Combustible Celluloid
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With: Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame, James Stewart, Henry Wilcoxon, Lyle Bettger, Lawrence Tierney, Emmett Kelly, Cucciola, Antoinette Concello, John Ringling North, Tuffy Genders, John Kellogg, John Ridgely, Frank Wilcox, Robert Carson (Bob Carson), Lillian Albertson, Julia Faye, William Boyd, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby
Written by: Fredric M. Frank, Barré Lyndon, Theodore St. John, based on a story by Fredric M. Frank, Theodore St. John, Frank Cavett
Directed by: Cecil B. DeMille
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 152
Date: 01/10/1952

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

3 Stars (out of 4)

A Three-Ring Thing

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Giving Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) the Best Picture Oscar was an act of severe generosity. It's an entertaining film, but it's certainly no masterpiece and doesn't really stand up to the year's other offerings: Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's Singin' in the Rain, Orson Welles' Othello, John Ford's The Quiet Man, Sam Fuller's Park Row, Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru, Howard Hawks' Monkey Business and Jean Renoir's The Golden Coach.

Critics have historically stepped on DeMille, sidelining his works as simpleminded, overstuffed nothings. But he had a certain something. He could turn in a giant-sized spectacle that kept moving and always delivered on cue.

In one scene in The Greatest Show on Earth, DeMille brings on a parade packed with elephants and girls in costumes, singing and dancing. But rather than stick with that for three or four minutes, he gets on with the story during the number. He cuts away to our characters going through with their storylines and then back to the musical number. We never get bored by the number -- which is pretty boring -- and as a bonus, the action now has an interesting background to it.

Charlton Heston leads the all-star cast as the circus boss. This season will be tough because money is short. The boss has to agree to take on a volatile trapeze artist (Cornel Wilde) who can guarantee box office, but also guarantees a pain in the neck. The trapeze artist makes a play for every girl in the circus, including the other aerial act (Betty Hutton) and the beautiful elephant girl (Gloria Grahame) -- both of whom have eyes for the aloof boss. In addition, Jimmy Stewart plays a clown who never takes off his makeup and has a secret past.

Even though these storylines are all old-time hokum and we pretty much know how they're going to turn out, DeMille intertwines them all with invisible skill, keeping the show on the road at any cost. Not to mention that the film continually dazzles with its seemingly endless supply of color, spectacle, and sheer, awesome size. Not even Titanic feels as overwhelmingly big without ever grinding down the senses. Of course, few filmmakers were as arrogant as DeMille, and his constant, overwritten voiceovers tend to drag things down from time to time.

I get very impatient at lazy filmmaking or pathetic plot retreads, but I had a wonderful time watching The Greatest Show on Earth. Though many of today's filmmakers try, no one ever made better movies to munch popcorn to.

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