Best Picture Review: “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952)

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

Wednesday night, Lauren and I sat down to conclude watching 1952’s Best Picture, The Greatest Show on Earth.  We had started it Tuesday night but I quickly fell asleep and went to bed.  Lauren tried watching a while longer, but shortly thereafter the volume on our brand new TV gave out and it turned to static!  She did some testing and concluded it was the TV, not the DVD that was the problem.  But after some tinkering the volume came back.  She came to bed and told me the news.  I was halfway asleep, and when I heard that our TV may be in trouble, I became very frightened, and this spawned a series of nightmares about the Ringling Bros. and circus animals from The Greatest Show on Earth haunting us.  It was a long night.  But I’m happy to report the TV hasn’t had any more issues since, so hopefully all is well.

So yeah, Wednesday night we concluded The Greatest Show.  Going in, I hadn’t held out a lot of hope for this movie.  It’s widely considered the worst movie to ever win highest honor of Best Picture.  A lot of the movie is just circus footage, probably a good 50%.  Another 20% is nothing more than documentary about how the circus operates.  That left about 30% for to put a story together.

The story focuses on the traveling Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey circus of the 1950s, run by Brad Braden (Charlton Heston).  The top draw for the circus are trapeze artists Holly (Betty Hutton) and The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde).  Aside from the everyday thrills of running a circus, there’s a bizarre love triangle between Brad, Holly, and Sea-Bass.  There’s also a friendly clown named Buttons (Jimmy Stewart) on the lam after murdering his wife.  He never takes off his clown makeup so the police won’t find him.

Everything is very ho-hum for the first two hours, and I thought I was wasting my time.  But then came a most unusual twist.  (Spoiler!)  There are two circus trains that run fairly close to each other.  Some robbers stop the first train while it’s en route to Cedar City with a flare.  While that train is stopped, the following train has no chance to stop, so they collide and all hell breaks loose.  Lions, tigers, and jaguars go running free from their cages out into the country.  Many circus folk are hurt, including Brad, who needs an emergency blood transfusion from his nemesis, Sebastian, performed Buttons the Clown, who used to be a doctor.  Despite being broken down in the countryside and having lots of their equipment ruined, Holly the trapeze artist takes charge and sets up the circus anyway.  All the townspeople show their support by marching out of town to see the show.

To my amazement, I didn’t hate The Greatest Show on Earth.  In fact, I thought the acting was pretty decent and they actually made you care about the characters by the time the movie ended.  It wasn’t a great movie, but given my low expectations I felt like it wasn’t a total waste of two hours, thirty-two minutes.  It would probably rank closer to the bottom than top, but on my list it definitely isn’t the worst of the Best Picture winners so far.

Next up, 1953’s From Here to Eternity.

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