From Paramount Pictures
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
I was almost 8 years old.
Into the sunshine of spring in my little hometown of Peoria came the news that The Greatest Show on Earth would be coming to the Madison Theater. I was looking forward to it like nothing I could remember, limited as that was at almost 8. The snows had gone, birds were chirping and finally the big day had arrived. All I needed to know was who was going to take me. My mother? My grandmother perhaps? Would my little bratty brother have to come along?
I awoke and heard my parents fighting. I stayed in bed hoping they would calm down but when I got hungry I got up, brushed my teeth, dressed and walked stealthily into the kitchen to check things out. The war continued unabated. The lure to see the movie was stronger than the common sense that was telling me to keep still, but I heard my little voice ask who was going to take me to the movie.
I looked to my mother for the answer, as I usually did, but heard my father say to get on my bike and go to the movie by myself. That had never happened but I felt a surge of excitement well up inside me because I spent most days wanting to prove what a big boy I was. Could this really be true? While the theater was only three blocks away, I would have to cross the busiest street in our little town but I just knew I could do it. He slapped some money in my hand, half pushing me out the door while my mother was screaming that I was too young to go to a movie by myself. But off I went without mishap.
Three terribly important things happened to me that spring day. I felt like Mr. Big Deal going off to a movie alone, bursting with pride because I was being trusted. Secondly I learned that I could become so enveloped in the happenings on the screen that I could forget the horror at home. TGSOE would ultimately serve me well in that capacity a number of times over my life. And finally, due to this film, I fell madly in love with movies, my longest romance.
In many ways I did not have much of a childhood. Circumstances forced me to live a rather adult life pretty early. I would have to postpone having a happy childhood for about 15 years. I was never into comic books or the funnies or cartoons and oddly enough, clowns were my least favorite item on the circus menu. But I had been to the circus a couple of times and had fallen crazy in love with its spectacle and the derring-do.
I knew this film would be right up my alley and I was not wrong.
From the moment the colorful circus wheel began spinning at the opening credits, I knew I was in for a grand event, a vivid, sprawling epic for children of all ages. Isn't that what the circus promises?
It turned out to be like being at the real circus. Besides the drama of the story-- the loving, the fighting in the air and on the ground, the mishaps, the triumphs, we see some real circus acts with a pretty fair amount of detail and attention. We see many behind-the-scenes details including the mechanized army on wheels that moves the colossal giant from town to town. We watch the raising of the big top and tearing it down again. Time was taken to include many reaction shots and a few funny bits from the audience, some of whom included Hope and Crosby and also actresses Mona Freeman and Nancy Gates.
Brad Braden, the tough circus boss, is on his way to hear the owners, including the real John Ringling North, tell him that the circus will only play a short season, visiting just the larger towns. Money is tight and the small towns will be cut out. Brad argues that move will cut the heart out of the circus because little kids in small towns have waited forever for them to arrive. (I hear ya, Brad.)
But he has a trick up his sleeve. He has hired the greatest aerialist of them all, The Great Sebastian. He will draw the crowds and put the circus in the black but there is a problem or two. First, he will only come aboard if they play the full season. Secondly, he is strictly center ring and so far that spot has been occupied by Holly, the current featured aerialist. She will have to move to ring one, Brad tells her, deaf to her cries. It's more complicated because Holly is Brad's girlfriend, although he has not really acknowledged that and he clearly loves the circus more. He has, as she is given to saying, sawdust in his veins.
When she meets Sebastian, Holly says, "I hear you work with two bars like I do." And he replies, "No, you work with two bars like I do." The struggle has begun.
Holly and Sebastian get involved in a dogfight high above the crowd, which, in turn, brings about full house after full house, but they don't stick to their acts and the stunts become more dangerous. While Brad gets angry at them both, Holly and Sebastian form a bit of a romantic alliance.
In their midst is Angel, the elephant girl. She once had a fling with Sebastian, but she now has a thing for Brad, much to the consternation of the insanely jealous Klaus, the elephant trainer.
Brad and Sebastian are at odds as are Holly and Angel.
While these romantic dramas unfold, there is also Buttons the clown, who is never out of makeup the entire film, and who is obviously hiding out in the circus. Holly reads a newspaper article about the police looking for a doctor who killed his terminally ill wife. Could Buttons be the man?
Before the 152-minute film ends, an aerialist falls, Angel almost has her face squashed by an elephant and one of movies' best train wrecks explodes across that giant screen. The aftermath of the wreck ain't too bad either.
The almost 8-year old boy was in heaven. He knew he had just seen his favorite movie ever. What he didn't know was that it would remain in that lofty position until 1965.
Ok, I'm back now and no longer almost 8.
Cecil B. DeMille was really a showman. It was only natural that he would helm a circus movie that came out of one of the great showmen of all time, P. T. Barnum. The word greatest in the title likely held some special interest for DeMille. He had long wanted to direct a film on the circus and there was a story around Hollywood but it was owned by another showman type, David, O'Selznick. When his option on the property dropped, DeMille picked it up the same day.
DeMille knew several things at the beginning. He wanted the film to look absolutely authentic. That would come about, he hoped, by working directly with Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey at their winter quarters in Sarasota, FL. He also wanted to go with them on the road and film footage of the actual circus. He wanted to use real crowds as much as possible. He made a crucial (and somewhat controversial) decision to film many of the actual performers. Seeing this film is more like seeing the circus itself than it is seeing a film. He was also determined that his large cast would have to perform most of the stunts and acts themselves.
Here, let DeMille explain it for himself:
As you heard, Betty Hutton played Holly. This was a Paramount film and she was under contract to the studio. But she was at the end of her stay there and not very popular. Hutton knew a thing or two about burning bridges and the studio was doing little about finding her new roles. But she got wind of DeMille's new circus movie around the lot and was determined to land one of the two top female roles, although she didn't know which one. By the time she found that out, she began vigorously campaigning for the part. She spoke to DeMille who had wanted his Samson and Delilah star, Hedy Lamarr, for the role. He asked to see Hutton's legs and feet and declared that they looked like an aerialist's and she became the actor hired. She was the only performer to do every single one of her stunts.
Except for a moment or two of over-acting, I think TGSOE is the best acting job Hutton ever pulled off. She had been a musical-comedy star who rarely did dramatic parts. And although she was on a bit of a high from having done Annie Get Your Gun, Hutton was to make only two more films. The rancor between the actress and Paramount escalated and she walked out on her contract.
Charlton Heston, on the other hand, was at the beginning of his career. He had only made a couple of movies. I have never cared for Heston, something about that holier-than-thou attitude always rubbed me the wrong way. So you can imagine my surprise when I realized he was in not one but two films that are in my top 10 (The Big Country being the other). But I confess that he made the circus boss his own. And of course he would work again for DeMille four years later in the director's final film, The Ten Commandments.
Gloria Grahame owned 1952. In that year alone she made this film (and I suppose you know it won Oscar's best picture... more on this is coming), she made the superior film noir, Sudden Fear, and she won a supporting Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful. Paulette Goddard lobbied for the part of the elephant girl but Lucille Ball was signed. She, in turn, had to drop out due to pregnancy. Grahame was then signed and gave Angel all the sass and willfulness the part required. She and Hutton, as rivals, had some of the bitchiest lines two actresses have ever had. We know how that stirred me!
I loved Grahame, sitting in a ring that is hanging from an elephant's mouth, and Bettger, dressed as a military officer, with lines like these:
Klaus: Your hair is too red, your legs are too thin, you have lips like a cat. You give me too much trouble.
Angel: Flattery rolls right off me.
Klaus (pointing to his heart): But you make a fire here.
Angel: Well, simmer down, General, before you melt your medals.
Oh, and that elephant foot on the face shot above? She really did it. No stunt doubles. It's even more interesting when one considers she and Minyak did not like one another. I discovered Grahame in this film and she went on to become one of my top 10 favorite actresses ever.
Hunky Cornel Wilde seemed an odd choice for Sebastian since he was afraid of heights. (Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas were both considered for the part.) Wilde is the only one of the cast to not perform his own stunts but it all looked real enough to me. His French accent and manner were a little too Pepe Le Pew for my tastes, but he made me chuckle.
I'm not sure why Dorothy Lamour did this film. Her part is so small and inconsequential. She was also coming to the end of her own longtime Paramount contract.
As Klaus, the jealous elephant handler, Lyle Bettger is terrific. I discovered him in this film and followed his career forever after. He was one of the best character actors specializing in villainy that ever graced a movie screen.
James Stewart said he was always in love with the circus and wanted badly to be in this film. He may not have campaigned for the role as robustly as Hutton did, but he did corral DeMille and ask him for the part of Buttons. The director could not believe an actor of Stewart's stature would want a role in which his face is never seen, but he was delighted that was the case.
TGSOE has some lines in it that my partner and I say to this day... sawdust in your veins being one of them. I gotcha, Birdbrain, we have spouted more than I can recall. All fire in the glass, said so unintentionally hilariously by Wilde in a romantic scene, has been parodied many times around here. We've even managed, believe it or not, I send her for a doctor and she comes back with an elephant a few times.
By all accounts it was a happy production. The actors loved being in the circus. They filmed six weeks in Sarasota, filmed at actual circus performances in Washington D.C. and Philadelphia and completed some interior shots in Hollywood. Fourteen hundred circus performers were employed, along with hundreds of animals, 60 carloads of equipment and 300 cast and crew. The production would have three cameramen and three costumers.
We have discussed at length one point of view. It has been a combination of the views of an almost 8-year old and a grown man who loves the movies discussing the first movie he ever loved. I am probably more sentimental about The Greatest Show on Earth than any of my 50 Favorite Films.
I will also acknowledge there is another point of view... and it may be yours. People who hate this film are legion. I am guessing there's a number of reasons why that might be. One we have touched on earlier. This was like being at the circus. Rather than just showing a little here and there of the circus, DeMille elected to go full bore. I suspect some adults found it to be too much. I've never known a kid to complain.
Another is that it is corny. Maybe there is something about the circus that's corny. I do think that showmen... DeMille usually always, Barnum, Broadway's Florenz Ziegfeld, movie producer Mike Todd and others were corny. Frankly, history and box office receipts have shown that corn has paid off. The length of the film bothered some as well.
I think the naysayers would have ultimately been silenced and scant critical attention would have been paid to the film had it not won Oscar's best picture. NOW there would be hell to pay. Two very fine movies were among the nominations that year, Fred Zinnemann's High Noon and John Ford's The Quiet Man. (Ford, in fact, would win his fourth Oscar.) And Singin' in the Rain, considered in some quarters to be the finest musical ever made, was not even nominated for best picture, nor were Member of the Wedding, The Bad and the Beautiful, Limelight or Come Back Little Sheba, among others. But DeMille's lavish and loving tribute to the circus won the big prize and went on to become the fifth highest-grossing film of the decade.
I have been doubted, harassed, insulted, maligned and trampled over by naming The Greatest Show on Earth as one of my favorite films but I don't care any more today than I ever did. It is a childhood favorite (and don't we all have them?) that transported me to a place and time that allowed me to forget my troubles. I don't have many troubles any longer but having watched the film for God knows how many times yesterday, I still feel the same. I even woke up this morning thinking about it.
I guess, I, too, have sawdust in my veins.
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