‘The Greatest Show on Earth’: Lions, Tigers and Heston, Oh My!

greatest show on earthWatching the 1952 Best Picture winner The Greatest Show on Earth is just like going to the circus – which is a lot of fun to watch on screen if you don’t think about all that animal cruelty and junk. (Wouldn’t it have been great to live in the 50’s when you didn’t have to worry about GMOs, drinking and smoking during pregnancy, and animal cruelty? Ahh, the beauty of blissful ignorance…)

Charlton Heston plays Brad Braden, a general manager of a long-running traveling circus. Brad’s got his work cut out for him. The company he works for doesn’t want to green-light a full season’s worth of shows, so he gets them to agree on hiring Sebastian, a hard to handle ladies man who’s also one of the best flyers (trapeze artists) in the biz. Juggling Sebastian proves to be more difficult than he thought when Sebastian and Holly (Betty Hutton), Brad’s girlfriend and fellow flyer, form a connection after Brad shafts her for the lead circle to make room for his new It Man.

The love triangle isn’t the only drama in this traveling circus – he’s also got Harry to content with – a sketchy concessionaire who’s running some shady business under the circus’s tent for a slimy gangster named Mr. Henderson. And then there’s Buttons (James Stewart), a clown and circus fave who may have a hidden past that has yet to be uncovered…

The film is currently streaming on Netflix and along with that: full, bright, sparkly color! On this film quest, I’ll take color whenever I can snort it. I’ve got mad props for the classic black and white presentation – I’d never argue that every pre-60’s movie should be colorized, but throughout this journey, I find a restored, colorized edition here and there really breaks up the monotony of the bleak grays.

Directed by Cecil B. DeMille, some feel The Greatest Show on Earth wasn’t worthy of the Best Pic win. In fact, some deem the award was given to simply celebrate the man’s entire body of work – which largely began before the Academy was even created, way back in the silent film days. Maybe so, maybe no. Awards are often given for this reason, but hey – count it.

I enjoyed the film for its diverse characters and interpersonal relationships, moving performances by Heston, Hutton and Stewart, and also for the change in scenery. This film quest has been inundated with family dramas set in homes and churches, battles on war fields, and communes in Africa (Still. Can’t. Get over. Africa.). The circus setting (aided by the participation of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey) led for some great B-footage. Whenever the pacing of the story was at a lull, this movie was all LOOK AT THE ELEPHANTS! CHECK OUT THESE TRAPEZE ARTISTS! LOOK AT THE FUNKY COSTUMES! It’s sort of the 50’s version of a movie for today’s ADHD riddled viewer. I dug it, and just may have ADHD. Who knows.

Probable animal ethics aside, The Greatest Show on Earth was The Greatest Movie on Earth…if just for one year.

Grade: B+