Friday, December 05, 2008

Oh, The Places I’ve Been: The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

More premature nostalgia.

The Greatest Show on Earth is widely regarded as one of the worst Best Picture Oscar winners. It beat High Noon and The Quiet Man, although considering that The Bad and The Beautiful and Singin’ in the Rain weren’t nominated that year, it’s safe to say that errors had been made even earlier in the process. If I’m going to begrudge Cecil B. DeMille’s big top extravaganza anything, it’s that its win for Best Story came at the expense of the noir classics The Narrow Margin and The Sniper.

I was in no hurry to see it until we visited Sarasota, Florida. For decades, the Ringling brothers used the town as the winter headquarters for their circus operations. DeMille shot some of the movie in Sarasota, and it had its world premiere there. A section of the John and Mable Ringling Museum is devoted to it. Numerous props including the model used in the justly celebrated train wreck are on display, and the film plays on a constant loop. But that’s not the way I wanted to experience it.

DeMille gives himself a pompous and unnecessary voiceover. That Oscar-winning story? Utterly predictable. Show this movie to a lost tribe that had never seen a film before, and, after marveling at the magic box of color and sound, they would say, “Blondie runs off with Mr. Fancy Pants, right?”

Charlton Heston lets his jacket and hat do the heavy lifting and treats the rest of his role as an exercise: how unlikable can I make this guy and still have the movie work? Betty Hutton looks the part of a trapeze artist but is out of her depth playing her torn between two lovers scenes. The fun is in the supporting ranks. The undervalued Cornel Wilde as an aerialist with a gigolo’s swagger, Gloria Grahame’s seen-it-all type, Lawrence Tierney menacing on the sidelines. Legendary clown Emmett Kelly shows tremendous artistry in his handful of scenes.

And speaking of clowns, there’s Jimmy Stewart as a fugitive from the law hiding out with the circus. Consequently he never takes off his white face make-up, lending a creepy serial killer vibe to the proceedings.

Show is pure, uncut hokum, one of those movies that is hugely entertaining without actually being good. Did it deserve its Best Picture Oscar? No. But I understand why it won, and under the right circumstances could even see voting for it myself.

Rosemarie has always had a soft spot for it. She occasionally quotes one of Grahame’s lines, uttered after the train wreck: “I’ll bring every elephant that can walk. And the ones that can’t walk, I’ll carry.” Her voice always breaks on that last word. For all her chic elegance, my wife is a complete sucker for that show-must-go-on stuff.