Beating out classic films such as High Noon and Singin’ In The Rain, The Greatest Show On Earth is often considered to be one of the weaker Best Picture winners. But does it really deserve all the bad reputation it continues to get today? After all, it’s from director Cecil B. DeMille, who directed Cleopatra and The Ten Commandments. This guy is famous for directing epic movies!
Well, let’s look at the plot. Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) is the general manager of the largest circus in the world, who has to take his girlfriend (Betty Hutton) out of the center ring to make room for a famous trapezist. (Cornel Wilde) Throw in a bunch of fancy circus acts (including a clown played by Jimmy Stewart) and you’ve got just the kind of epic that DeMille was known for…
And that’s actually where the movie falls flat. An epic about an egyptian princess? Okay. An epic about the life of Moses? Sounds good to me. But an epic about a traveling circus? The trouble with this movie is that it has too many characters to care about, and a two hour run time that feels like it’s four hours. The more the film drags on, the less and less you care about the characters, and after a while, it just feels like a bore.
However, I will give credit to two of the actors. The first is Wilde, who starts out as your typical ladies man, but gradually becomes more likable. And the other is Stewart, who by the end has to do some serious drama while wearing a permanent smile – that takes talent. But you know what’s ironic? If you completely ignore the plot and just pretend you’re at the circus, it’s not half bad. Not only are the costumes nice and colorful, but the acts are fairly enjoyable. Easily the best scene in the film is a trapeze-off between Hutton and Wilde, all done without a net. And if you love elephants, then there are plenty of scenes for you.
Aside from all that, though, the film as a whole doesn’t really stand on it’s own. The dullness of the plot even makes you turn away even when the ‘good parts’. The other characters, the editing, the cinematography… none of it really stands out, and the love triangle that spurs between Heston, Hutton and Wilde feels more operatic than anything else. It’s not really the worst of the Best Pictures, but I can see why it has that reputation. And when the ringleader ends the movie by shouting “Come again, come again!” It’s my turn to say ‘Don’t think so.’