Thursday, July 2, 2015

Audient Auscars: The Greatest Show on Earth

This is the sixth in my 2015 monthly series catching up with all the best picture Oscar winners that I have yet to see, in chronological order.

You'd think from subject matter alone, The Greatest Show on Earth would be one of the most marginal best picture winners of all time. Either that, or from the fact that people often call the 1952 best picture winner the worst best picture winner of all time.

So you can imagine my surprise when I was, well, surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

In fact, it probably qualifies as the biggest surprise of the six films I've seen so far this year, probably bigger even than Cimarron, because I came in more certain it would be bad than certain that Cimarron would be bad.

You wouldn't think that a movie about the circus would even warrant consideration as best picture. You wouldn't think that a movie that devotes a good quarter of its running time to filler unrelated to the plot would be in line for such accolades, either. But Hollywood has always recognized a good spectacle when it sees one, and The Greatest Show on Earth was as good a spectacle as was around at that time. And that isn't limited only to the circus acts, some of which are dazzling. That also includes a surprise third-act train wreck that tested the limits of what 1952 could depict.

What's more, the movie seems to use the circus as a metaphor for the process of making movies, which is probably as apt a metaphor as any. If that's the case, Charlton Heston is Cecil B. De Mille's stand-in, functioning as director and producer rolled into one -- which De Mille himself actually was on many of his movies, including this one. (He's also the narrator, a fact I didn't realize until I just now looked it up.)

And then there's the fact that this movie also functions as a 150-minute advertisement for The Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, making it one of the most crass intersections of art and commerce ever to have been so lauded.

We should probably get to some plot by this point, shouldn't we?

Heston is indeed the general manager of the very real circus being depicted in this film, which is in fact still going strong to this day. His Brad Braden is the driven, business-oriented force that keeps everything on track, knowing a little (or a lot) about everything that's going on in the three rings, and how best to translate all those disparate elements into the most ticket sales. He's currently in a fight with owners to give his performers a full eight-month season, when the bean counters have observed the changing times and tastes of audiences and advised a mere 10-week season. As he often does, Brad has a trick up his sleeve -- he's contracted the hottest trapeze artist in the business, The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), who is known as a guaranteed draw. The bosses recognize the coup Brad has scored, but soon realize that Sebastian will only work for a full season's worth of work. He'll also only work in the center ring -- a problem for Brad's girlfriend, Holly (Betty Hutton), who had been expecting to hold down that ring this season. Holly reacts to the news as expected, but finds her perspective toward the new star, an arrogant ladies man, complicated by the undeniable bond they share as trapeze artists, and the playful one-upsmanship during performances that grows both dangerous (they're taking too many risks) and romantic (he's wooing her, and succeeding). Brad also has his hands full with shysters running corrupt carnival games, a jealous elephant trainer (Lyle Bettger) who may be a threat to the elephant performer he loves (Gloria Grahame), and a clown named Buttons (James Stewart), who's on the run from the law.

When I heard that The Greatest Show on Earth featured Jimmy Stewart as a clown named Buttons, I imagined the movie must be some kind of variety hour rather than a real narrative, something George Burns or Milton Berle might have been involved with. When I started to figure out that Buttons wasn't just a jokey cameo, but rather the disguise persona of a doctor on the run for mercy killing his sick wife, I decided the movie was up to something more interesting than I ever would have guessed. It represents one of many of those narratives you always hear about circuses inserted into this movie. "I'll run off and join the circus," people say when their troubles get too great to bear. Buttons did just that, and to maintain his disguise, he is never seen without his makeup. A canny choice by Stewart to cover his very famous face, somewhat akin to the one made years later by Michael Fassbender when he donned the papier mache head in Frank.

In fact, even with scads of time devoted to frivolous circus acts -- to such an extent that this movie sometimes follows Busby Berkeley's notion of giving over the narrative to pure performance for performance's sake -- The Greatest Show on Earth is far more serious than you would initially expect. It takes itself pretty seriously, at any rate, and the most obvious example of this its News on the March-style interstitials throughout the movie. As mentioned earlier, De Mille himself narrates these, and they are full of bromides and platitudes about the day-to-day life of the circus. They are paeans to the raising of the bigtop and its nightly striking, as though there were no nobler or more poetic pursuit than to move a circus in and out of town. You'd be inclined to laugh if De Mille's narration weren't so earnest and crafted with such linguistic love.

So yeah, this movie could have been cut down from 150 to 100 minutes for all the plot it actually contains, but I suppose something would be lost in terms of atmosphere. And the plot it does contain is pretty engaging with a surprising amount of nuance. If you always think you know where it's going to go, you'll be wrong. Take Sebastian, for example. He seems like he should be a stock character -- the egotistical Cassanova who gets his comeuppance, only made all the more loathsome by being French. However, some of the things that happen to him, and how he reacts to them, entirely reframe his character into someone surprisingly sympathetic. If this movie only wanted us to be in awe of the circus and those who put it together, it didn't need to add layers of complexity to what might have been a one-note antagonist.

The Greatest Show on Earth is definitely amateurish at times. Some of the actors yell their lines like they are on a stage instead of in front of a camera. I noticed a couple serious editing gaffes as well. Still, this is far more than I would have ever expected from this movie, and it gets me more interested in some of De Mille's other classics that I haven't yet seen, like The Ten Commandments.

Will I also be surprised by the best picture winner that I have always most associated with The Greatest Show on Earth, in terms of sheer frivolity, which actually beat The Ten Commandments for the 1956 Oscar? We'll find out in July when I watch Around the World in 80 Days.


Jandy said...

I quite like The Greatest Show on Earth. As a spectacle, which is what it's meant to be, it's a lot of fun. It's a film that's actually been HURT by winning Best Picture, I think.

Derek Armstrong said...

Totally agree, Jandy. I actually gave it 4 stars initially on Letterboxd, but then changed my rating to 3.5 because I thought "How can I give one of the most maligned best picture winners of all time 4 stars?" Reason #532 why star ratings are limiting.