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On Jan. 10, 1952, Paramount’s 151-minute circus extravaganza The Greatest Show on Earth held its world premiere at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The film went on to win two Oscars at the 25th Academy Awards, including best picture. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
In his narrative to The Greatest Show on Earth, Cecil B. DeMille calls the circus a great magician, leading children from six to 60 across the border of reality into a tinsel and spun-candy world of beauty, laughter and thrills. It is a mysterious and wonderful land as anyone knows who has brushed the sawdust from his shoes, smelled the dank air of the menagerie, cried with laughter at the clowns, sat breathless while the aerialists whirled their deeds of daring on the high trapeze. Artists, writers, musicians, dramatists — all have succumbed to the surging inspiration of the Big Top, and if the film art appears belatedly to have discovered it, the reason is as plain as the red, putty-nose on Jimmy Stewart’s face. Hollywood and “the children of the world” have been awaiting the pleasure of the one wizard capable of conjuring the singular magic of the circus — Cecil B. DeMille.
With the aplomb of a modern Mesmer, DeMille forges The Greatest Show on Earth into a fabulous entertainment experience — a big, seething SHOW, spectacular, exciting, colorful. It is a mighty pageant set against the fascinating panorama of billowing canvas, sawdust, bright-red wagons, calliopes and people who live the life of circus mummers because to them there is no other. Into his huge dramatic tapestry DeMille weaves the busy disorder that is in reality incredible efficiency, the constant movement of the circus, the human dramas of the troupers. Dazzling in its brilliance it moves along with the speed of a pin-wheel caught in a high wind so that DeMille’s train wreck, the most sensational ever filmed, is just an incident in the sprawling display. Tragedy, comedy, adventure and action ride hand in hand along the rails of the circus train. As blended in this celluloid extravaganza they form a film attraction that, in every respect, is the measure of its title — a great show, a great box office attraction.
The fight to keep the circus rolling is the story of The Greatest Show on Earth, the day-by-day odyssey of the massive machinery moving from city to city, battling the elements, time, the foibles of human beings to preserve the purpose of its creation, the performance. Here, under the Big Top, we meet the circus troupers, the manager with a consuming passion for the show, the girl who throws herself into a death-defying battle of skill on the high trapeze for the glory of the center ring, the brutal elephant trainer jealous of his pretty partner, the murderer who masks his flight from the law behind the chalk of a clown’s makeup, the lady of the iron jaw who miraculously escapes from a train wreck and promptly inspects her molars. Like their story, these circus folk are exaggerated at times. Like their story, they’re wonderful. And one of a mind to quibble about a few distortions and liberties in the name of dramatic license doesn’t deserve the fun of enjoying The Greatest Show on Earth.
DeMille casts his drama with characteristic impeccability, and for the all-star cast each part is the role of a lifetime. As the aerialist who eats out her heart to become a headliner, Betty Hutton has a role cut to the amazing energy of her personality. Enthusiasm and vitality surge through her make-believe, highlighted by an extraordinary mastery of the “flying” art. This Hutton gal is too good to be true. Cornel Wilde is handsomely romantic as the foreign star whose competition with Betty for the spotlight leads to a tragic fall in which he loses the use of an arm. The circus manager is played with enormous vigor and credibility by Charlton Heston. And Dorothy Lamour’s iron-jawed girl is out and out sensational. Like the girls of the circus, Dotty does just about everything from posing on the floats to working in the ensembles and rendering her own specialty, the hula in the undulating fashion uniquely her own. Gloria Grahame is the elephant girl, pretty and wise in her handling of the opposite sex. Lyle Bettger’s snarling elephant trainer, jealous and revengeful, carries impact. James Stewart, fulfilling every actor’s ambition of playing a clown just once, is superb, giving a loveable, real, sincere portrayal of the doctor who hides out in the circus. To save Heston’s life after the train wreck he displays his medical skill, reveals his true identity to the detective who has been stalking the show. And Emmett Kelly is himself, a rarely gifted clown. Lawrence Tierney figures splendidly as a grifter. Others who stand out are John Kellogg, John Ridgely, Frank Wilcox, Bob Carson, Lillian Albertson and Julia Faye. Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Bob Crosby are a few surprises in the audience sequences, Edmond O’Brien, another guest, neatly fills the fadeout bill with a quick spiel as a circus ballyhooer.
From Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey circus come the sawdust stars to recreate the routines they play twice daily under the Big Top — artists like Cucciola, the midget rider; the Zoppes; Harold Alzana, who climbs an almost vertical wire; Lou Jacobs and his midget car; sad-faced Otto Griebling, Rix’s Bears and the Maxellos.
As a technical tour de force, The Greatest Show on Earth defies description. Henry Wilcoxon’s credit as associate producer, a job performed with his customary meticulousness, is implemented by his splendid playing of the detective who shadows Stewart. George Barnes, like the painters who for years have set up their easels on the circus grounds, photographs The Greatest Show on Earth with the affection of a man frankly in love with his subject. There’s one wonderful shot of the circus tent billowing up into the shadowy sky, a highlight of a superlative job. Additional camerawork by J. Peverell Marley and Wallace Kelley rounds out this considerable achievement. The Technicolor consultation of Robert Brower, the unit direction of Arthur Rosson, and the special effects of Gordon Jennings, Paul Lerpae and Devereaux Jennings are expertly fashioned. Miles White’s circus costumes and the gowns of Edith Head and Dorothy Jeakins are visualized with an eye for color and visual appeal. The enormously satisfying art direction is by Hal Pereira and Walter Tyler; the fascinating set decorations by Sam Comer and Ray Moyer. Richard Barstow’s choreography, true to the circus tradition of emphasizing spectacle, is splendid. Victor Young, Ned Washington, John Ringling North, E. Ray Goetz, Henry Sullivan and John Murray Anderson are credited with the lilting songs that play parts in the performance, and Victor Young’s musical direction is accomplished with his usual deft hand. Anne Bauchens’ editing, an enormous task, is accomplished with her unerring capacity for projecting DeMille at his very best.
And in the long roster of credits stands the notation, “produced with the cooperation of Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Circus.” To America, this means the peak of circus entertainment, a show that has become a part of the country’s history. Without its traditions, experience, its personnel, The Greatest Show on Earth might not have been possible, certainly never on the scale achieved.
No merger in the theatrical world has ever come off more stunningly than this meeting of two giants of entertainment — the Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Circus and Cecil B. DeMille. — David Hanna, originally published on Jan. 2, 1952
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