When Mary Pickford opened the envelope at the Academy Awards in 1953, she wasn’t the only one completely surprised by the winner inside – The Greatest Show on Earth was and still is considered a major upset and constantly tops various lists covering the worst Oscar winners ever.
As you can see from the position in this ranking, I don’t disagree with the usual dislike thrown at this circus show – but I am still somewhat torn. Yes, this movie is not Oscar-material – not even by a longshot and even a nomination is already ridiculous. But: as a movie itself, as pure entertainment, this is actually surprisingly good. I don’t mean that The Greatest Show on Earth is great – there are many, many flaws in this picture but when it works, it really delivers. The ‘trapeze fight’ between Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde might be one of the most thrilling moments in any Best Picture winner I have seen (well, since I am afraid of heights, this might have added some suspense for me) and DeMille brought a true spectacle to the screen in every sense of the word. Unfortunately, he often overdid it – The Greatest Show on Earth sometimes takes itself far too seriously which is very problematic considering it’s such a trivial picture. In various voice-overs, DeMille talks about the circus and its artist with welcome respect but at the same time he sometimes sounds so solemn as if he was talking about the President of the USA.
First of all, there is hardly any plot. Or to put it better: there is actually a lot of plot since various subplots are handled and put together but none of them ever even reaches the level of mediocrity. There’s Gloria Grahame and her jealous elephant trainer, Betty Hutton caught between Charlton Heston and Cornel Wilde and James Stewart hiding a dark secret as a cheerful clown – all of these storylines remain very superficial, which works in this kind of movie, but seriously: the plot is always of secondary importance and everyone in this movie knows it.
So, what about the actors? Do they at least lift their material? Well, some do. James Stewart and Gloria Grahame (much more impressive here than in her Oscar-winning turn the same year) easily take the acting crown and actually deliver quite good performances and if they had gotten Oscar nomination, I don’t think I would have complained. Charlton Heston is dependable as always which means he isn’t great but he does what he has to do. Cornel Wilde adds some charm and charisma and gives his performance a playfulness that works very well in the context of the film. Betty Hutton…ah, Betty Hutton…she gets the questionable honour of delivering one of the worst performances that I have seen in any of the Best Picture winners. From her horrible-sounding singing of ‘Come to the circus’ to her shockingly awful line-deliveries, her performance is one big mess that even manages to distract from a movie that isn’t very good to begin with. Of course, she is stuck with a horrible character whose purpose is very often to just state the obvious – DeMille doesn’t seem to think much of his audience as he constantly make sure that even the most obvious plot parts or events are commented on and explained once again.
As successful as some parts of the show are, DeMille also overdid too much here. Some circus numbers go on forever and if that wasn’t enough, he also throws in various parades that seem to last for 10 minutes. The movie wants to be a spectacle but even in a spectacle, sometimes less is more.
The famous train wreck at the end obviously suffers from dated special effects but it actually still manages to be thrilling and can easily compare to modern disaster movies.
So, The Greatest Show on Earth offers a lot – fun, excitement, a feast for the eyes and the ears (and Bing Crosby and Bob Hope also visit for a second) but it neither fulfils its own purpose with perfection (for a movie that wants to entertain, it often does quite the opposite) nor is this the kind of movie that should be associated with an Academy Award. It has its moments but is too weak compared to most other movies in this category.