The Greatest Show on Earth

The Greatest Show on Earth

What She said:


Do you like circuses?  Do you like drama?  How about a little circus drama?  The Greatest Show on Earth is a high-production-value ode to the thrill and danger of the traveling circus.  Made in 1952, when circuses still moved around the country by rail, the movie handles multiple plotlines, all of which are quite soapy. 

Charlton Heston leads the film as Brad, the highly passionate head of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.  This guy eat, sleeps, and breathes the circus, much to the displeasure of his super needy girlfriend, Holly (Betty Hutton).  Basically, Brad chooses the circus over Holly (an aerialist) time and again and it gets to be too much for her jealous tush.  She turns to the newly hired playboy trapezeman, Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) for solace.  Sebastian is a total ladies man, and he’s pretty much a horrible person, but he’s probably one of the most enjoyable characters in the movie.  He says some awesome stuff to entice women.  Then there’s Buttons, whose voice you’ll immediately recognize as Jimmy Stewart, despite the fact he never takes his makeup off.  Poor Buttons seems so likable, but is tormented by a dark and inescapable past.

So yeah, there’s lots and lots of drama.  But there’s also abundant circus flair, and so this movie turns out to be quite long.  There are 3-5 minute sequences that are nothing but documentary footage of the actual Ringing Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.  The film is surprisingly raunchy.  Ok, so not at all by today’s standards but for 1952 I reckon it was.  There’s some sloppy camera work, brutal early green screen technology, and plenty of overacting.  But it’s all harmless.  Under it all is a movie that tries to show all the backstage hoopla that follows the circus around.  It’s sort of spectacular to watch.  And, having recently read Water for Elephants, I see many parallels. 

I always liked this movie as a kid, although I probably didn’t understand 70 percent of it.  And today, I still like to watch it every few years.  It won the Academy Award for Best Picture the year it came out.  Not sure that’s entirely warranted (I’d have to see the other selections from that year), but it is overall a fun movie to watch.  You just might want to fast forward a little at times.

Thumbs up.

What he said:


Who knew the circus was filled with such drama?

Actually, if you think about it, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that a bunch of people who work and live with one another for months at a time have more ups-and-downs than a yo-yo. Plus, when you factor in the fact that they are performers, there are bound to be plenty of egos that are waiting to be bruised.

Charlton Heston is Brad, the man who keeps the circus operating on all cylinders. Also along for the ride are his pain in the ass girlfriend – and trapeze artist – Holly (Betty Button), ladies man and fellow trapeze artist Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), and Buttons the clown. They, along with many other members of the show, have all kinds of things going on in their lives. But living, traveling, and working together can sometimes exasperate those problems. When you factor in some small time crooks, Brad certainly has his hands full trying to keep things on the straight path.

Sounds kind of soap operaesque doesn’t it? There is nothing wrong with that at all, and to be honest that part of the movie was pretty amusing. Heston was very entertaining as Brad, whose no-nonsense and as intense as they come. It’s kind of par for the course as far as Charlton Heston performances go, but it simply worked for him. Betty Button really annoyed the hell out of me as her portrayal as the overly dramatic, nagging love interest, Holly. What can be said about Cornel Wilde? This guy was hilarious as the sleazy ladies man and superstar trapeze artist, Sebastian. Jimmy Stewart added some much needed emotion to a movie filled with quite a few shallow characters.

I didn’t really expect all the soap opera type stuff, but I did end up liking that aspect of it. Though, it did feel very out of place at times. There are times the movie feels like it was aimed at the child in us. That’s all well and good, but some of the issues the characters face are clearly not issues children have to worry about. The movie felt like part childhood nostalgia, part drama. It threw my senses for a loop quite a bit.

I enjoyed this movie and would recommend it, but if felt discombobulated at times.

Rating: Thumbs half up.

This movie review was written for your reading pleasure on August 18, 2011.