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The Greatest Show on Earth: Cecil B. DeMille’s penultimate film

Clowns terrified me as a child, but not so Jimmy Stewart’s “Buttons.”

The Greatest Show on Earth: Cornel Wilde, Betty Hutton, Charlton Heston and the greatest reveal on film!
The Greatest Show on Earth: Cornel Wilde, Betty Hutton, Charlton Heston and the greatest reveal on film!

Circus month continues! Those quick to peg Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth as the least deserving winner of a Best Picture Oscar must have been sick the week Chariots of Fire, Crash, and Forrest Gump played town.

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

This was to be Cecil B. DeMille's penultimate film. An exemplar of the studio system he helped to create, with dozens of features to his credit, DeMille had long since established himself as a master showman, schooled in the art of how to read a paying public. In pre-code times, he was known for devoting 95% of a film’s running time to sex and sin, only to pack enough salvation into the last 5% of the scenario to slip it past the censor board. But what’s racy about the circus, particularly one that’s run by an erotically indifferent Charlton Heston and stars in its center ring the spotless Betty Hutton — aka the human embodiment of the worst qualities of big mouth Martha Raye and professional virgin Doris Day combined? But get past that, and resist the urge to scan through the myriad of circus acts, and you’ll find an entertainment truly deserving of its title.

For years, DeMille traded in fantasy and spectacle. But somebody must have smuggled a print of Open City onto the Paramount backlot, because the “day in the life of a circus” footage he narrates throughout the film borders on neorealism. In addition, Hutton, Gloria Grahame, and Pepe Le Pew-accented Cornel Wilde performed many of their own stunts. “We bring you the circus!” begins the autocrat who saw God every time he looked in a mirror. A stalwart fascist, DeMille’s circus is a machine, “a primitive fighting force” moving forward in spite of impossible odds, and over which death constantly presides. Such a florid setup for a finished product that boasts more corn than a 5th of July bm. It was Heston’s second screen appearance and one of Hutton’s last; the promise of chemistry was never fulfilled, leaving one to wonder how much stronger a romance might have been struck up had Gloria Grahame and Hutton switched roles — although it’s doubtful the latter could pack a pipe with the same vivacity. And look quickly for that glorious moment when Gloria dismounts Jumbo, only to land foot-first in an elephant pie.

Brad Braden (Heston) is proficient in every aspect of the midway. He’s on a first-name basis with all of his employees, and can, should the occasion ever arise, perform an emergency tonsillectomy on a giraffe. The top brass is led by a genuine Ringling Bros. nephew (John Ringling North) who, when presented with the option of a lighter season to accommodate the changing times, agrees with Braden that skipping the boonies will have a detrimental effect on children. (No mention is made of the degree of animal cruelty that went into running a circus.) Suggesting that only a center ring superstar can save them, Braden employs the services of The Great Sebastian (Wilde). That means knocking headliner (and fickle Braden’s gal pal) Holly (Hutton) down a ring. Screw her, if it means bettering the show.

DeMille’s bleachers are populated by a veritable history of Hollywood. A pair of distinguished cartoon voice artists, Arthur Q. Bryan (Elmer Fudd) and Clarence Nash (Donald Duck) enjoy the show, as do Kathleen Freeman, Mona Freeman, Ross Bagdasarian (minus the Chipmunks), Hope & Crosby, Martin & Lewis, Daisy “Freaks” Earles, and Bess Flowers — a bit-player who had the distinction of appearing in the background of more movies than any other performer — to name but a few. And for those who love a local angle, be on the lookout for DeMille descendant and Del Mar CEO Joe Harper as “Little Boy Spectator.”

Clowns terrified me as a child, but not so Jimmy Stewart’s “Buttons.” Guilty of involuntary manslaughter, Buttons hides behind layers of greasepaint to conceal his secret identity. (The only time we see Stewart without his makeup is in a cutaway to what appears to be a headshot from Hitchcock’s Rope.) As a child, I felt enormous compassion for a character so afraid of letting his secret slip that he limited the time spent with his mother to a few seconds a year as he passed through the audience when the circus played her town. It takes a brilliant actor to allay my fears of scary men who hide behind sad-faced jesters. Once again, Stewart displays an uncanny ability to do no wrong.

Once upon a time in a special features section long, long forgotten, a colorist crowed over digitally scraping away enough emulsion to reveal Dorothy’s freckles in The Wizard of Oz. If David O. Selznick had wanted audiences to see freckles, they would have seen freckles. Dye-transfer Technicolor called for four rolls of film — one for each primary color, and a reel of black-and-white for contrast — to simultaneously pass through the camera and later be printed onto one 35mm strip. With all those layers of emulsion to film through, a few freckles had to be sacrificed for the overall good of the process. In the early ‘80s, I was fortunate to see a Sunday-morning revival of a pristine Technicolor print, the greens and purples of which could not be matched by even the greatest video transfer on earth. Once again, a digital sprucing reveals flaws not evident in the original theatrical prints.

And the winner of the most awkwardly-staged special effect in a feature goes to the scene between bad guys John Kellogg and Lawrence Tierney. DeMille positioned the actors before a rear screen projector, and proceeded to shoot the scene twice: once with the camera positioned four feet from the actors and again approximately 10 feet away. As if the intercutting of the two shows weren’t jarring enough, the image is so clean one can see the girders through Kellogg’s hat brim.

None of five best American films of 1952 — The Bad and the Beautiful, Singin’ in the Rain, The Marrying Kind, Bend of the River, and Rancho Notorious — made Oscar’s cut. Among the official selections, the inclusion of Ivanhoe makes one question the Academy’s sanity. The cutaways to the clock outperform Gary Cooper in High Noon, while the one Awards-worthy participant in Moulin Rouge, cinematographer Oswald Morris, was snubbed. And lover of John Ford that I am, the cult of The Quiet Man, with it’s reels of boozin’ and brawlin’ blarney, has yet to gain my membership. The Greatest Show on Earth is the closest I ever want to get to a circus. For once, Oscar was right!

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The Greatest Show on Earth: Cornel Wilde, Betty Hutton, Charlton Heston and the greatest reveal on film!
The Greatest Show on Earth: Cornel Wilde, Betty Hutton, Charlton Heston and the greatest reveal on film!

Circus month continues! Those quick to peg Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth as the least deserving winner of a Best Picture Oscar must have been sick the week Chariots of Fire, Crash, and Forrest Gump played town.

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

This was to be Cecil B. DeMille's penultimate film. An exemplar of the studio system he helped to create, with dozens of features to his credit, DeMille had long since established himself as a master showman, schooled in the art of how to read a paying public. In pre-code times, he was known for devoting 95% of a film’s running time to sex and sin, only to pack enough salvation into the last 5% of the scenario to slip it past the censor board. But what’s racy about the circus, particularly one that’s run by an erotically indifferent Charlton Heston and stars in its center ring the spotless Betty Hutton — aka the human embodiment of the worst qualities of big mouth Martha Raye and professional virgin Doris Day combined? But get past that, and resist the urge to scan through the myriad of circus acts, and you’ll find an entertainment truly deserving of its title.

For years, DeMille traded in fantasy and spectacle. But somebody must have smuggled a print of Open City onto the Paramount backlot, because the “day in the life of a circus” footage he narrates throughout the film borders on neorealism. In addition, Hutton, Gloria Grahame, and Pepe Le Pew-accented Cornel Wilde performed many of their own stunts. “We bring you the circus!” begins the autocrat who saw God every time he looked in a mirror. A stalwart fascist, DeMille’s circus is a machine, “a primitive fighting force” moving forward in spite of impossible odds, and over which death constantly presides. Such a florid setup for a finished product that boasts more corn than a 5th of July bm. It was Heston’s second screen appearance and one of Hutton’s last; the promise of chemistry was never fulfilled, leaving one to wonder how much stronger a romance might have been struck up had Gloria Grahame and Hutton switched roles — although it’s doubtful the latter could pack a pipe with the same vivacity. And look quickly for that glorious moment when Gloria dismounts Jumbo, only to land foot-first in an elephant pie.

Brad Braden (Heston) is proficient in every aspect of the midway. He’s on a first-name basis with all of his employees, and can, should the occasion ever arise, perform an emergency tonsillectomy on a giraffe. The top brass is led by a genuine Ringling Bros. nephew (John Ringling North) who, when presented with the option of a lighter season to accommodate the changing times, agrees with Braden that skipping the boonies will have a detrimental effect on children. (No mention is made of the degree of animal cruelty that went into running a circus.) Suggesting that only a center ring superstar can save them, Braden employs the services of The Great Sebastian (Wilde). That means knocking headliner (and fickle Braden’s gal pal) Holly (Hutton) down a ring. Screw her, if it means bettering the show.

DeMille’s bleachers are populated by a veritable history of Hollywood. A pair of distinguished cartoon voice artists, Arthur Q. Bryan (Elmer Fudd) and Clarence Nash (Donald Duck) enjoy the show, as do Kathleen Freeman, Mona Freeman, Ross Bagdasarian (minus the Chipmunks), Hope & Crosby, Martin & Lewis, Daisy “Freaks” Earles, and Bess Flowers — a bit-player who had the distinction of appearing in the background of more movies than any other performer — to name but a few. And for those who love a local angle, be on the lookout for DeMille descendant and Del Mar CEO Joe Harper as “Little Boy Spectator.”

Clowns terrified me as a child, but not so Jimmy Stewart’s “Buttons.” Guilty of involuntary manslaughter, Buttons hides behind layers of greasepaint to conceal his secret identity. (The only time we see Stewart without his makeup is in a cutaway to what appears to be a headshot from Hitchcock’s Rope.) As a child, I felt enormous compassion for a character so afraid of letting his secret slip that he limited the time spent with his mother to a few seconds a year as he passed through the audience when the circus played her town. It takes a brilliant actor to allay my fears of scary men who hide behind sad-faced jesters. Once again, Stewart displays an uncanny ability to do no wrong.

Once upon a time in a special features section long, long forgotten, a colorist crowed over digitally scraping away enough emulsion to reveal Dorothy’s freckles in The Wizard of Oz. If David O. Selznick had wanted audiences to see freckles, they would have seen freckles. Dye-transfer Technicolor called for four rolls of film — one for each primary color, and a reel of black-and-white for contrast — to simultaneously pass through the camera and later be printed onto one 35mm strip. With all those layers of emulsion to film through, a few freckles had to be sacrificed for the overall good of the process. In the early ‘80s, I was fortunate to see a Sunday-morning revival of a pristine Technicolor print, the greens and purples of which could not be matched by even the greatest video transfer on earth. Once again, a digital sprucing reveals flaws not evident in the original theatrical prints.

And the winner of the most awkwardly-staged special effect in a feature goes to the scene between bad guys John Kellogg and Lawrence Tierney. DeMille positioned the actors before a rear screen projector, and proceeded to shoot the scene twice: once with the camera positioned four feet from the actors and again approximately 10 feet away. As if the intercutting of the two shows weren’t jarring enough, the image is so clean one can see the girders through Kellogg’s hat brim.

None of five best American films of 1952 — The Bad and the Beautiful, Singin’ in the Rain, The Marrying Kind, Bend of the River, and Rancho Notorious — made Oscar’s cut. Among the official selections, the inclusion of Ivanhoe makes one question the Academy’s sanity. The cutaways to the clock outperform Gary Cooper in High Noon, while the one Awards-worthy participant in Moulin Rouge, cinematographer Oswald Morris, was snubbed. And lover of John Ford that I am, the cult of The Quiet Man, with it’s reels of boozin’ and brawlin’ blarney, has yet to gain my membership. The Greatest Show on Earth is the closest I ever want to get to a circus. For once, Oscar was right!

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