Tuesday, July 6, 2010
The Greatest Show on Earth: Not-So-Ready for a Close-Up, Mr. DeMille
Everyone knows this Andy Warhol quote: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” The converse of Warhol’s line is that infamy lasts far longer. Cecil B. DeMille’s circus extravaganza has gained infamy for being one of, if not the, worst films to ever be awarded Best Picture. Yet the funny thing about infamy is that because The Greatest Show on Earth did win the top Oscar, whenever the “Best Ever” and “Worst Ever” Oscar winners are discussed, a place of dubious distinction will always be held for this film.
I’m a positive kind of guy, so I will highlight some positives of the film before diving into the pool of negativity. This film isn’t outright awful—none of the Best Picture winners are—on the level that Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen is; it just isn’t Best Picture material. Hell, there were several parts of The Greatest Show on Earth that I really enjoyed. The overall plot of the film is simple: the movie is a fictionalized version following the real-life Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus—the big-top known as “The Greatest Show on Earth”—as it travels around the country. Director DeMille—one of Hollywood’s most legendary filmmakers who was famous for staging epic films as far back as the silent era—wisely employed the real life 1951 travelling Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, along with its over 1,400 employees (including performers, carnies, animal wranglers, backstage help, staging technicians and management), hundreds of animals, and a the famous circus train hauling 60 carloads of tents, equipment, animals, and humanity. The film is undoubtedly massive, and only DeMille had the talent and experience to mount such a gargantuan production.
Unsurprisingly, the plot is really overstuffed. The main through line involves the financial survival of the circus itself. Charlton Heston—in one of his earliest roles, and one that cemented him as the go-to male star to carry an epic film—plays Brad Braden, the no-bullshit general manager of the circus who manages to show compassion to the 1,400 souls who work under him. The owners of the circus are finding that in post-WWII America, the circus doesn’t have the same appeal as it once held, and that they are contemplating running a shorter national touring season rather than risk huge financial losses. Brad bargains to keep the full schedule running and his trump card is the most famous (yet also temperamental and egomaniacal) trapeze artist in the world, The Great Sebastian, who has inked a contract with the circus but only if it performs their full schedule. The bosses allow the show to run so long as it turns a profit, and Brad keeps his workforce employed.
I found the behind-the-scenes look into what makes the circus go easily the most compelling part of the film. Heston gives an excellent portrayal of a man who holds incredible responsibilities under extreme duress. There is never a shortage of problems at the circus; be it feuding star acts, sick animals, low ticket sales, potentially fatal accidents, personal dramas, et cetera, et cetera. Often, the problems conspiring to overthrow the success of the circus are happening all at once, and while Heston acts Brad as harried and stretched thin, he also gives the character a mastery of control over his emotions and the strength to keep his circus operating despite long and overwhelming odds through willpower alone. That Heston makes the audience believe that Brad can succeed at an incredibly difficult job defined him as an actor comfortable playing authority. Heston would forever be known for playing authoritative, decisive characters—most famously as Moses in DeMille’s remake of (his own film version of) The Ten Commandments just four years later and as the title role in Ben-Hur, the massively successful, Oscar-winning epic that closed the decade. Heston’s roles helped define a masculine ideal in the 1950’s and The Greatest Show on Earth was Heston’s first opportunity at playing a man with ultimate authority. He is often overlooked as an actor, but Heston creates easily the most compelling character in this film.
Another unique element to The Greatest Show on Earth is that DeMille includes documentary-style footage of the actual big-top tents being erected. DeMille himself provides narration during these segments. His voice-over is prone to exaggeration and melodrama, calling the circus “a mechanized army on wheels that rolls over any obstacle in its path” and a place where “Death is constantly watching for one frayed rope, one weak link, or one trace of fear.” His hyperbole is wholly unnecessary; the footage alone of braces of men hauling the massive tent poles into place and unrolling canvasses wide as football fields show exactly what an undertaking simply moving a circus from town to town is. I found myself wishing for more insight into this undertaking, but the film becomes far more concerned with melodrama.
With the hiring of The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), Brad angers his other star trapeze artist, Holly (Betty Hutton), who is also Brad’s girlfriend (I couldn’t really buy into the fact that Brad would have such a serious relationship with someone in the circus when he gives off such a steely, no-nonsense demeanor—a romance with a co-worker would be exactly sort of the nonsense that Brad would warn one of his performers against). Brad displaces Holly from the circus’ center ring, and Holly takes it upon herself to engage in a game of one-upsmanship with Sebastian. Anything he can do, she can do better, and their aerial stunts become more dangerous and thrilling with each performance (the circus acts themselves are mesmerizing, and if you like that sort of thing, The Greatest Show on Earth is an excellent showcase for it). While the competition is good for business, Brad orders the acts to be toned down, putting further strain on his relationship with Holly. Finally, when Sebastian suffers an injury, Holly succumbs to the Florence Nightingale effect and ditches Brad for the wounded Sebastian. The love triangle becomes a love square when Brad takes up with Angel (Gloria Grahame), Sebastian’s ignored girlfriend who performs in the elephant act. There are too many silly love complications in The Greatest Show on Earth. Not to mention that the actors involved don’t have the chops to play romantic sequences without being cloying or over emotive (despite Heston’s brilliance playing authority roles, he’s never really great as a screen lothario). DeMille should have heeded the advice of the immortal Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (a film that was released 32 years after The Greatest Show on Earth, but play along, people): “Dr. Jones, no time for love.”
There is also no time for the many criminal subplots that fill up much of the film’s 152 minutes. I don’t think that DeMille should have glossed over the fact that the transient nature of the circus holds a special appeal to those either running from or wishing to exploit the law, but the stories in this film get ridiculous. First, there is a subplot involving crooked carnies running rigged games who are secretly conspiring to undermine Brad and the whole Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey operation. Brad has to eventually fire the conspirators, whose ranks have grown to include some of the performers (including Klaus, the head elephant trainer who is rejected by Angel, thus tying the conspiracy subplot to the already silly romantic subplot), and they retaliate by causing a massive collision of the circus trains (the wreck is spectacularly staged and is a highlight of the film).
The other criminal subplot centers on Buttons (played by none other than James Stewart), a clown who never takes off his makeup, even when the circus is travelling between cities. Buttons has not revealed any of his history to the other performers, though when accidents happen, he provides expert first aid to the injured and can wrap bandages around a trapeze far better than anyone else. Buttons, who rarely socializes with outsiders, provides fodder for the gossip cannon when he is seen speaking to a woman during a performance. As it turns out, Buttons is on the lam, and the woman he is speaking to is his mother, whom he only sees once a year when the circus rolls into his hometown. Buttons is revealed to be a doctor who has become a fugitive because he has euthanized his wife. Throughout the film, FBI agents are in pursuit of him (they carry a picture of Buttons without his makeup), yet neither Brad nor any other member of the circus are aware of Buttons’ past life. Inevitably, Buttons becomes crucial to the finale of the film, when the train becomes wrecked and Brad’s is gravely wounded.
In the words of the estimable Tim Gunn, what DeMille should have brought to his screenplay was “an editing eye”. There is just far too much going on in The Greatest Show on Earth to be believable. In fact, when first watching the film, I thought that while there was too much material for a two and a half hour movie, the massive subject matter would be perfect for television. (As it turns out, ABC produced a one-hour drama based on the film, with future Best Supporting Actor winner Jack Palance as Brad. The series aired 30 episodes for the 1963-1964 television season.) Sadly, the most interesting parts of the film are shunted aside for melodrama, and anyone who has ever seen a movie knows that this one is going to have a gift-wrapped happy ending. If the circus didn’t recover from the accident, I think the film would have had more depth. If DeMille had chosen to highlight the crew who so quickly and professionally assemble and breakdown the big-top tents as the circus moves from town to town with a character as interesting as Brad, the film would have had some more original perspective. Instead, "The Greatest Show on Earth" serves as a backdrop to contrived melodrama. This clichéd and predictable story won the film’s other Oscar.
Aside from the quality of the picture itself, what has incensed film critics the most about The Greatest Show on Earth was that the film unjustifiably defeated some truly fine and classic films. First, I’ll talk about some of the nominated films I haven’t seen. John Ford took home Best Director that year (his fourth win in that category, an Oscar record) for his Irish romance The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. The film is regarded as one of Ford’s best non-Westerns, and the excellent performances from Wayne and O’Hara were overlooked. The Quiet Man reaped two more Oscar nominations than The Greatest Show on Earth and took home the same amount, two. Another big Oscar winner (though it did not receive a Best Picture nomination) that year was Vincente Minnelli’s Hollywood-set melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful, which took home five Oscars (including Best Supporting Actress for Gloria Grahame, who also played Angel in The Greatest Show on Earth). The film holds the record for the film that has won the most Oscars without receiving a Best Picture nomination, and one would think given the Academy’s tendency to repeat nominations, Minnelli (who directed the Best Picture from the year previous, An American in Paris) would have had more success.
The two films—which I have seen—that raise the most ire among critics for being overlooked in 1952 are Singin’ in the Rain and High Noon. First, Singin’ in the Rain. That film is held in near-universal regard as the greatest musical ever made (the American Film Institute first had it ranked #10 on its list of the 100 Greatest Films, then it rose to #5 when the list was revised and it placed #1 on their 100 Years of Musicals list). Astonishingly, (and again considering that a Gene Kelly musical was the big winner a year prior) Singin’ in the Rain only received two Oscar nominations (for Supporting Actress and Score) and won a total of zero. However, the results weren’t all that surprising as the film was not as well regarded when it was released as it is today (proving that audiences and critics in 1952 were morons). The film also casts a critical eye on Hollywood—the plot revolves around the transition from silent to talking films in 1927—and the Academy rarely ever rewards films that cast a critical on the film industry. The Bad and the Beautiful likely also suffered from this syndrome, as did Sunset Boulevard two years earlier.
The favorite in 1952 was Fred Zinnemann’s classic, real-time Western High Noon. Actor Gary Cooper took home the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Sheriff Will Kane, the only man in a town full of cowards willing to stand up to a gang of criminals. Like Singin’ in the Rain, High Noon is universally critically regarded as one of the best films of its genre as well as one of the best films ever made (it ranked #33 on AFI’s initial 100 Greatest Films, #27 on the revised list, and is #2 on the 100 Years of Westerns list). Its Oscar undoing lies in its screenplay, for reasons more about politics, not quality.
High Noon’s screenwriter, Carl Foreman, intended the film to be an allegory against McCarthyism. While he was writing High Noon, Foreman was called to testify in hearings held by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Foreman declined to name names to HUAC, and landed himself on the Hollywood blacklist. The film was a political lightning rod, with obvious supporters on the left-leaning members and blacklist sympathizers in film community, and staunch, vocal opponents with conservative leanings. The biggest hater—John Wayne, in a clear reveal of his right-wing bias, called High Noon “the most Un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” (Ironically, Wayne would end up accepting Best Actor on behalf of Cooper.) Yet the film also had a big supporter in President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the film has since been a favorite of conservative and liberal Presidents alike. Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton (who calls High Noon his favorite film, and screened it seventeen times in the White House during his eight year term) were Presidential admirers of the film. Oscar, however, has rarely courted controversy, and Communism was the kiss of death in the 1950’s.
Who benefitted most from the red scare surrounding High Noon? Cecil B. DeMille, who sympathized with Senator McCarthy’s cause. DeMille was also in an enviable position with Academy voters—that of the elder statesman, veteran, respected filmmaker who has never sniffed Oscar glory. Many Academy voters in 1952 likely determined that DeMille’s last, best shot at winning an Oscar was for The Greatest Show on Earth (which ended up being the penultimate film directed in DeMille's career), and they favored his more readily wholesome, all-American film over the controversy magnet. The fact that DeMille was awarded the Thalberg Award the same year as his Best Picture victory is evidence that DeMille clearly had the favor of the Academy (yet he did not win Best Director). This is far from the only example of politics determining an Oscar winner, yet it is easily one of the most egregious examples of political interference in the history of the Academy Awards. The lesson to filmmakers looking to win an Oscar—be careful in courting controversy.
While not a terrible film, The Greatest Show on Earth does not hold up under critical scrutiny, and certainly did not deserve to win Best Picture. The film is not-so-ready for a close-up. Its victory was indicative of several trends at the Academy Awards for the next two decades. The Greatest Show on Earth was the first Oscar-winner since Gone With the Wind to be a feat of epic filmmaking. Big-time epics with casts of thousands and spectacular sequences (like the train wreck) would prove both commercially and critically popular, especially since film would have to distinguish itself as something much grander than its chief competitor: television. Another trend was established with Charlton Heston creating a template for male masculinity in his authoritative, tough-guy roles. America wanted to see men in charge, and the films in the 1950’s provided them in spades. Finally, the Best Picture victory of The Greatest Show on Earth proved that Oscar was not ready to reward politically challenging films (films that, in this reviewer’s opinion, have withstood the test of time far greater) in a time when the country was in the grip of a palpable fear of all things considered to be un-American. After all, what is more American than the circus?
I’ll end on a positive note, one which shows that even a film infamous for being the Worst Best Picture can end up being a source for greatness. The Greatest Show on Earth was the first film Steven Spielberg saw, and he cites it as a major inspiration for wanting to become a filmmaker. The wellspring for creativity can have unusual sources indeed.
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Starring: Charlton Heston, James Stewart*, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Gloria Grahame
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Total Oscars: 2 (Best Picture, Best Story) from 5 total nominations** (Best Director—Cecil B. DeMille, Best Costume Design (Color)—Edith Head, Best Editing)
*Unbelievably, The Greatest Show on Earth is the only Best Picture winner Jimmy Stewart ever appeared in, and he spends the whole film in clown makeup.
**DeMille was also awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Award in 1952, and the award that mirrors the Thalberg at the Golden Globes bears DeMille’s name.
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