One of the last Best Picture winners to make its Blu-ray debut, The Greatest Show on Earth might not deserve its Oscar laurels, but director Cecil B. DeMille's grandiose behind-the scenes look at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has wowed audiences for decades. Packed with pageantry, melodrama, romance, thrills, and especially hokum, this bloated epic knocks itself out trying to entertain, and largely succeeds. A brand new 4K restoration yields spectacular color and wonderful clarity, but too much print damage mars an otherwise impressive presentation. The paucity of extras is also disappointing, but it's wonderful to see this noteworthy DeMille movie finally get a Blu-ray release. Though The Greatest Show on Earth is far from the greatest film on Earth, it's still worth a spin every now and then. Recommended.
The phrase "the greatest showman" evokes images of a singing Hugh Jackman today, but seven decades ago the lofty title belonged to producer-director extraordinaire Cecil B. DeMille. Known for mammoth Biblical spectacles like The Ten Commandments, The Sign of the Cross, and Samson and Delilah and epic historical sagas like Union Pacific, Reap the Wild Wind, and Unconquered, DeMille dazzled audiences with larger-than-life fare packed with thrills, pageantry, and literal casts of thousands. So when The Greatest Showman announced he would salute The Greatest Show on Earth - otherwise known as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus - it seemed like a perfect fit.
And it was. Cinema's most audacious ringmaster pulls out all the stops for this blockbuster behind-the-scenes saga, and though from an entertainment standpoint The Greatest Show on Earth doesn't quite live up to its moniker, it's still something to see. DeMille's penultimate picture paints a reverent portrait of the venerable circus that captivated legions of loyal fans for more than a century before it shut down for good in 2017. It's demise marked the end of an era, and because it no longer exists, a wistful nostalgic air swirls about this colossal production that makes it more endearing and helps us forgive its myriad faults. Some have dubbed The Greatest Show on Earth one of the least deserving Best Picture Oscar winners of all time (more on that below), but after watching it recently for the first time in many years, I must grudgingly admit that despite its excessive length, shameless overacting, and meandering, melodramatic screenplay, the film evokes the fervent spirit of the circus, captures the sense of child-like wonder it inspires, and keeps us engrossed throughout most of its 152-minute running time.
Produced with the full cooperation of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (thanks to a $250,000 payment) - and employing many of its staff, performers, and animals - The Greatest Show on Earth brims with authenticity. DeMille wisely adopts a semi-documentary style that allows us to witness the inner workings of this massive organization and the Herculean effort required to transport, mount, and disassemble such a lavish extravaganza. He also depicts the mesmerized, popcorn-chomping patrons, a few of whom are Hollywood stars (look for Bing Crosby and Bob Hope enraptured by their Road films co-star Dorothy Lamour as she performs a song), and provides more than a taste of many of the thrilling and garish acts that perform in the iconic three rings under the gargantuan Big Top tent.
The original story won an Oscar, too, but it's far less interesting than the real-life footage. When general manager Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) learns the front office plans to severely shorten the circus season due to economic risks, he makes a passionate plea for reconsideration. Brad promotes the idea of hiring top-flight French trapeze artist The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) to boost ticket sales, but that means bumping his aerialist girlfriend Holly (Betty Hutton) out of the coveted center ring. The decision devastates Holly, who's also tired of playing second fiddle to Brad's all-consuming job.
Holly accepts her demotion, but vows to steer attention away from Sebastian during the shows, inciting a rivalry that inspires both divas to attempt more dangerous stunts, much to Brad's horror and chagrin. Sebastian's former flames, Angel (Gloria Grahame) and Phyllis (Lamour), supply additional friction, and there's some mystery surrounding the troupe's primary clown Buttons (James Stewart), who strangely never takes off his makeup. As the tale progresses, romantic entanglements, raging jealousies, and festering resentments all come to a head and threaten not only the principals, but also the entire circus infrastructure.
Ringling Bros. hoped DeMille's film would restore the reputation of its circus following the devastating Big Top fire that killed at least 167 people in Hartford, Connecticut in 1944. How much The Greatest Show on Earth helped in that regard I can't definitively say, but the movie raked in a whopping $12.8 million (an astounding sum in 1952), making it not only the year's highest-grossing movie but also the most successful Paramount Pictures production to date. (While 2017's The Greatest Showman dramatizes the horrific fire, its wounds and notoriety were too fresh for DeMille to depict it, so The Greatest Show on Earth substitutes a massive circus train wreck instead. The sequence remains a technical marvel and shows the heroics and resilience of the circus personnel, who adopt an inspiring "the-show-must-go-on" attitude despite the destruction, injury, and mayhem.)
To make the movie more realistic, DeMille demanded his cast become proficient at the various disciplines they'd be performing. The decision required months of preparation prior to shooting, but pays big dividends on screen. Though doubles are used for the most treacherous tricks, Hutton, Wilde, Grahame, and others execute many of their own stunts. Hutton's trapeze work especially impresses and Wilde had to overcome a crippling fear of heights to perform his aerial work, which was somewhat modified to accommodate his acrophobia. Grahame looks incredibly comfortable coiled in an elephant's trunk and remains cool as a cucumber when she's forced to lie just an inch or two beneath one of the animal's raised legs for a few tense seconds (see photo below).
Heston had only appeared in one minor Hollywood film (the 1950 noir Dark City) when DeMille plucked him off the Paramount lot and cast him as the macho Brad. Clad in a leather jacket and wearing a brown fedora hat during most of the film, Heston personifies cool a year before Brando would take it to the next level in The Wild One. Sure, Heston hams it up at times, but the 28-year-old actor proves he can carry a big-budget movie...a talent that would come in handy a few years later when he played Moses in The Ten Commandments and the title role in the film that would win him a Best Actor Oscar, Ben-Hur.
In many of her movies, the brash and brassy Hutton often can be annoying (okay, insufferable), but DeMille manages to tone her down and keep her in check most of the time. The hunky Wilde, who spends much of the film bare-chested, flexes his pecs and flashes his movie-star smile with equal enthusiasm and regularity, and Lamour adds some sass in a wisecracking role that reportedly was slated for Lucille Ball. Grahame supplies smoldering sex appeal (rarely has she been photographed more beautifully), and though her part isn't particularly taxing, her work in The Greatest Show on Earth - as well as in the Joan Crawford thriller Sudden Fear - would help tip the scales in her favor at that year's Academy Awards ceremony, where she was honored with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her brief but effective turn as Dick Powell's neglected wife in The Bad and the Beautiful.
Stewart's tender performance should have nabbed an Oscar nod, but most likely his lofty star stature kept him out of the "lowly" supporting category. Nevertheless, Buttons is the heart and soul of the film and Stewart radiates warmth as the bright clown with a dark secret. His scene with Buttons' mother (memorably played by Lillian Albertson) is a real tearjerker, and Stewart strikes the perfect tone as he crafts one of the movie's most memorable moments.
Though at the time few batted an eye when The Greatest Show on Earth beat High Noon in the Best Picture category, as the years passed and director Fred Zinnemann's subversive western grew in stature, many decried the Academy's choice, citing a distinct political bias. DeMille was not only a long-time industry insider and Hollywood pioneer who was long overdue for some sort of Oscar recognition, he was also a staunch anti-Communist who reportedly outed some of his colleagues during Senator Joseph McCarthy's reign of terror. It's been theorized the Academy made the safe choice of honoring DeMille and The Greatest Show on Earth rather than make waves by celebrating High Noon, which paints a thinly veiled portrait of the betrayal, isolation, fear, and paranoia that characterize the McCarthy era. Whether any of that is true remains open for debate, but it's an interesting perspective, especially when one considers the kitschy nature of The Greatest Show on Earth when compared with the intelligence and gravitas that define High Noon. On the flip side, it's important to note The Greatest Show on Earth represents the type of big-budget, popular, epic fare the Academy typically loves, and Zinnemann - not DeMille - took home the award for Best Director.
Love him or hate him, DeMille was a driving creative force during Hollywood's formative years and beyond, as well as a disciple of the bigger-is-better school of moviemaking. The Greatest Show on Earth stands as a prime example of his style, vision, and - most of all - showmanship, and as one of the last remaining Best Picture winners to see a Blu-ray release, it's high time this high-flying blockbuster received the high definition treatment it has long deserved. The Greatest Show on Earth may not stand as DeMille's greatest film, but it's quite a show and a glowing salute to what sadly has become a bygone art form.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Greatest Show on Earth at long last arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a clear case inside a fold-out sleeve that reveals a reproduction of the movie's poster art. A leaflet containing a digital copy code is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Paramount heralds this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer as "newly restored from a 4K scan of the original negative," and the lush, vibrant color, exceptional clarity and contrast, and glorious film-like appearance reflect the care that went into it, but if you're going to restore an almost 70-year-old classic, you need to go the whole nine yards. And just when it seems Paramount is poised to score a touchdown with this long-awaited Blu-ray release, the studio fumbles the ball. A true restoration not only yields a sharp, balanced picture that bursts with brilliant hues, it also boasts an image that's free of any age-related wear-and-tear.
Sadly, it seems no attempt was made to erase the speckling, faint scratches, and sporadic blotches that continually mar this otherwise stellar presentation. From the first scene onward, very noticeable imperfections plague the picture. The offending marks and scratches vary in intensity, but rarely vanish completely, and that's a big disappointment, especially when you compare The Greatest Show on Earth to all the antiseptically clean, all-around fantastic Golden Age transfers Warner Archive has been churning out lately. To quote Claude Rains in Casablanca, I was shocked - shocked! - to see reel change markers in the screen's upper right corner every so often. Really, Paramount? Reel change markers? I haven't seen those ugly blemishes in a classic movie Blu-ray transfer from any studio for years and years! Paramount's spectacular makeover of DeMille's The Ten Commandments is absolutely spotless, so why the studio didn't go the extra mile to fashion a pristine image for The Greatest Show on Earth boggles the mind.
Just like The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Show on Earth contains plenty of processed shots that superimpose the actors over an array of backdrops. Paramount worked hard to smooth out the visible borders outlining the actors in The Ten Commandments, but no attempts have been made to soften or mitigate the green and black lines hugging the actors' frames in The Greatest Show on Earth. Some shots feature more noticeable lines than others, but the overall effect can be quite jarring. There's also some distracting green noise around Hutton's hair during the scene when she chats with Buttons early in the film.
All that aside, the rest of the transfer elements are impressive. Faint grain preserves the feel of celluloid, superior contrast enhances depth levels, and oh that Technicolor! Bold reds grab attention, Grahame's green velvet dress looks sumptuously rich, the purple capes pop, and all the rainbow hues in between are gorgeously defined. Flesh tones are spot-on, blacks are deep, bright whites remain stable, and excellent shadow delineation keeps crush at bay. The close-ups of Hutton and Grahame showcase their fresh-faced beauty, while those of Heston and Wilde highlight their rugged complexions. A couple of exterior scenes appear a bit overexposed and some shots look either soft or slightly fuzzy, but that's to be expected from a film of this vintage that relies so heavily on special effects.
It's just a shame Paramount didn't deem the source material worthy of a meticulous cleaning. Whether The Greatest Show on Earth deserved its Best Picture Oscar or not, the film nevertheless won the coveted award, and that distinction alone should merit the extra care and expense necessary to make this presentation perfect and preserve this classic motion picture for future generations. We can only hope a 4K UHD edition of The Greatest Show on Earth will come down the pike in the next few years, so Paramount can right these glaring wrongs.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated sound that immerses us in the circus atmosphere. Excellent fidelity brings Victor Young's vibrant score to life, and a wide dynamic scale handles all of its highs and lows without a hint of distortion. The train wreck sequence is especially impressive, with booming bass combining with high-pitched screeches to create a thrilling sonic cacophony. The snarls, roars, and squeals of the animals are crisp, all the human dialogue is easy to comprehend, and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle intrude. While a multi-channel mix would really put us in the thick of the action, this potent 2.0 mono track more than suffices.
The only extra on the disc is a new eight-minute featurette presented in high definition. "Filmmaker Focus: Leonard Maltin on The Greatest Show on Earth" is a breezy, entertaining look at the making of DeMille's classic that includes info on casting, production, stunts, and the technical wizardry that produced the famous train wreck sequence. In his inimitable style, Maltin also praises the actors, lauds the spectacle, and shares some fun behind-the-scenes anecdotes and trivia.
Did it deserve the Best Picture Oscar? I'll take High Noon, thank you, but after seeing The Greatest Show on Earth for the first time in a couple of decades, I can't deny its kitschy appeal. Cecil B. DeMille's loving, lengthy, and oh-so-grandiose ode to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus fittingly honors its aerialists, clowns, animal acts, and pageantry, but the melodramatic story and hammy performances drag the movie down. A lovely remastered transfer is marred by a lack of cleanup and extras are slim, but such faults can't diminish the entertainment quotient of this garish and bombastic picture. Love it or hate it, The Greatest Show on Earth is another example of the showmanship that defines DeMille, and for that reason (and a few others) every movie fan should see it at least once. Recommended.