The Greatest Show on Earth: A Lesson in Communism

For a very brief period after World War II, the United States was left as the lone standing superpower amidst a world in ruin. Arising from the ashes of the Great Depression, America’s Greatest Generation was forged in the fire of war. And thanks to her industrial might and dedication of her work force, America had fought, and won, a war on two fronts, oceans apart. The country was unbelievably powerful, probably more power than any single country before or since.
That power would also give rise to fear. In the late 1940s, specifically in 1949 after the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, and into and throughout the 1950s, the Cold War between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. set the stage for a possible nuclear war. But the Cold War was not just a terrifying arms race between two superpowers; it was also a war of competing ideologies. Capitalism versus Communism took center stage in many confrontations. In fact, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and countless other violent exchanges were attributable to the the ideas and reasoning behind, in America at least, the Monroe Doctrine as well as other communism containment strategies.
I’m already too far into the weeds here, but hang with me. The United States was not only concerned with communism abroad or in the western hemisphere, but also with containing communist sentiments and leftist societies at home. In 1947, Harry Truman, the president at the time, signed an executive order requiring all government employees to be vetted to check for a communist background. At the same time, the House Un-American Activities Committee was ramping up efforts to roust up and banish all traces of communism from the influential parts of American life, most notably in the movies being consumed.
The committee, and other governmental efforts to stamp out communism, were led by Joseph McCarthy, an ardent anti-communist and the man for whom McCarthyism is named. Perhaps most famously, McCarthy and other governmental agencies outed several members of the Hollywood elite and placed them on blacklists, or the systematic act of not employing those who had been accused of being communist sympathizers.
This had a profound impact on the Academy Awards, too. At the 25th Academy Awards in March 1953, The Greatest Show on Earth won the award for Best Picture, beating a highly-favored High Noon. The former film, which is detailed below, as well as its win, was an attempt to throw the witch hunt off course. High Noon’s producer, Carl Foreman, was labeled as an “uncooperative witness” when he testified before Congress. Therefore, he was blacklisted shortly after the film’s release. In response, the Academy voted The Greatest Show on Earth.

One of my goals that I set when I started writing this blog was to place movies against their historical backgrounds. And, I’ve done that so far with movies like The Broadway Melody, You Can’t Take It With You, My Fair Lady, and Casablanca. Yet, it took me two movies from the 1950s to finally put a bow on the historical impact that this decade put on films. I didn’t care for the movie that was the subject of the third review I wrote, Around the World in 80 Days, either. The Greatest Show on Earth, directed by Hollywood icon (and McCarthy sympathizer, interestingly enough) Cecil B. DeMille, is the second movie from that decade that I didn’t care for. In my mind, it’s one of the worst movies to win an Academy Award, and I say that about both movies that I’ve seen from the 1950s. It’s enormously entertaining sure, but it fails in so many areas, that I really had to struggle watching it.
On the other side of the coin, High Noon, which I’m very tempted to see now, is on AFI’s list of the top 100 movies ever.
Now, for the rest of the movie:

At one point in the movie, a young kid asks his grandmother, “Grandma, what are they doing?” She responds: “I don’t know.” That’s how the plot of this movie goes.
Basically, Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) must save the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus that he runs from falling into the pit of ignominy and bankruptcy. In order to do so, he hires The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), a spectacular trapeze performer to headline the show. This, however, creates a rift between Braden and his sometimes girlfriend, and trapeze artist, Holly (Betty Hutton). Holly vows to take back the show from Sebastian, predictably falling in love with him along the way. Consequently, Braden starts a fling with another one of his employees (apparently, the workplace romance was viewed differently in 1952 when the film was released) Angel (Gloria Grahame). Throw in a spectacularly done train crash (no, really), a clown who’s on the run from the law (his name is Buttons and he’s played by James Stewart) and you’ve got a 152-minute Oscar winner.

The Greatest Show on Earth won Best Story at the 25th Academy Awards and I’m struggling to figure out how. The first 135 minutes are a complete waste of time. For about 100 of those minutes, the show is nothing but circus acts. I’ve never been to a circus, but I certainly felt like I had been. Don’t get me wrong, the acts were incredible and DeMille sold the farm to pay for this movie, but there was no backbone to it. I would have gotten a better story had I gone to an actual circus.
For all this though, the last 15 minutes were great, sort of. Following the train crash, the drama of finding the survivors of the wreckage is terrific. This ending almost redeems the storyline. Too bad it was way too melodramatic and shifts tones like they’re going out of style. 0.

Frederic Frank, Barré Lyndon, Theodore St. John, and Jack Gariss wrote The Greatest Show on Earth.
First, and most notably, the film has an actual narrator who guides you through the story at various times in the film. I didn’t find the narrator distracting, but I also didn’t find him useful. Without getting ahead of myself, the narrator, who was played by DeMille himself, mostly narrated things in the film that shouldn’t really have been in it. This movie had so much fluff that it was coughing up hairballs. The narrator was a nice touch, but it wasn’t necessary and could have been eliminated with some basic editing.
As for the rest of the dialogue, the actors used all the best quips and snappy comebacks that you’d expect out of a 1950s movie. But, it was not a great writing exposition. The movie felt like I wrote it, very blocky and uninteresting. 0.

Victor Young composed the music for The Greatest Show on Earth. Aside from everything else with this movie, I enjoyed the music in this film.

The score was very “1950s” if that makes any sense: it featured wide, sweeping scores by a large orchestra. As is the case with most movies of the time, there is little to no music during dialogue scenes and heavy music during the action sequences.
The score was the most prominent during the seemingly endless circus acts. But it was nice to have. The music was upbeat and chipper. It helped frame the tone of the movie as well as add a layer of happiness to the movie. 1.

Set Design
Of all the things that this movie didn’t do so well, the set and costume designs were exceptional.
For the set as a whole, this was a very large production with many, many, many moving parts. It was circus so the set included not only dozens of performers and extras in the audience, but also animals of all sorts from horses to elephants to lions. This took a ton of coordination from all parts and it was certainly not easy to control all aspects of the set.
The costumes really stole the show, though. Through the use of the bright and cheerful Technicolor, the flamboyant costumes fly off the screen. There’s no hiding the detail here; the fashion was impeccable. The trio of Edith Head, Dorothy Jeakins, and Miles Smith earned a nomination for Best Costume Design, Color, and it’s a shame they didn’t win. 1.

George Barnes was the Director of Photography for this picture. In short terms, the cinematography was just that: cinematography. And that’s not a good thing.

When it comes to Oscar-winning, or Oscar worthy movies, in general, I want the movie to be beautifully told from both a narrative side and a visual side. I don’t mind special effects, just make it pretty. I’m not an artist, but I expect cinemagraphic artists to be artsy. I don’t think that’s a crazy request. One thing that I have to keep in mind, though, is the age of the movies. For films like The Broadway Melody, I’m willing to let some things slide if the cinematography isn’t interesting. It was the first “talkie” to win Best Picture, after all. By the time 1952 comes around, I have higher expectations.
A movie about a circus has so much potential for creative filmmaking. But, no. This movie had little creative energy. Many of the shots of the circus acts were just shot from ground level on a simple tripod. Many of the shots had a lot of different things happening in them and they were hard to focus on.
Additionally, this film has a seemingly unlimited number of reaction shots. It feels like every member of the circus audience has their own singular reaction shot. These shots are valuable, sure, but not when too many of them are used. I was very disappointed by the cinematography in this movie. 0.

The Greatest Show on Earth received no acting nominations and I’m okay with that. This movie features a lot of different plots and character arcs, but it really revolves around two people: Brad Braden (Charlton Heston), and Holly (Betty Hutton).
Charlton Heston plays Braden, a no-nonsense circus boss who runs a tight ship during the grind of the circus. This is a man that has a lot on his plate, for sure, not to mention handling a rather lax policy on workplace romances. He’s involved with the lovely Holly, a bombshell of a trapeze performer.
Throughout the movie, Heston plays the typical tough guy Hollywood type that is stereotypical of the time. He never smiles, he tells his women to do things so he doesn’t have to hit them, and is a tough guy who never shows any emotion at all. I didn’t care for him.

Betty Hutton is oft bubbly Holly. At first glance, though, she seems like an airhead, only concerned about her next pursuit of a man. After Holly loses her chance to show in the center ring to Sebastian, she becomes very focused on taking her spot back. She tries more audacious stunts to take Sebastian’s thunder. Yet, she’s reckless and fails to look ahead to the greater consequences. It takes a man (Brad) to point those flaws out to her. Towards the end of the movie, she redeems herself by saving the circus. But her character was simple and a little one-dimensional. 0.

Well, as you can see, I didn’t really care for The Greatest Show on Earth. And, that’s okay. I knew that I would come across some that I wouldn’t like. It is interesting though, that both movies I’ve seen from the 1950s so far I didn’t like. This may reflect a sterilization of pop culture that I mentioned above. Movies reflect the climate of the period in which they’re made, regardless of the political situation at the time. The movies provide those of us that weren’t around at the time a great view of the way that society wanted to view itself at the time.
Cecil B. DeMille, a long-time Hollywood veteran, directed this large and grandiose attempt at a good movie. It was one of his last ones and it earned him a Best Director nomination. I’ve struggled with what to write about DeMille in this movie. I opened the post writing about the McCarthy-era witch hunts. In my mind, these were driven by a hyper fear of being taken over and annihilated by communism. And while I don’t agree with the McCarthy witch hunts, I am sympathetic to the idea.
DeMille capitulated to the wants of a government scared to death of communism and made a terrible, whitewashed movie.
It’s interesting to note, though, that this wasn’t the sentiment in 1952. The Greatest Show on Earth was one of the highest grossing movies that year. People needed to see the great spectacle of the circus. However, it hasn’t aged well and has been largely forgotten by Hollywood history. And that’s also, okay. It has big names like Charlton Heston and James Stewart, so it’s hard to relegate it to the dustbin. But I’m okay with that. 0.

Bonus Points
Final Score: 2/10

Oscar Notes
The Greatest Show on Earth won the 25th Academy Award for Best Picture on March 19, 1953 at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood and the NBC International Theatre in New York City. It beat out High Noon, Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge, and The Quiet Man. The award was presented by Mary Pickford. The Greatest Show on Earth received five nominations: Best Picture, Best Story, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Costume Design, Color. It won two: Best Picture and Best Story. It was the last Best Picture winner to win less than three Oscars for 64 years until Spotlight won in 2016.
Other winners that night included John Ford winning his fourth Best Director for The Quiet Man, Gary Cooper winning Best Actor for High Noon, Shirley Booth was the last actress born in the 19th century to win Best Actress for Come Back, Little Sheba, Anthony Quinn taking Best Supporting Actor for Viva Zapata, and Gloria Grahame winning Best Supporting Actress for The Bad and the Beautiful. This ceremony was the first of only three times in Oscar history that the top six awards went to six different films. The ceremony was hosted in Los Angeles by Bob Hope and in New York City by Conrad Nagel. This was the first Academy Awards show to be televised, and it was in two different cities (and it didn’t start until 10:30 pm) to accommodate several actors that had to perform on Broadway that night. High Noon and Moulin Rouge led the way with seven nominations each, and The Bad and the Beautiful won five Oscars, a record for a film not nominated for Best Picture.

Final Notes
Next week, I’ll take a look at Jonathan Demme’s chilling The Silence of the Lambs, the only horror movie to win Best Picture. After that, it’s The Life of Emile Zola, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, Gone with the Wind, How Green Was My Valley, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.


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