The Greatest Show on Earth is great spectacle, but it’s little more than exhibition. It’s one of the least deserving Best Picture winners of all time. In fact, The Greatest Show on Earth has a 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. Director Cecil B. DeMille was one of the finest Hollywood filmmakers, but this is not the film he should’ve won for. Especially not when his competition was the critically acclaimed High Noon and the classic Singin’ in the Rain. The latter wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture! There are probably many reasons why The Greatest Show on Earth won. The controversial blacklist is very plausible, but I’m pretty sure it was just a legacy award for DeMille. Plus the fact that The Greatest Show on Earth was a grand production filmed in technicolor and filled with music and merriment. After the success of An American in Paris, audiences seemed to want more stories like this.
The Greatest Show on Earth won a record low 2 Academy Awards. It didn’t really deserve Best Story either, since the movie barely has a plot. The Greatest Show on Earth is more like a documentary for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The legendary big top circus is explored in full detail with meticulous narration by DeMille himself. At least they know how to put on a good show, even if it is almost 3 hours long. Many of the acts were from the actual circus, but most of the cast had to learn their part. There are trapeze artists, clowns, acrobats, jugglers, trained elephants, lion tamers, singers, and so much more! Shows go on for some time, but they are the most entertaining part of the movie. The only semblance of a plot involves lots of backstage melodrama.
Before The Ten Commandments, Charlton Heston was the brash fedora wearing circus manager Brad Braden. Betty Hutton actually learned the trapeze for her part as Holly. She has a frustrating arc where she can’t choose between Brad and her creepy new trapeze partner The Great Sebastian. Cornel Wilde didn’t take to the trapeze as well, but you can hardly tell on screen. Gloria Grahame is also caught in the middle of the love triangle as spunky elephant trainer Angel. The most interesting character is the wise, mysterious Buttons the Clown played by James Stewart exclusively wearing clown makeup. The only real drama happens near the end when the circus train has a spectacular crash. Aside from that, The Greatest Show on Earth fails to live up to its title.