1952's "Best Picture" --- and Why Not?
The Greatest Show On Earth (1952) Still On My Favorites List
I'm yet to forgive a neighbor kid's older brother for dragging us out of the
Greatest Show was where urgency of large scale moviemaking (specifically DeMille's) met its sandlot equivalent. A reason C.B. carried such conviction as narrator was his identification with grave responsibility of putting on truly huge shows, which his Greatest is, whatever pooh-poohs have been dealt it since. What DeMille film wasn't, in the end, a big circus? Speaking to long in effect fashion of calling GSOE the "worst" of Academy Best Picture winners, I could name one dozen, if not two, to rank below it (most any, for instance, from the last thirty years). In fact, Greatest Show is among personal 50's faves, an entertainment sledgehammer like boys use in the C.B.-narrated prologue to nail down tent poles. DeMille knew precisely what would sell a 1952 audience, and delivered it. No actual circus I ever attended was half so pleasing, though admittedly moth-eaten ones that came to our town were no meaningful competition. C.B. turned down Burt Lancaster for the aerialist part eventually played by Cornel Wilde because of Burt's suspect politics at the time. What a loss on one hand, but had BL done The Great Sebastian, would he have passed on Trapeze four years later for not wanting to repeat himself?
Betty Hutton is her usual acquired-taste self. I know people who won't watch her in anything, so there went some of Greatest Show's viewership for all time. Charlton Heston's leather jacket and beat-up hat were as much the character as Chuck's performing. Did teenage boys ape the look as they would James Dean's later red jacket pose, frankly fey in comparison to rugged Heston? Some circus acts are extended, which can wear patience, but DeMille was enamored of all things sawdust, much like patronage in days when more had attended, and loved, Barnum and Bailey. It's really DeMille's semi-doc approach that works best, his stopping the show throughout to explain just what circus-folk endured to get under canvas. Never mind special-effects then vs. now: Greatest Show's train wreck is a whale of an (almost) finish; I thought it the most spectacular thing so far in movies back in '67. James Stewart's mercy-killing doctor on the run was my idea of Best Drama as well: I teared up and still do at Button's too-brief reunion with his mother who sits fretful among the big-top audience. The Greatest Show On Earth plays on VuDu and Amazon in HD and looks fantastic, being long-term a best display of Technicolor at peak glory.