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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

The Greatest Show on Earth (review)

He Is the Circus

It’s got baby gorillas, dogs riding horses, and Jimmy Stewart as a clown. Man, The Greatest Show on Earth is one fun flick.

Ever want to run away and join the circus? Here’s your chance. This behind-the-scenes look at life under the big top puts you right in the middle of the action. See head honcho Brad Braden (a pre-NRA Charlton Heston) rough up bad guys running dodgy midway games! Watch egomaniacal trapeze artist The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) smarm his way into all the women’s pants! Wonder why Buttons the clown (Stewart) never takes off his makeup! Rewind to catch all those fun cameos again! And just when everything is rolling merrily along, drop your jaw as sudden, startling disaster strikes!

This is Cold War–era entertainment. Listen as the narrator calls the circus a “gigantic power,” a “restless giant“ “moving in to capture a new city.” Did you know that a circus is a “fierce primitive fighting force,” a “mechanized army on wheels”? Bet you didn’t.

Produced with the cooperation of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, this Cecil B. DeMille epic is like a fictionalized documentary: even the narration is like something out of those scratchy, 50s-era educational filmstrips bored teachers ran for Generation Xers in elementary school. Today, this would be a two-hour PBS thing hosted by Alan Alda, with lots of focus on the careful treatment of the elephants and bears.

Instead, and much more diverting, we get Charlton Heston snarling that “women are poison” and fending off girls trying to seduce him by cleaning up his trailer and making him coffee. It’s so deliciously retro.

Oscars Best Motion Picture 1952
unforgettable movie moment:
For sheer bizarreness, the scene in which a priest with a hoard of altar boys in tow blesses the circus train.

previous Best Picture:
1951: An American in Paris
next Best Picture:
1953: From Here to Eternity

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

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The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | directed by Cecil B. DeMille
US/Can release: Jan 10 1952

MPAA: not rated
BBFC: rated U

viewed at home on a small screen

IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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