The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) starring Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame, James Stewart, Henry Wilcoxon directed by Cecil B. DeMille Movie Review

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)   4/54/54/54/54/5

Charlton Heston and James Stewart in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

DeMille's Ode to the Circus

It may be called the "The Greatest Show on Earth" but Cecil B. DeMille's movie is sadly not "The Greatest Movie on Earth" although it is very good in getting across the spectacular sensation of the circus. From the excitement of the trapeze artists, the comedy of the clowns through to just the sheer amount of work a big circus takes to put on it is all there bringing the circus to life on the screen better than any other movie has done. But sadly "The Greatest Show on Earth" is a very disjointed movie which has a touch of drama, a smidgen of thriller and a dose of romance all set against the backdrop of the circus. Except these story elements never really blend together with what feels like DeMille's ode to the Big Top as he almost delivers a documentary on the workings of the circus only turned into a movie by these dramatic subplots.

With the threat of only taking his circus to the big cities, circus boss Brad Braden (Charlton Heston - Any Given Sunday) secures top trapeze artist The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde - Leave Her to Heaven) to perform allowing him to take his circus to every town and city they like. But hiring The Great Sebastian brings him problems as it means he will have to move his sort of girlfriend Holly (Betty Hutton) from the main ring to a side ring. If that wasn't bad enough Brad also has to deal with some racketeers looking to cause his circus trouble. But one thing he can rely on is Buttons (James Stewart - Harvey) the clown who is friends with everyone but is Buttons who he seems?

Cornel Wilde and Betty Hutton in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

It has to be said that in "The Greatest Show on Earth" Cecil B. DeMille really captures the whole sensation of the circus brilliantly bringing it to life on the screen. With narration from himself he gives us a behind the scenes look, clearly showing the astonishing amount of work it takes to set up and bring down the Big Top, the army of workers who know exactly what they are doing as it travels from town to town. And when he isn't giving us a look at the workings he's delighting us with the whole spectacle, the various acts which go to make a night at the circus a special occasion. Watching the jugglers, the animal trainers, the clowns and tight rope walkers is just wonderful and highlights how talented these travelling entertainers are. In a way watching "The Greatest Show on Earth" fills you with a sadness as the spectacle which DeMille delivers so brilliantly is no longer that big spectacle, reduced down by rules and regulations.

But the thing is that DeMille so passionately delivers what is an ode to the circus that "The Greatest Show on Earth" often feels like a documentary only becoming a movie when the various manufactured dramatic storylines are focussed on. Those storylines aren't bad as we have a love hate relationship between trapeze artists, a romantic subplot between Circus boss Brad and Holly, trouble from some racketeers who are trying to swindle customers and the mystery surrounding Buttons the clown. But it all feels a little disjointed as one minute you will have DeMille waxing lyrical about the circus the next you get a bit of storyline. Because between DeMille's ode to the circus and these various storylines "The Greatest Show on Earth" comes in at a rather impressive 152 minutes. Not that it ever feels dull or overlong just a little too disjointed as if it is several movies spliced together in not the best of ways.

But whether you are watching the behind the scenes of the circus or one of these dramatic storylines DeMille makes every second of "The Greatest Show on Earth" entertaining. Watching Holly and The Great Sebastian try to out do each other high up on the trapeze or flirt down on the ground is good fun. The same can be said about the mystery behind Buttons the clown who is forced to make a decision late on in the movie which will change his life for ever. And whilst it all feels a little disjointed DeMille also makes these manufactured storylines exciting, he gets you to the edge of your seat gripped by what is happening and the danger of many of the acts.

Whilst DeMille makes "The Greatest Show on Earth" entertaining he also has a fine cast of actors who make us warm to the various characters. From a young Charlton Heston as circus boss Brad Braden through to the womanizing Sebastian played by Cornel Wilde they all share the limelight perfectly. The 3 main women played by Betty Hutton, Gloria Grahame and Dorothy Lamour all ooze sexiness in their own way but also convince as being circus performers. And then there is James Stewart as Buttons the clown delivering what is probably the best performance as he spends the entire movie behind thick grease paint with a smile painted on his face yet gets the emotion of the character across and makes him a man of mystery.

What this all boils down to is that Cecil B. DeMille's "The Greatest Show on Earth" is a really good movie which manages to bring the sheer spectacle of the Big Top to life on the screen. It fills you with awe and shows not only the acts but also the sheer amount of work that goes into making a Circus work. But then it also gives us several little dramatic storylines which are just as entertaining as watching the behind the scenes look of the circus. The only negative is that between DeMille's ode to the circus and these dramatic storylines it ends up disjointed.