the circus trains are exceptionally effective. Plus, jarring and bizarre as it is, there's a captivatingly peculiarity to that Jimmy Stewart storyline that just keeps you watching through splayed fingers. But ultimately these small (miniscule!) mercies are little comfort in the vast ocean of tedium that is 'The Greatest Show on Earth'.

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