Hello there. Hope you’re feeling well today.If it wasn’t for this mad exercise in going through every film in the Radio Times Film Guide (2013) I probably would have never seen Cecil B De Mille’s The Greatest Show On Earth. And that would have been a pity. For though it’s not the best film of those I’ve seen so far for this task, nor indeed is it the best film of that year (I’ll come to that later) I did like it.
Charlton Heston plays the manager of a touring Circus. Now whilst I might not have agreed with some of his political views he was an actor I’ve always liked. A sort of intellectual John Wayne. Capable of dealing with villains but having characters that were more complex than “the Duke’s”. In this he is stock character in a movie number one. The man’s man. Capable of railroading business men to agreeing to his demands and having women whimper to him.
Stock character in a movie number two is Heston’s loving but frustrated girlfriend played by Betty Hutton.
Stock character in a movie number three is the loud, flamboyant womanising French star of the circus Sebastian. Or rather “The Great Sebastian”. Played by Cornel Wilde.
Stock character in a movie number four is the main female character’s sassy friend. Played here by Gloria Grahame. I always liked her. You could tell from the screen what she was in real life which was an unique individual.
There are other characters of course James Stewart plays “Bubbles”. The clown with a secret. Probably the only real cliché main character. He’s noticeable here by only wearing clown make-up for the entire movie. An effect which can only be described as creepy. There’s also a criminally wasted Dorothy Lamour. There for a bit of singing and dancing but not really for much else.
So rather in the fashion of Airport you have separate stories that slowly merge together. As I think you already know it’s a type of film I like.
The thing though is this. I called the four main characters “stock” that you would see in many other movies. And it is true. But this film was capable of moving them into directions that you didn’t expect. Making them believable as human beings.
(A quick note about the screenplay. It was co written by Barre Lyndon. A name which I just knew was a pseudonym. Turns out Barre was English (though he became an American citizen). If it wasn’t for the name being obviously false I’d have never guessed the writer was born in England)
Cecil B De Mille was a director known for spending a lot of money on movies. Whilst not cheap you can see here that corners were cut in this film. So presumably he knew how to follow a budget as well.
One thing that needs to be mentioned here is that rather like the recent Fighting With My Family there is acknowledgement of the assistance of the Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey Circus in this film. Some of the businessmen are credited including a “Director Of Performance” (whatever he did).
So it explains a portion of the film that shows actual performers in action. At the time it was probably one long ad for the circus. Now I suspect it’s one of the few records of their craft.
It needs to be remembered that as it was made in the nineteen fifties it gives a picture of circus life as it was then. Whilst the circus still exist (one in the Vale Of Glamorgan this week) certainly in Britain it’s changed since when I was a child (most noticeably the ban on animals) and I suspect in America as well. So it’s showing a way of life which in that form no longer exists.
What I didn’t know until afterwards was that the film won an Academy award for best picture. Controversial even now because some of the other films in this category included High Noon, The Quiet Man and Singing In The Rain. Those films I have seen, and let’s be clear here. They are better.
But that doesn’t mean The Greatest Show On Earth is a bad film. As I said at the beginning I liked it. And of the films I’ve seen so far in this mad idea of mine it’s the one that’s most exceeded expectations.
Until the next time.