Readers, I have found the 1950s version of James Cameron’s “Titanic.” No, I don’t mean “A Night to Remember,” the 1958 chilly reenactment of the crash of the ocean liner. I mean a bloated, over-praised epic that inexplicably won the Best Picture Oscar (yes, I’m still a bitter “L.A. Confidential” fan.).
Yep, I’m talking about “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Cecil B. DeMille’s story of the circus and the performers who love and struggle to bring us cheap but honest entertainment.
Somewhere in that monstrosity, there’s a good story; Brad (Charleston Heston), the circus manager, has managed to finagle the owners into running a full season by hiring the Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), a renowned acrobat and womanizer. The catch is that the woman who was going to headline the season, Holly (Betty Hutton, a much better singer than an actress), gets shoved out of the center ring.
Did I forget to mention that Holly is also Brad’s girlfriend? Holly is none-too-happy about this arrangement and declares a war on Sebastian to see who can win the audience’s favor through crazy stunts. Sebastian gleefully excepts her challenge and wages his own war for her affections (blah).
There are some other subplots here, but that’s the crux of the drama. Nothing special, but on its own, that could have made for perfectly serviceable escapism. But “The Greatest Show on Earth” isn’t, unfortunately, about the people; it’s about the circus and bringing the circus to a theater near you.
I can appreciate that this couldn’t have been an easy film to make, and I can understand that there had to be some sort of justification for spending all the money on the circus sets and animals and trainers, etc. However, that’s the call that doomed this flick. The running time of the movie is a painful 2 hours, and it’s at least an hour too long; that hour is made up of footage of the circus in action, of elephants parading by, the clown cars, the acrobatic acts, and on and on and on. It’s everything you’d want to see in a circus without any of the joy.
I think DeMille’s heart was in the right place; I could see him wanting to bring the circus to kids who probably couldn’t afford to go to one. But he forgot the joy of the high-flying circus acts is seeing them LIVE. In a circus, there is risk and danger, which makes it fun. At the one circus I remember attending, I saw a performer miss a step as he was walking up a giant sphere, and I gasped because he could have fallen and died (thankfully, he didn’t).
On film though, that’s not even a possibility. I was fairly impressed that the actors performed their own stunts, but that doesn’t really matter because I knew nothing bad could happen to them.
Just to make sure I get all the licks in; direction, misguided and boring; acting, with some exceptions, awful; writing, underdeveloped and clich; “The Greatest Show on Earth,” it’s not.
“Titanic,” it’s only a matter of time.
“The Greatest Show on Earth”
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Written by Fredric M. Frank, Barr Lyndon, Theodore St. John
Starring: Charlton Heston (Brad)
Betty Hutton (Holly)
Cornel Wilde (Sebastian)