To modern audiences, ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ is mainly known for being widely regarded as the worst film to win the academy award for Best Picture. In my countdown of ranking the best pictures, ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ is firmly in the section of films with good qualities that I do not consider great works of art, but that are infinitely better than ‘Forrest Gump’.
‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ is a film set in the circus. Charlton Heston in his first major role plays the circus master (Brad Bradon) whose girlfriend Holly (Betty Hutton) is the star trapeze artist. In order to ensure that the circus is profitable, Bradon is forced to employ The Great Sebastian to be the star trapeze act. This, understandably, does not impress Holly and the two trapeze artists try to outclass each other in the ring; on ground Sebastian tries to seduce her. The plot is uncomplicated, but entertaining, as the relationship between the three main characters shifts over the course of the film, and the acting is fine, without being spectacular.
As well as telling the above story, the film also does its best to give an insight into the life of the circus. De Mille used real circus performers in order to gain an insight into life in the big top, and also enabled his to include some fantastic photography of the performances. Unfortunately, this is probably the reason for the film’s poor reputation. If the film had focused on the story between the main characters, it could have been developed further and become much more emotionally complex. If the film had focused on the circus elements it could have potentially become a beautifully shot art classic. As it stands, it becomes a slightly overlong mix of the two, which makes for shaky, if admittedly sometimes entertaining, viewing.
By far the best performance of the film comes from Jimmy Stewart. It is incredible to think that of all the classic Jimmy Stewart films made, the only two to feature on the list are this film and the little watched (nowadays) ‘You Can’t Take It With You’. He plays a clown with a dark secret who never takes his make up off, and is as brilliant in this role as all his other performances, even if it is a surprisingly role for him to have taken. His input to the story at the end of the film is a perfect example of how justice was carried out in Hollywood during this period.
One of the other reasons for this film to be poorly regarded is that it was released in 1952, a strong year generally for film. It was nominated for best picture against ‘High Noon’ and ‘The Quiet Man’ and ‘Viva Zapata!’, ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ and most importantly ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ were all released in the same year as well.
In short, ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ is not a perfect film by any means. It tries to be too many things, and fails in several areas. Having said that, it is an entertaining watch and should be enjoyed for its cinematography and Jimmy Stewart’s performance, and even for the simple love triangle story. It is not the greatest Best Picture winner ever, but I could not ever agree that it is the worst.