Review: The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

The Greatest Show on Earth

The Greatest Show on Earth



Cecil B. DeMille


Frederic M. Frank, Theodore St. John, Frank Cavett, Barr Lyndon


152 min.


Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame, Henry Wilcoxon, Lyle Bettger, Lawrence Tierney, Emmett Kelly, John Kellogg, Frank Wilcox, Robert Carson, James Stewart

MPAA Rating


Buy/Rent Movie




In cooperation with the Ringling Bros.-Barnum &Bailey Circus, Cecil B. DeMille mounted the huge production of The Greatest Show on Earth and came away with a huge success.

Success can be measured in many terms. The film won the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Motion Picture Story. However, these were only two of five nominations, not a very healthy for any Oscar year. The Greatest Show on Earth was a hit with audiences, taking in more than $36 million at the box office. In inflated dollars, the film made more than $390 million, a staggering total for that period, and the biggest success in a decade (Bambi was the last film to do so well in 1942). Its only failure was overall quality.

The Greatest Show on Earth is a lumbering mess. The entire plot of the film is easy to sum up. Holly (Betty Hutton) is a trapeze artist who had the center ring to herself until the company, led by stern Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) agreed to hire on renowned trapeze artist The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) in order to appease investors who didn’t wish to allow the circus a full season’s run. This pushes Holly out of the center ring and she goes to great lengths to try and show Sebastian up, much to Brad’s chagrin.

Accidents happen and a love triangle develops between Brad, Holly and Sebastian. An ultimate tragedy unites two in the triangle and the third finds love with another circus performer. It’s all very trite and shallow… and, without the extraneous spectacle, would have consumed only about forty-five minutes of the aggravating 152 minute length.

The rest of the film is a virtual travelogue of the circus. It talks about the setup and take down, the day-to-day operations and features depressingly long stretches of circus performances that don’t feature any of the film’s stars. So gratuitous was DeMille’s attempts to draw in audiences, dozens of cameos flit through the picture, including Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Hopalong Cassidy. Even the sad hobo clown played by Emmett Kelley makes an appearance.

The performances are bargain basement affairs. Heston puts on his play-tough exterior and gives the same performance he’s given dozens of times before and since. Starlets Dorothy Lamour and Gloria Grahame turn in smile-and-wave acts as subsidiary circus performers and Lyle Bettger glowers after his pet Angel (Grahame) as the irritating elephant trainer Klaus.

Hutton does her best to keep focus of the film on her character, as does Wilde. Both give adequate performances that are neither stellar, nor outwardly awful. Many of the other characters in the pic are fleetingly important and scarcely entertaining.

There is one performance and storyline that floats among the detritus. James Stewart plays a lovable clown on the lam for a crime on the operating table. If caught, he would certainly go to jail. He has hidden himself among the misfits of the circus in hopes that he won’t be caught. As we all know, it is inevitable that his capture occur during the picture and, satisfactorily, it comes at the most dramatic and appropriate time.

Writers Frederic M. Frank, Theodore St. John, Frank Cavett and Barré Lyndon worked on the story of this disorganized picture. It’s surprising they won awards for the hokey dialogue and unconvincing characterizations featured so prominently in the film. Nonetheless, it is highly likely that DeMille had a greater hand in making it feel as haphazard as it does. The film looks like any number of travelogues of the period. There are numerous scenes where the performers are obviously on a sound stage and not on location as you can see the scenic-transposed glow around their images with a darker, more grainy setting in the background. The editing features a number of nasty jump cuts and flows so miserably that the film feels far longer than it is.

Unless the viewer is watching with kids, there are a significant number of sections, one can fast forward through. If you see circus processions and musical numbers, it’s advisable to move on. And beware of the insanely catchy song “Greatest Show on Earth”, written specifically for the film. It became such a recognizable part of the film that the song is still featured today in many advertisements for the circus.

Though the setting bears little resemblance to one of Oscar’s other misfires, The Greatest Show on Earth is little more than a rehash of the stylistic plot of The Great Ziegfeld. Both films featured large production numbers interspersed into a limitedly entertaining plot, Ziegfeld just spent more time exploring the ups-and-downs of the life of an interesting figure in the lead role. Greatest Show on Earth followed a roller coaster path but the only interesting figure was in a supporting role. It is certainly an extravaganza for boys and girls of all ages but don’t expect a deep and socially serious plot.

Review Written

October 30, 2006

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