The Weekly Watch: A Big-Tent Party!
Step right up, ladies and gentlemen: It's The Greatest Show on Earth (not to be confused with The Greatest Showman).
It will not come as news to fellow parents that our kids don’t like The Greatest Showman—they LOVE it. They saw it in theaters, watch it repeatedly at home, stream the musical numbers and outtakes on YouTube (the clip of Jackman and co. rehearsing “This Is Me” is guaranteed goosebumps), and have celebrated at least one birthday with a sing-along screening. If your children also fall into this category, The Bigger Picture has a treat for all of you.
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952, Prime Video) is a three-ring epic that follows a love triangle between circus general manager Brad (a smokin’ young Charlton Heston), trapeze artist Holly (pre-Annie Get Your Gun Betty Hutton), and global trapeze celebrity The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) as they gut through a season of the world’s largest railroad circus. For all its countless feathers, sequins, and acrobatics, this is not a musical or a comedy—in fact, it’s a capital-d drama—but it is a spectacle and an incredible example of the ambition and literal muscle that went into massive-scale moviemaking before CGI was even a twinkle in Hollywood’s eye. There’s just so much to look at, with extras and props and animals in the thousands. The tent-pitching scene alone is breathtaking, and every one of the voiced-over transition sequences are sensory extravaganzas. (“Where death is constantly watching…for one frayed rope! One weak link! One trace of fear!”).
Heston isn’t the only giant star who’s joined the circus: Jimmy Stewart is here, too, but if it weren’t for his voice you might miss him. As Buttons, a beloved but mysterious clown, he spends the entire picture in smiling, full-face makeup. By 1952, Stewart was very much one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, so it was perceived as a clever and confident move to keep his mug under wraps. The resulting storyline is the movie’s most compelling, but it may go over kids’ heads.
Given that The Greatest Show on Earth was made in the early ’50s by Cecil B. DeMille, you also won’t be shocked to hear that it sometimes stumbles into objectionable territory. A big-top parade resembles Disney’s A Small World ride from the following decade—but with real people. And of course there’s the circus’s supporting cast, from the fat boy to the bearded lady. Thankfully, the film does not delve into the lives of its many animal characters.
While we’re disclaiming: This movie won Best Picture—and is also considered one of the least deserving winners ever. (It beat The Quiet Man and High Noon, and Singin’ in the Rain wasn’t even nominated!) Rotten Tomatoes sums it up as “melodramatic, short on plot, excessively lengthy, and bogged down with cliches.” To which I say: That’s kind of the point! This is a movie about the spectacle of a traveling circus and the emotional lives of the hardworking performers who make it sparkle.
The Greatest Show on Earth runs a good two and a half hours, and like so many epics of this era the first hour and a half packs most of its best action. This is not a movie that you should force the family to grind through to the end (though our elementary-age daughter didn’t want to miss a minute). Once you’ve extracted your fill of glittering entertainments, it’s lights out.