Oscar Challenge Review: The Greatest Show on Earth


Note: See this post for an explanation of my Oscar Challenge.

The 1952 winner of the Academy Awards’ Best Picture was The Greatest Show on EarthBut was it? Looking at the historical background of this circus movie, maybe not because the general consensus now is that it may have been one of the worst pictures to win Best Picture. Other 1952 movies that were nominated for Best Picture included High Noon, Ivanhoe, The Quiet Man and Singin’ in the Rain.

But why did it win? The political climate of 1952 featured Senator Joe McCarthy’s witchhunt for Communists, and many in Hollywood had been blacklisted, including many who worked in some of the other nominees. It is also speculated that those in the Academy saw it as one of Cecil B. DeMille’s last chances to win. He directed, produced and narrated TGSOE.

I’m no movie historian, so here is my 2 cents on this “Greatest Show”…

I’ve now seen all but 11 of the best picture winners, and I wouldn’t call it the worst, but certainly in the bottom 5 or 10. The acting was atrocious. Only Jimmy Stewart, who played the mysterious clown “Buttons” was really any good, and he had a small (though important) role in the movie.

What this movie was, to me, was a film version of the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus.  As a form of entertainment, the circus was losing popularity and gaining costs in the late 1940s-early 1950s. By 1956, the circus stopped traveling with its own venue (the “Big Top”) and began performing in fixed indoor venues. The movie was perhaps a 2-1/2 hour advertisement to get people out to the circus.

And it was a love story. Holly (Betty Hutton) was in love with Brad (Charlton Heston) who was in love with the circus. Holly was also in love with the Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) who was in love with himself. Angel (Gloria Grahame) was also in love with Brad. Klaus (Lyle Bettger), the elephant trainer, was in love with Angel, star elephant rider. Angel had once been a beau of Sebastian’s.

I’m not a circus fan, so the circus parts did not appeal to me. The love story and the characters in it were a bit over the top and ridiculous, although I suppose for circus performers over the top and dramatic may have been the norm.

The best (and hokiest) part of the movie was the train wreck. This is the famous movie train wreck that Stephen Spielberg credits as having inspired his film career. It was the first movie that Spielberg had ever seen as a child.

By today’s standards and amazing special effects, the train wreck was awful. Awful as in fake and unbelievable. It seemed like almost no one was killed, and just a handful were injured. Animals, including the lions and elephants, escaped by the dozens, but were amazingly rounded up without incident.

But it did seem right with what would most likely have been a PG rating. It was definitely intended for all audiences.

Bottom line: Did I like it? Eh, it was okay, but I doubt I would watch it again.





One thought on “Oscar Challenge Review: The Greatest Show on Earth

  1. We started watching all the nominees for best picture for a few years. We even went back several years and watched all or almost all nominees for best picture. There were some we were too late to see in theaters and too early to see on line so its probably back to go back and pick up some we missed. It worked out very well for finding some good movies we might not have otherwise watched. Your challenge sounds fun too.


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