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The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
The Greatest Show On Earth (1952)
The Greatest Show On Earth takes us behind the scenes of a travelling circus. Through the eyes of the fictional characters, we're shown what a circus of a time gone by was like.
The trouble is, maybe we're shown a bit too much. What makes this movie watchable for me is the character driven moments, but just when things are getting interesting and you want to learn more about characters, the story cuts away and we're lumbered with a ridiculously long parade scene that will have you itching to press the fast forward button. Although some of the circus scenes aren't so bad and are to be expected in a movie that's about the circus, there are some that are almost pointlessly long.
As for the plot itself, it's hardly complex, but it's a decent enough storyline for a movie of its type and time. Most of the story revolves around Holly, a flying trapeze performer, and Brad, the man who runs the show. Holly is struggling to deal with the fact that Brad's more obsessed with the show than her and when Brad's new headline act, The Great Sebastian, comes along, Holly finds her own attentions drifting, even though Holly and Sebastian try to out-do each other show after show because Holly's desperate for audience attention. There is also rivalry over Sebastian's affections between Holly and Angel, another circus girl, while Brad obviously has feelings Holly even if he doesn't always show it in obvious ways.
A lot of the animosity towards this movie appears to stem from the fact that it won a Best Picture award at the Oscars, beating films like High Noon. While I agree with those who don't think it deserved a best picture award, I can't dismiss it as a bad film. Putting it together, filming and setting up those circus scenes, must have been painstaking, and although I moan about the overly long parades and circus moments, it does look grand and impressive. These days a movie like this would probably be bogged down with CGI special effects and stunt people. What I especially like about this film is the actors did a lot of their own stunts. The movie has heart and feels like a very genuine and raw portrayal of old school circuses.
If it has a real negative flaw it would be the acting. Most of the performances are treading an extremely thin line from just about watchable to bad. Betty Hutton is near to appalling in most of her scenes and overacts so much it stands out even in a movie like this. Heston is okay, but the character is wooden so his performance could be perceived as that too. One of the better performances comes from Cornel Wilde as the arrogant Sebastian, but the show stealer is undoubtedly James Stewart as Buttons, a clown who is on the run from the police and is using the circus as a means to hide. Stewart's performance is warm and sensitive and quite underplayed, and it works beautifully.
As a whole, the movie is worth seeing if you're a circus fan or like movies from this era, but I think to most modern audiences the acting, overly long circus scenes, and the rather corny and dated love story would be a turn off. If you do choose to watch the film, go in with an open mind and don't expect too much. For what it is, it's enjoyable enough. And if you get really bored you could always play Spot The Guest Celebrity Star in the scenes that focus on the circus audience!