“A man is no better than what he leaves behind.” – Cecil B. DeMille
If this is the case, then Cecil B. DeMille’s legacy is likely to remain a monument to our cinema culture for all time. Without question, he was a resplendent showman who ushered in the 20th century’s greatest form a mass media, helped proliferate its iconography and endear it to several generations of movie goers – future film-makers and starry-eyed daydreamers alike – and one of the few undisputed giants in an industry dominated by such larger-than-life names. As a storyteller, DeMille’s philosophies were quaintly ‘out of fashion’ even in his own time. But his particular brand of corn was never insincere, his pomp never telescopically focused on the thumping of his own chest. His precision on the screen remains peerless and spellbinding. Yet, at the heart of DeMille’s film-making philosophy there exists an intimate vision as formidably enriching as it continues to proliferate the globe as irrefutable populist entertainment.
Only DeMille, it seems, could give us a circus, bigger and more alluring on the screen than an opening night thrill of being under the actual big top via Barnum and Bailey. And only DeMille had grasped the art of making movies to call out such spectacle within a series of intimately concocted stories, buffered by a glittering all-star cast. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) is quite simply that – and, a whole lot more. By 1950, DeMille could have rested easy knowing he had helped shape this artistry with millions; also, that his legacy as a picture maker had made him one of the most easily identifiable figures in the industry; in fact, the epitome of everyone’s idea of what a film director ought to be. Better still, especially since DeMille wanted to continue making movies, his sixty-eight feature films to date had grossed more than $600 million in 1950 dollars (or roughly $12 billion by today’s inflated standards), selling 1.66 billion tickets in the continental U.S. alone and another 1.44 billion worldwide. But (and with very few exceptions) DeMille’s reputation had been built on historical and Bible-based screen spectacles. Thus, when he pitched the idea for a wholly contemporary story with a circus motif, even Paramount’s executive brain trust was left scratching their heads. They wanted more of the same from him. Had the old master flipped his nut?
Few knew just how dear the idea of a big top adventure was to DeMille. Based on Courtney Ryley-Cooper’s 1923 novel, Under The Big Top, DeMille had carried something of the sawdust, spangles and dreams of a carney with him into those burgeoning Hollywood hills in an era even before that name had become synonymous with glamour, glitz and movie stars. Ironically, it was a rival interest from David O. Selznick that prompted DeMille to further pursue his lifelong dream to make The Greatest Show on Earth. Selznick had endeavored to do just such a picture, using Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey as his backdrop. Then president, John Ringling North wanted fifty percent profit sharing to seal this deal; too rich for Selznick’s blood. He balked and DeMille stepped into the negotiations, employing his wit and wiles to gain Ringling North’s trust; his fifty percent profit-sharing willingly granted only after the movie had twice recouped its negative cost. For this, DeMille was virtually handed over control of the big top, allowed to go on tour with the show for three months and film anything and everywhere his heart desired. Carte blanche had rarely been afforded any film director on location. Then again, Cecil B. DeMille was not just any director.
Only one thing worried DeMille: shooting on location. Like all showman of a certain vintage, DeMille felt most at home within the comfort and confines of his beloved Paramount Studios. Not only did it offer him absolute creative control, but also the immediate facilities necessary to make any sort of miracle on his ‘things to do’ roster come to life at a moment’s notice. Location work, with its unanticipated weather conditions, its fluctuating light sources and its inevitable configuration of unexpected delays, to say nothing of preparing his own caravan of bulky camera equipment, cast and crew dressing rooms and other paraphernalia, to be carted all across the country, set up and repeatedly torn down just like the circus itself, meant more time and money necessary to bring the whole enterprise together on time and under budget. DeMille’s anxiety was marginally quelled by his new alliance with Technicolor and the promise of a more light-sensitive film stock being developed to capture all the richness of his own magniloquence. DeMille’s initial template for constructing the action had been Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel (1932); a film he held in very high esteem. Alas, its framework proved unworkable within the copious research already gathered during nearly three months of lumping it with the circus on tour. $113,000 later, DeMille had distilled his research into a manageable three hour movie. It dawned on the executive brain trust at Paramount the old master was indeed gearing up for another epic – one set in the present.
“How fickle is a career?” Charlton Heston would later muse, for he had not been DeMille’s first choice to star in The Greatest Show On Earth. DeMille would have preferred Kirk Douglas, his asking price of $150,000 too steep to consider. DeMille had already cast Cornel Wilde over Burt Lancaster for the part of the egotistical aerialist, The Great Sebastian when Henry Wilcoxin – a life-long part of DeMille’s professional entourage – suggested he screen some footage of Charlton Heston for the pivotal role. DeMille ran several pictures and though Chuck too dour to play the part of circus manager, Brad Braden. No, it just wouldn’t work. But then came the moment of good fortune destined to impact and forever alter both men’s careers; Heston unassumingly driving past DeMille on the backlot with his trademark toothy grin, a dome of thick hair blowing majestically from the open top of his convertible as he casually waved and called out “Hello, C.B.!” Reportedly, DeMille turned to his secretary, Berenice Mosk to inquire who the young Lochinvar was. “I like the way he waved just now,” DeMille admitted, “Let’s get him in for a chat.”
The rest of the cast came to the project without much delay. After getting James Stewart for a song – the star practically pleading to make the picture at half salary – DeMille settled on Betty Hutton as Holly, the lovesick trapeze artist. A few years earlier, DeMille had pegged Hutton for stardom if only she could restrain her gregarious lung power long enough to turn in a performance. Indeed, Hutton’s early career had wielded the sort of uncontrollable and frenetic energy that made her a curious cross between a female Bert Lahr and Ethel Merman. Save a promising star turn in Annie Get Your Gun (1950) the rest of her film career had been relatively inconsequential. DeMille found Hutton’s energy exhausting. But he could certainly recognize her talent. Asked if she would do the film ‘his way’, Hutton’s absolute acquiescence to this simple request, also her confession she had been practicing the trapeze in anticipation of getting the part, gave DeMille confidence he had found the right star to play this pivotal part.
Now, only the part of Angel, the elephant tamer remained. It ought to have gone to Lucille Ball. Instead it went to Gloria Grahame. DeMille was hardly please. He had diligently labored to have Ball cast, particularly since she had just pulled something of a fast one by slinking out of her Columbia Studios contract without paying for the privilege. DeMille had all but secured Ball’s participation on The Greatest Show on Earth when she unexpectedly arrived at his office one sunny afternoon with Desi Arnaz on her arm to inform DeMille she was pregnant. As Ball had suffered several miscarriages in the past, she was determined this time to carry the baby to full term. An extended film shoot was decidedly out of the question as was delaying principle photography for nine months. DeMille, who quickly discovered even he lacked the powers of persuasion to woo his star back from the brink of her decision, instead allowed Ball to exit his office happily, but pulling Desi aside, he sternly muttered, “Congratulations…you’re the only man in history to screw Lucille Ball, Columbia Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Harry Cohn and Cecil B. DeMille all at the same time!”
Even before principle photography began, The Greatest Show on Earth broke new ground. Told it was impossible to effectively light the big top for Technicolor’s requirements, DeMille ordered an entirely new system of lighting to be devised and controlled by remote control, its cluster formations capably diffusing and spreading light throughout the vast and cavernous tented interiors. The picture was shot during the circus’ down time, primarily on its camp grounds in Saratoga, Florida; a vast playground DeMille would later describe as ‘a world in miniature’; a ‘stream of civilization’ and a sort of ‘United Nations on parade’. He embraced it with every fiber of his irascible being. Back at Paramount, DeMille had already shot key dramatic scenes on soundstages, some between Charlton Heston and Betty Hutton; also Cornel Wilde during the aftermath of the climactic train wreck meant to cap off the movie. Midway through this early preparation, DeMille also gave a detailed interview to Collier’s magazine, admitting he occasionally allowed his temper to overcome his better judgment, particularly when he took notice of an extra playing checkers on a set that cost Paramount $50,000 a day. “That fellow should be paying attention to his job!” DeMille added with verve.
Typically, there were other snags along the way. You can’t have a picture of this magnitude and not expect at least a few setbacks. Years later, Charlton Heston would tell two apocryphal tales, both involving the climactic train wreck sequence. Shot in confined quarters, the script called for Heston to be semi-crushed beneath a pile of rubble, rescued by Holly’s quick thinking and an elephant hired to remove the heavy debris from his chest. Heston was indeed pinned beneath this weighty wreckage; the elephant seemingly suffering an attack of stage fright and preparing to go on a stampede. While cast and crew scattered to safety in all directions, Chuck was left to await the elephant’s decision; whether or not to trample him. In the other story, a leopard meant to escape its cage during the deluge actually darted off in a direction unknown to its wranglers; DeMille and the cast, again, frantic to know its whereabouts, whereupon DeMille turned in his director’s chair to suddenly realize the elegant spotted cat had come around from behind to see what all the fuss was about, left purring very close to his ear.
Cribbing from DeMille’s bountiful research, the final draft screenplay by Fredric M. Frank, Barré Lyndon and Theodore St. John called for a murder mystery subplot involving Buttons – the clown (James Stewart). Buttons is on the lam, having assisted in the suicide of his terminally ill wife. As written and eventually performed by Stewart, the character achieved an unlikely empathy. At least thematically, it gave a contemporary slant to MGM’s silent classic, He Who Gets Slapped (1924); a similarly scripted tale about a scientist reduced to the part of a circus clown. The PCA had come around to DeMille’s way of thinking, in part because the old master possessed great persuasiveness when he fervently believed he was right. But the Catholic League of Decency had other ideas, rating The Greatest Show on Earth a very solid ‘B’ – meaning it was morally objectionable in part for all persons. DeMille was left fuming. “With those Catholics a little euthanasia goes a long way!”
Although no one could have known it at the time, The Greatest Show on Earth would be DeMille’s second to last movie and his only Oscar-winning Best Picture. As a time capsule of ‘50s super kitsch, The Greatest Show On Earth does live up to its namesake; rather delightfully, although it remains somewhat of a stretch to deduce exactly what Academy voters were thinking, to bestow a Best Picture Oscar on it in a year dominated by John Huston’s Moulin Rouge, John Ford’s The Quiet Man and Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon. In retrospect, The Greatest Show on Earth is a mind-boggling and overstuffed bon-bon of oddities and legitimate circus acts, the backstage intrigues puffed out with a lot of glitter and some genuinely harrowing moments of melodrama; also, the unanticipated cameo appearances of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, sitting in the audience and thoroughly fixated on the high-flying Artonys. Wherever possible, DeMille populated his milieu with real acts; The Realles, The Fredonias, Mroczkowski's Liberty Horses, Buzzy Potts, The Flying Concellos, The Maxellos, amongst an overwhelming assortment, all appearing as themselves in the movie.
After a rousing main title written by Victor Young and Ned Washington, we settle into familiar DeMille territory; the old master paraphrasing from Courtney Ryley-Cooper’s novel. DeMille was particularly interested in the backstage mechanics of putting on such an elaborate travelling show, and determined his audience should be dazzled not only by the lavish absurdities brought to them nightly under the big top, but equally by the herculean process by which its spectacle is wrought. We settle into the basic conundrum facing Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey; times and tastes shifting toward other diversions and threatening to cut the full season by half, only playing the major cities on the circuit. Circus manager, Brad Braden (Heston) fights the decision by suggesting he has already secured the services of the Great Sebastian (Wilde), but only if the circus commits to a full season. Sebastian is big news, so the bosses reluctantly agree, but only so long as this travelling menagerie stays in the black.
Sebastian arrives at the company’s year round digs in Saratoga via a police escort. Having racked up nearly a hundred dollars in violations and fines, Sebastian is, of course, penniless. So, Brad pays out for the privilege of adding him to the show. Almost immediately, this creates friction between Brad and Holly. After all, with a big headliner like Sebastian on the bill, Holly is expected to give up her plum spot in the center ring. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. Sebastian ingratiates himself to the ladies, some of whom are old news; like elephant act, Angel (Grahame) and gum-chewing singer, Phyllis (Dorothy Lamour). Angel and Sebastian evidently spent a weekend together in Paris; old times more fondly recalled by him than her. On the surface, this is particularly good news for the other half of Angel’s act, Klaus (Lyle Bettger) who misguidedly believes he has a chance to become more than a partner to Angel in the ring. But Angel fancies Brad who, of course, is somewhat engaged to Holly who, in turn, will eventually fall in, then out, of love with her competition – Sebastian. Ah, me, the foibles of flawed human romance.
Surveying the obtuse sophistication of these intertwining lives is Buttons, the clown (Stewart); who never appears in anything other than his ghost-white pancake and smiling red makeup. No one considers this odd, this being the circus, after all. But Buttons’ made up visage is actually a disguise to mask his true identity. He is hiding out from the police; a gifted surgeon who assisted in his terminally ill wife’s suicide. With every town they play, Buttons faces the real possibility of being arrested. To satisfy the production code, DeMille exploited every opportunity to reveal Buttons’ humanity. He’s kind to children, comforts his tearful and fearful mother, gives good solid advice to the lovelorn Holly about Brad, and vice versa to Brad and Angel, and, during the film’s climax, will be instrumental in saving a life, sacrificing his own freedom to do so. But for now, it’s business as usual…well, almost. For behind the scenes there lurks an insidious plot to ruin the circus from within; a mafia thug, Mr. Henderson (Lawrence Tierney) assigning one of his stooges, Harry (John Kellogg) to steal the circus blind while running a rigged set of games that will threaten the good, clean reputation of its showmanship.
Learning of Holly’s sacrifice, Sebastian offers to give up the center ring. It’s all part of his plan to seduce Holly and Brad isn’t buying it for a moment. Besides, the public is paying to see the star attraction. As the final decision rests with Brad, Sebastian stays in the center ring, incurring Holly’s ire. She vows whatever tricks Sebastian performs in the center ring she will copy from her own spot in the first. If he does a double, she’ll do a triple. If he balances on his head using a safety donut, she’ll do the same trick without such a luxury. Brad is staunchly opposed to their ‘healthy’ competition. It can only end with the two needlessly risking their lives merely to prove a stubborn and very idiotic point. But once Holly and Sebastian are off the ground he is powerless to prevent it.
The first few towns they play, this friendly competition goes off without a hitch, although there are plenty of sweaty palms in the audience; four of them belonging to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in cameos while taking a respite from their popular ‘Road to…’ series. Alas, fate catches up to vanity; Sebastian, in daring a brand new stunt in front of a live audience without the benefit of a net, or much rehearsal for that matter, misses his grip in mid-air and plummets to the heavy sawdust. Helped to his feet by Buttons and Brad, Sebastian is carted away in an ambulance, the circus’ doctor (Frank Wilcox) suggesting he may never perform on the trapeze again. In lieu of his absence, Holly is repositioned in the center ring. After all, the show must go on. In the meanwhile, Angel makes it very clear to Klaus she has no romantic interest in him whatsoever. Realizing he can tweak Klaus’ jealous streak to suit his own purpose, Harry suggests Angel has thrown him for Brad. Indeed, as Holly has since given her heart to Sebastian, Angel has wasted no time attempting to ingratiate herself to the boss.
Sebastian returns to the show, seemingly fully recovered. His bravado masks an unhappy reality; that his right arm has been paralyzed in the fall. Discovering the truth, Brad offers to keep Sebastian on. But Sebastian bears the brunt of scars to his ego and self-worth. He would go mad if surrounded by aerial artists while unable to partake in the pleasure and excitement of their act. Sebastian vows to leave the show as soon as he can establish another vocation and Holly makes it clear that when he leaves the circus, so shall she follow him onto whatever adventures their lives together have in store. Buttons gets wind of Klaus’ plan to crush Angel beneath an elephant’s hoof during a live performance. But Brad intervenes in the nick of time, saving Angel’s life and ordering Klaus to pack up his gear and get out of town, lest he reconsider pressing ‘attempted murder’ charges against him.
Harry quietly goads Klaus with a prospect to solve all their problems. As the circus train packs up and departs for its next location, he and Klaus will perform a daring stick-up; stealing the company’s bankroll and splitting the proceeds fifty-fifty. Actually, Harry has no reason to do so. He’s working for Henderson. But fueled by jealousy, Klaus is complicit and willing, and, easily manipulated. He can be the heavy for the robbery while Harry makes off with the loot. The two men drive out to a stretch of secluded tracks on the outskirts of town. Harry orders Klaus to light an emergency flare; its bright pink light seen by the conductor of the first train carrying the props and company’s bankroll. Harry has Klaus knock out the guard with his cane before holding up the train. Alas, the second train carrying all the acts is barreling down the tracks at full steam and fast approaching, quite unaware the first has stalled up ahead. Aboard also is FBI Agent Gregory (Henry Wilcoxin) who is determined to begin interviewing every member of Brad’s entourage in search of a killer. Brad forewarns Buttons his true identity is in jeopardy.
In the meantime, Klaus has had a change of heart. Hearing the whistle of the second train, he elects to warn them of the inevitable derailment. Harry tries to stop Klaus, but is knocked out in the process. Klaus turns on his high beams and drives his convertible onto the tracks. Too late, the conductor of the second train spots his vehicle, plowing into Klaus and then the first train at full speed. In the resulting catastrophe, many of the animal acts are freed from their cages, costumes and props strewn about the wreckage and all of the performers placed in peril; some, seriously wounded. Discovering Brad under a pile of debris, Angel’s quick thinking employs one of Klaus’ elephants to lift the heavy rigging off his chest.
To everyone’s horror, one of Brad’s major arteries has been punctured. He’s badly hemorrhaging and will surely die without the proper medical treatment. There’s no time to get him to a hospital. As the company’s doctor has been knocked unconscious in the wreck, Holly relies on Buttons to save Brad’s life. As every split second counts, Buttons elects to sacrifice his own discovery by Agent Gregory to save Brad’s life. A few harrowing minutes pass. Brad loses consciousness. Ultimately, however, his life is spared. Realizing he has found his man, Agent Gregory places Buttons under arrest. It looks as though the show will have to fold. But Holly has other notions. Carrying on as Brad would want her to, she organizes the surviving acts into an outdoor parade and later, a show without the benefit of the big top; Brad awakening to realize not only has he survived his ordeal, but that the greatest show on earth will endure, thanks to his paramour’s quick thinking. The two are reconciled in an ‘all’s well that ends well’ finale.
Audiences responded to The Greatest Show on Earth with exuberance and enthusiasm. DeMille’s attention to detail had inevitably paid off – handsomely. Everyone gets into the act; DeMille casting John Ringling North as his Master of Ceremonies and prominently featured throughout the story. Ultimately, DeMille understood his movie had to do more than extol the virtues and excitement of a real circus exhibition. It had to tell a story – and hopefully, more than one. Nevertheless, his soapy behind-the-scenes narrative gets off to a rocky start; DeMille’s obligatory introductions of the principles somewhat clumsily strewn between a series of atmospheric vignettes and montages, designed to give his audience a genuine flavor for the show within a show. In act two is where it all comes together; effectively so, the cast having established their purpose and character traits, now let loose to become integrated into the actual background milieu of these legitimate circus acts. There is a lot of blue screen, model and miniature work. Only some of it is convincingly achieved. Nevertheless, DeMille insisted on authenticity. While Cornel Wilde and Betty Hutton rarely left the ground, or were suspended merely feet from it, each performs some daring stunt work in close up with George Barnes’ cinematography making it appear as though they are dangling precariously high from their trapeze. A few long shots illustrate obvious doubles for both stars.
After the picture had been in circulation for a couple of weeks, DeMille showed Charlton Heston a handwritten preview card, thanking DeMille for resurrecting the magic of a night under the big top. The comments were praiseworthy of the entire cast, but made particular mention to DeMille’s casting of ‘that circus manager’ who “managed to do a splendid job and hold his own amongst the actors.” Heston would later muse, “High praise indeed. You can’t get much better than that!” Circus movies are rare these days; their charm and allure blunted by our present day outlook on animals in captivity, and people performing death-defying stunts, merely for our amusement. Like the changing times, circus pictures have come and gone. But 63 years later, DeMille’s classic arguably remains the greatest show on earth!
We really could use a new image harvest for this Oscar-winning Best Picture. The Greatest Show on Earth requires a ‘from the ground up’ digital clean up and restoration. Paramount Home Video’s DVD exhibits passable quality. Colors are generally rich, although the first few reels suffer from a deplorable mis-registration of its 3-strip Technicolor, resulting in unhealthy green halos around practically everything. When the Technicolor is properly aligned the picture pops with impressive detail and excellent contrast. A pity there are far too many age-related artifacts present throughout, exacerbated during dissolves and fades; rising to egregious levels during the split screen/blue screen traveling mattes. These are grainy and full of scratches. The audio is a big fat mono, although nicely balanced and exhibiting very little – if any - distortion. Bottom line: it’s disappointing to see a Best Picture winner get short shrift on DVD. If Paramount were still in charge of its own inventory I might have every reason to believe a new image harvest for The Greatest Show on Earth – was in the works, possibly, even for a hi-def Blu-ray. Alas, like a good many catalog titles, this one is now in the hands of Warner Home Video. Would they be adverse to a restoration? Hardly. But I would suggest since there are still several Oscar-winning Best Pictures from their own canon still MIA on Blu-ray (The Great Ziegfeld, The Life of Emile Zola and Around the World in Eight Days among them) Warner has bigger fish to fry. Still, I’m going to throw this one out to Mr. George Feltenstein and the Warner Archive. They’ve proven able-bodied in resurrecting a goodly number of classics from oblivion with stunning new image harvests. The Greatest Show on Earth would certainly be a very technically challenging and costly undertaking. But like all true collectors, I choose to entertain a modicum of faith when reaching out to the executive brain trust. Hey, George – come to the circus. Come to the show! Bottom line: recommended for content. The current transfer is middle of the road acceptable.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)