The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

There’s been some iffy Best Picture winners in the history of the Academy Awards. Mrs. Miniver‘s win back in 1942 over Kings Row and The Magnificent Ambersons comes immediately to mind as does Forrest Gump‘s win over any other movie released in 1994, but 1952’s selection, The Greatest Show On Earth, is easily the worst movie to win the biggest award in the movie biz.

I don’t know if this was some sort of lifetime achievement thing for producer/director Cecil B. DeMille (he would direct only one more feature, 1956’s The Ten Commandments) or if the Academy voters were made up of lion tamers, trapeze artists, and clowns, but this movie was more like an infomercial for Ringling Brothers (the opening credits state it was made with Ringling’s cooperation) than an actual movie. At least Jimmy Stewart was smart enough never to appear out of his clown make up, lest he be recognized as having been involved at all.

Conversely, Charlton Heston throws himself into the role of Marc Braden (Brad to the circus folk) with his usual gusto, letting his hat and omnipresent leather jacket do most of the acting as he spits out his lines about how important the circus is like they were metal tent stakes.

The best thing about Heston is that he doesn’t seem to have any conscience when it comes to the material he’s given to work with. Doesn’t matter whether he’s sneering his way through dialogue about apes talking, Pharaoh letting his people go, or the world out under the stars being different than the one under the big top, he’s going to make sure his delivery is so over the top, you and he don’t even realize how horrible his lines are.


In spite of Chuck’s manly efforts, this movie suffers from a story that’s amazingly underdeveloped and cliched, not to mention painfully contrived, especially considering that the movie comes in at a Jumbo-sized one hundred and fifty two minutes.

The Greatest Show on Earth is having financial difficulties! In an effort to convince nervous investors to continue to fund the circus, Brad announces that he’s got a guaranteed way to keep revenues up: he’s just signed the Great Sebastien!

The Great Sebastien? But he only works center ring! And Holly (Betty Hutton) thinks she’s finally made center ring! Who’s going to tell her that she’s out of the spotlight?

And the Great Sebastien? My God! He disrupts every show he’s ever been with, romancing all the broads and breaking all their hearts! Brad knows all this, but he also knows that the Great Sebastien packs in a full house everywhere he headlines and Holly is an unproven performer.


As Brad tells her when he breaks her heart by kicking her gloryhound butt over to ring number one, Sebastien is a sure thing and she’s a chance and he never takes a chance when it comes to the circus. Even on the lady he’s kind of sweet on!

Yeah, I felt you cringing, but it gets even better than that. For most of the movie Heston forgets that he’s supposed to have a love interest and when he finally remembers he ends up hanging out with Gloria Graham (The Bad And The Beautiful, In A Lonely Place) who plays Angel, the assistant to the insanely jealous elephant trainer.

I know the movie was trying to play it like Brad was so consumed with making sure the circus went on each and every day without a hitch that he had no time for love, but it only came across like he found Betty Hutton as unattractively abrasive as the audience surely did.

Hutton, in her capacity as the trapeze artist eager to be the best, breathlessly shouts out her rotten lines so obnoxiously that you wish Brad would make her revamp her act so that she was one of those gals that hang from a rope in her mouth. It’s particularly awful during the last part of the movie after the big circus train wreck where Brad is impaled on a cage or something and she goes into full “let’s put on a show and save the circus” mode.


Train wreck? Mortally wounded? Saving the circus? I know, I know, so far all I’ve done is give every indication that this movie is a must see for all fans of overblown, hyper dramatic epics where every moment is inflated to a life shattering event.

The film also suffers though from its obvious desire to suck up to Ringling Brothers. There’s interminably long segments where horses run around, dames twirl in the air, and clowns get in and out of small cars which have no impact on the story.

And do we really need documentary style scenes, accompanied by newsreel-style narration, about all the equipment needed for the set up, tear down, and transport of the circus? Unless it’s Brad operating the bulldozer or crane or whatever, I don’t need to see poles and tents loaded and unloaded.

As hideously gaudy as the circus it seeks to glorify, The Greatest Show On Earth is not only the worst Best Picture ever, but also an example that the mere presence of big stars and sheer length do not an epic make. Heston’s character may have had, as every other character tells him throughout the film, sawdust in his veins, but Cecil B. DeMille must have had a head full of sawdust when he conceived this freakshow.

© 2013 MonsterHunter

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