Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, The Greatest Show on Earth is set exactly where it sounds like it would be, within the confines of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. In fact, the real 1951 troupe of the RBB&BC appears in the film, all 1,400+ people, hundreds of animals, and dozens of train carloads of equipment and tents. What makes the film quite unique is that it's a combination of both a fictional story set within the circus, as well as a narrated documentary of the real show itself. I'd probably put the ratio at about 65 movie/35 documentary, but it could even be 60/40. DeMille himself handles the narration. Oh, and just to let this be known in advance, I viewed the film off of a TV channel that seemed to have a pretty poor quality copy of the film playing. You'll notice many of the photos below to be not of the clearest focus, but so be it. Let's go to the circus!
DeMille's opening narration immediately puts over the magnitude of this "Greatest Show on Earth" that is the RBB&BC, how grand and grandiose it is, how adults and children love it, and how no matter what perils strike them (a clip is shown of a massive rainstorm, for example), they always bounce back. Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) is the traveling tour's general manager. He goes around checking all the animals and circus performers, making sure everyone and everything is feeling well and ready to begin the new season. To Brad, nothing is more important than the show, which is why when he meets with the board of directors and they just want to run 10 weeks throughout the major cities of the U.S.A., Brad objects. Brad says the small towns deserve the show too. However, the post-WWII economy is a little shaky so the board is worried about profits. Brad plays his trump card and announces he's got The Great Sebastian on board for this year, but he won't tour if it's just for 10 weeks. Everyone reaches an agreement that as long as the show remains in the black, they'll run the full season.
Brad lets everyone know the news, and celebrations abound. One such happy performer is Holly (Betty Hutton), who is set to perform in the center ring with her trapeze act. She's also Brad's sweetheart, which turns problematic because Brad has to now tell her that Sebastian, being world-famous and the undisputed star of the show, gets the center ring. Holly isn't happy about this and insists she can perform at a worthy enough level to have that center ring status, but Brad won't budge. The show must come before personal feelings.
We next meet Harry (John Kellogg), a midway concessionaire who runs rigged games of chance. Harry works for a gangster named Mr. Henderson (Lawrence Tierney) and he assures Henderson that he'll keep Brad under control. Holly speaks to one of the clowns in the show, Buttons (James Stewart). Buttons is always in make-up whether the show's going on or not. He's meticulously wrapping the trapeze wires in medical gauze as he listens to Holly lament the center ring situation, and ultimately he enables her to understand Brad's frame of mind better. Somewhere in the conversation, Buttons says something along the lines of "We kill what we love."
The tour is set to begin and the train is almost ready to leave. Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) finally arrives, complete with an apparent police escort as four motorcycles with sirens blaring are behind him. It turns out each policeman is chasing him for a moving violation. Brad says he'll take care of the fines so Sebastian isn't in jail during the start of the tour. Sebastian is a charmer and a total ladies' man, as he's had flings with many women in the circus world, including a few here now such as Angel (Gloria Grahame) and Phyllis (Dorothy Lamour). He wastes no time in laying the charm on Holly, who isn't too enamored with him since he's taken her center ring away. Sebastian decides they should both go to Brad about this, so they do. Sebastian tells him to give Holly the center ring. Brad refuses since Sebastian is the star, plus Brad knows full well Sebastian's just doing this to curry favor with Holly, who he probably wants to make his next sexual conquest.
During the first tour stop, Sebastian and Holly basically play "Top This" on the trapezes over their respective rings. Holly's rocking sideways. Sebastian's upside down. Holly's twirling 360's. Sebastian ups the ante by balancing on a chair. Holly follows suit. It's harrowing stuff and everyone underneath--including the rest of the troupe--are having collective heart attacks, especially since there's no net under them. The ringmaster (Bob Carson) is especially worried and says so several times to Brad, but Brad for now is letting them go with it. After the act concludes, both Sebastian and Holly are elated and thrilled with the reaction from the crowd. Brad, not so much. More acts and some mini-parades, including a Disney segment. Buttons talks to a woman in the crowd, who turns out to be his mother. She alerts Buttons that "they" are asking questions again.
During another performance, Holly is performing one-handed flip pull-ups with the crowd counting along with each flip. 60...70...80...she just keeps going. The troupe is getting more and more concerned, especially the technicians who know that rope she's pulling and tugging isn't meant for such a stunt. Brad eventually has the techs lower her to the ground. Holly is irate and storms off. Angel begins to browbeat Brad as well but then he shows her the rope Holly was tugging on, frayed almost to the breaking point.
Sebastian continues wooing Holly, and she's doing her best to resist but she's totally falling for him. Sebastian appears to really be into her too, not just as another conquest. Angel scoops Holly up with a trunk from one of the elephants in her act and carries her away from the lothario. Angel brings Holly to Brad, who shows Holly the rope. Brad can see Holly and Sebastian have sparks, and if that's the case, so be it, but he asks Holly to stop with the no-net super-crazy daredevil stuff with him every night. Holly agrees they'll both tone it down and even use the net from now on.
During the next performance, Holly is having fun with her act, especially once Sebastian shows up as part of it unexpectedly. Brad is watching from below and gets word that Harry is ripping people off outside, so Brad confronts Harry about it, ultimately firing him and punching him into a puddle of mud when Harry made a threatening gesture towards him first.
Meanwhile, back under the Big Top, Sebastian has a new stunt he's prepared to debut. He's going to do a double-flip through a hoop from one trapeze to another. He decides to really show off by cutting down the net first, which freaks Holly out. Brad returns to the show and now sees the net is cut, but it's too late to set it back up because Sebastian is about to start the stunt. He swings...swings...jumps...flips...goes through the hoop...and misses the second trapeze, landing hard on the dirt below flat on his back. Sebastian is still conscious but seriously injured. He's brought to the medical tent where Buttons tends over him, much impressing another doctor present. Buttons says he used to be a "pharmacist's mate".
After awhile, Sebastian returns to the tour. Brad reaches out to shake hands, but Sebastian just keeps his right arm with his coat over it and doesn't respond in kind. He tells Brad and Holly he's just come to get his things as he's joined with the Columbia Circus. Holly just assumes he's found another woman there that has now caught his eye as something fresh, and Sebastian seems to concur that accusation. Brad doesn't believe any of this and tells Sebastian to start speaking the truth, and he tears the coat of Sebastian's arm. Everyone now sees the right arm is deformed, pale and apparently of no use. That's why he didn't shake hands earlier. Sebastian goes to collect his things. Holly feels guilty that all of this happened because of her. Both Sebastian (earlier) and Brad (now) tell her that's not true, but she's inconsolable. She goes to talk to Sebastian, offering to help him pack. He continually tells her to leave, but she refuses, saying she loves him and she knows he feels the same way. Sebastian finally understands this isn't just her taking pity on him, so he reciprocates the statement and they kiss.
During the next tour stop performance, Angel and Holly are riding together in a parade and arguing about the Sebastian and Brad situations. Angel is mad that Holly dumped Brad for Sebastian, and she says she's going to show Brad true love. After the show, Holly comes across some garbage on the ground with a news article about a doctor who mercy-killed his wife and hasn't been seen since. The article has a quote about him "killing what he loved", and this makes Holly remember Buttons said that to her once recently. She asks Buttons about it, and he just chalks it up as a coincidence.
Brad's in his office and Angel joins him, waiting on him hand and foot, flirting hard. He doesn't seem put off by it. However, Angel's partner in the elephant act, Klaus (Lyle Bettger), is watching the office from outside and seething, as he's been hitting on Angel for weeks to no avail. Harry gets in his ear and calls him a sucker, stoking the anger further in Klaus. During the next performance, Angel lays on the ground and an elephant is to stand over her with one of its large feet just touching her. Klaus threatens and torments Angel, saying he could just let the elephant squash her right now, but he won't because Angel belongs to him. Angel is terrified. Klaus eventually moves the foot. Brad has seen this and immediately rushes to Klaus and fires him, telling him to leave immediately before he has him charged with attempted murder. Sebastian is selling balloons and stops for a moment to watch the trapeze artists, Holly included. Buttons and his puppy dog he's carrying happen upon the scene. The dog kisses Sebastian's dead arm and Sebastian reacts to it. Buttons is surprised to see that Sebastian has feeling in the arm.
Klaus finds Harry outside conning people. He says that the idea Harry had, he wants to do it tonight. Harry's glad to see Klaus has come around. After the show, the troupe is ready to leave on the train. Brad is approached by FBI Agent Gregory (Henry Wilcoxon) and asked if the circus doctor is a man they've been hunting. Gregory shows Brad a photo of James Stewart. Brad says he doesn't know the face, which is actually true because Buttons is never out of makeup, so Brad doesn't realize that's the doctor being hunted. Gregory boards the train to continue his investigation, and the train heads off.
Klaus and Harry are along the tracks where the trains will come later. They stick a lit flare in the tracks, although Klaus hesitates a moment before doing so. They then hide and wait for the trains. Brad and Buttons chat on the train, with Buttons telling Brad that Sebastian's arm should be able to heal after all since he has feeling in it. Brad has figured things out and mentions Agent Gregory being on board and planning to take fingerprints from people at the next stop. Brad infers that Buttons should probably stay hidden. Brad then goes to Sebastian and riles him up a bit, causing the dead arm to move just a bit. Still, though, the fact that it moved excites Sebastian as he now knows he can recover. Brad just hopes he'll return to the trapeze because he's good for business.
The train reaches the flare and gradually stops. Some people jump out to check out the situation. Harry and Klaus rob the train car holding the show's profits, then knock out the conductor before returning to their automobile. The second train is coming. Harry tells Klaus to drive out of here, but Klaus realizes that Angel is on the second train and starts freaking out. Harry and Klaus start physically fighting and Klaus KO's Harry before driving the automobile onto the tracks in the directon of the second oncoming train. Klaus is waving for the train to stop, but there's no time. The train obliterates the automobile, then crashes into the first train, causing a huge derailment of both trains. The animals start to escape their cages and people start filing out of the wreckage. The animals are gradually corralled. Brad is stuck under some debris. Holly learns from Angel of the injury so she rushes to find him. She discovers Brad is bleeding. Several people plus one elephant help lift the heavy debris off of Brad so he can be brought for medical attention. Unfortunately, the circus doctor is knocked out cold. Brad has a cut artery so every time his heart beats, he's losing blood. Holly figures out that Buttons is the doctor she'd read about and goes to find him. She does so. Buttons is making a quiet escape from the wreckage, but Holly convinces him to save the one she loves. Buttons comes to the scene and says Brad needs a transfusion. Brad tells Buttons his blood type is AB-, which is unfortunately one of the lesser common blood types. Sebastian hears this and it turns out he is also AB-. Brad refuses the blood to come from Sebastian as he feels ever since he showed up, Brad's life has spiraled into misery. Buttons finally convinces Brad to let Sebastian give him blood. Agent Gregory comes onto the scene and holds the flashlight for Buttons. Gregory has figured out Buttons is the fugitive doctor, and Buttons knows he's now a caught man.
The transfusion is a success. Gregory thanks Buttons and tells him he's all right, but still has to bring him in. Buttons understands. Many of the troupe feel the tour is now over for the year, but Holly turns into SuperBusinessWoman and refuses to allow this to be the case. They can still run a show, even right here in the nearest town. She starts barking orders and sets up a parade for the next day. The whole town comes out for the parade and follows it on its way to the open-air area where seating has been set up for a circus show. Brad's brush with death makes him realize he is indeed in love with Holly, but as he tries to tell her this, she ironically can't concentrate on that now because the show must go on. However, she loves him too and he knows it. Sebastian and Angel rekindle their romance with Sebastian saying it's time to settle down, and Angel is the right woman for him to settle down with. The open-air show commences and the Greatest Show on Earth lives on.
Many of the real circus performers are named in the opening credits, including the President of the circus John Ringling North even having a speaking role in the film.....Most, but not all, of the unbilled cameos are people in the crowd at the circus events. Familiar faces that pop up include Hopalong Cassidy, Van Johnson, Danny Thomas, Oliver Blake, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope (Crosby and Hope were costars with Lamour in the Road To... series of films). One child spectator was then-age-9 Merrill Reese, who since the late 1970's has been the radio play-by-play broadcaster for Philadelphia Eagles football games.....Lucille Ball was set to play Phyllis but dropped out due to becoming pregnant with her first child.....Steven Spielberg was 6 years old when his dad told him he was taking him to the circus. It turned out they were going to see this movie, which was the first film Steven ever saw. He loved it and was especially amazed by the train wreck scene. It stuck with him so well that in his 2005 film War of the Worlds, the children of Tom Cruise's character are channel-surfing on their television when this train wreck scene is shown......This was the movie that made Charlton Heston an A-lister.....Cornel Wilde injured his shoulder shooting one trapeze scene and took a few days off to heal. For the most part though, the actors got through the shoot with the most minimal of injuries, impressive with all the acrobatics they performed.....When the monkeys "escaped" their cage after the train wreck, they were frightened by the also-roaming lions and tigers, so they really DID escape the soundstage and ran into a nearby cemetery. They all were eventually corralled but it took many hours.....A TV series based off the film ran on ABC in 1963-64 with Jack Palance playing the Brad Braden role.
So now let's go back to talking about the Oscars situation with this movie. As I mentioned earlier, many consider this movie one of the, if not the, weakest Best Pictures in history. My wife and I were both expecting this blog to be full of venom and vitriol. Well, a funny thing happened on the way here. I enjoyed the movie. It's really not bad. It's unique, that's for sure, and if you take out all the documentary stuff, it's probably about an hour shorter than the 152-minute running time. Comparing this film to 1956 Best Picture Around the World in 80 Days, which similarly was overly long and full of all-star cameos, I'd take this film again over the other one easily. I've never seen a circus live, and I'm not sure I ever want or need to, but it was sure fun watching all the pomp and circumstance of the actual show as a part of the movie. I guess it could be argued that it slows down the story though, and I guess modern-day attention spans make people just want to see the story progress as opposed to a 10-minute break here and there for elephant tricks and a Polynesian song-and-dance.
So how many Oscars did this win? Just two, actually. It scored 5 nominations and came up short for Film Editing, Costume Design--Color (Edith Head and others) and Director (DeMille). The wins were for Writing--Story and Best Picture. To this day, this is the last film to win Best Picture with a final Oscars total of 2. (It could have happened in 2015, though, if Boyhood would have won.) When you compare this film to the other nominees, there are two films that most people cry foul in that this won Best Picture over them. The other nominated films were High Noon, Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge and The Quiet Man. I've never seen High Noon, believe it or not, but that's one of the films that a lot of people feel is better than The Greatest Show on Earth. I do know it's long been considered a classic, Gary Cooper's finest film and one of the greatest westerns ever filmed. I have also never seen Ivanhoe nor Moulin Rouge, but I don't hear those titles raved about too heartily nowadays. Then there's The Quiet Man. This is considered one of the best John Wayne films in history, and has become a St. Patrick's Day staple for many. I HAVE seen this one, and yeah, it's great. One of cinema's most memorable fight scenes, great writing and storytelling, beautiful cinematography and perhaps the best John Wayne-Maureen O'Hara pairing of their many collaborations. If I was a voting member of the AMPAS, I'd have likely voted for this.
So what happened? Why did The Greatest Show on Earth win? Well, in fairness, it is an impressive film, very much so. But I think there was more to it than that. I did a lot of researching because I wanted to form my best hypothesis as to why this movie won over the other, more universally-lauded ones. As it turns out, there really doesn't appear to be a single reason. There look to be several factors that may have come into play here.
High Noon was the heavy favorite to win Best Picture. It did win four Oscars, including Cooper taking home Best Lead Actor, but the screenplay was written by Carl Foreman, who was at one time a member of the Communist Party. The political climate at this point in time was right in the midst of the Red Scare, and Foreman was an "uncooperative witness" in the eyes of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Foreman would wind up blackballed by Hollywood. He still was nominated here for Writing--Story and Screenplay (different award than Writing--Story, which went to Greatest. The W--S&S award went to The Bad and the Beautiful) but his name was removed as a producer of the film, with credit going to his partner Stanley Kramer. Apparently the cloud of Communism may have scared the Academy off in giving his film the top prize, especially with this 25th Annual Academy Awards ceremony being the first ceremony to be televised.
Another belief is that the Academy wanted to honor Greatest director DeMille. He had received an Honorary Oscar in 1950 for his quarter-century of work in Hollywood, being one of the original greats behind the camera. However, he'd never received a competitive nomination before. He was nominated this year for Best Director, but the award went to John Ford for The Quiet Man. To me, it would have made more sense for the Academy to flip-flop the results, giving DeMille Best Director and Quiet Best Picture, but as it turned out the Academy went the other way. The Grammys have often given Album of the Year to a performer as sort of a "lifetime achievement" award, and that may be what happened here with Greatest and Best Picture. I'm glad this hasn't happened a second time with the Oscars though. It didn't happen a second time with DeMille for sure, because 1956's The Ten Commandments--which DeMille produced--was nominated for Best Picture but bested by 80 Days.
The Greatest Show on Earth is not the worst Best Picture ever. It's not even close. I can think of 3-5 films right off the top of my head that I feel are worse, and if I was to peruse the list of 87, I'm sure I could find 3-5 more. With that said, it probably wasn't the "best picture" of the year for 1952 and it probably shouldn't have won. Don't let that deter you from checking out the film though, because I sure didn't feel like I wasted 152 minutes of my life once it ended. Grab some popcorn and flash back to a different era with The Greatest Show on Earth.
[NOTE: This is the original trailer, and it really is almost 7 minutes long.]