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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

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 Liberty after the big train crash, well before conclusion of DeMille's circus epic. Greatest Show was long, you see, and we were past due home for supper. I had boosted the show at school that day as biggest of big, but '52 being a long way back of '67, no one among peers had heard of it. This happened the same year when The Alamo passed through again before surrender to TV. In fact, The Greatest Show On Earth would vid-land within months of this last theatre run, a pity as it's one (like all DeMilles) that plays ideally on a large screen. An interview I once read with a programming exec said Greatest Show tended to bomb when tube-cast, and yes, it did perform below other Paramounts that TV-preemed during the 60's (ABC's Sunday night '68 first-run a disappointment). So why was that? Had audiences wearied of the circus?

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.


Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

You are right about Hutton. To me, she couldn`t sing worth a damn. One of my least favorite DeMille films.

8:27 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I first saw TGSOE during it's 1961 re-release and have loved it ever since. It's a legitimate BEST PICTURE winner in my book. I can understand HIGH NOON fans' cry of "foul" as HN is a fantastic film, and I love it as well. But only one movie can win BEST PICTURE each year. I cry "foul" that LARRY OF ARABIA took the statue over Atticus Finch and the citizens of Maycomb, Alabama ten years later. As for the other 1952 nominees...THE QUIET MAN, not one of my favorites, but a very good movie. And the other two...MOULIN ROUGE and IVANHOE...the only way I'll ever watch them again would be via a court order of community service. My Academy vote (had I had one) would have gone to TGSOE.

9:21 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Well, I'm glad YOU like it.

I did see it on the big screen, probably '61. It is a big ol' thing, no disputing that. It's DeMille big, DeMille childish, DeMille stupid, and DeMille oy vey.

Thanks to Mike Cline naming the other nominees of '52, I can make my objection specific: THE QUIET MAN easily, then HIGH NOON, then MOULIN ROUGE, then, I guess though I barely remember it, IVANHOE. Then, if we must, this thing.

Sorry, but I'm firmly in the camp that believes this the worst Best Picture winner ever.

10:06 AM  
Blogger opticalguy said...

THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (talk about honesty in labeling) was not the best picture but boy is it fun. The MAD parody (of ALL Circus Pictures) kinda hit a bull's eye when they note the character (patterned after Jimmy Stewart in TGSOE) that never removes his clown make-up, "Doesn't seem suspicious at all." I always assumed that the win for TGSOE was due to DeMille doing his threatening performance (specifically targeting Jewish directors) at a DGA meeting. The legend has it that John Ford called him on that. I don't care how irritating Betty Hutton is she really fits the setting and the film. She's loud, brassy, and tacky … like a proper circus.

10:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw it three times upon initial release in 1952: I loved it then and I love it still. At the same time, I was surprised when it won the 'Best Picture' Oscar for the year, feeling that it wasn't as 'worthy' as the other contenders that year. Not that I was complaining because DeMille deserved it!

11:49 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

I've always enjoyed the soap opera corn and big show presentation that DeMille did with his circus film.

I didn't know that Burt Lancaster had been up for the role of the Great Sebastian, though. Ouch! What a loss because of the prejudice of the director's politics.

I think that the problem for GSOE's later reputation (which has taken a beating) is that the Academy decided to award a film of the old man with the biggest prize that they had (though NOT that of Best Director, as well) in one of the best years that Hollywood had for movies during the '50s.

Thee was a lot of fine product that year: High Noon, Quiet Man, Singin' in the Rain among the most prominent titles, not to mention such slightly less well remembered titles as Scaramouche and Five Fingers.

For GSOE to be named best picture over that crop may be a bit ridiculous, but no moreso than the declared winner in a number of other years, as well.

And, as a piece of minutiae, thanks to GSOE, most people don't remember that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby appeared together in a best picture Oscar winner.

12:59 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I have always enjoyed this film even though I saw it initially in the Spanish dubbed version for television (never dubbed in the big screen). It played very frequently in Sábados de Super Acción, I guess once every month constantly changing the time slot when Canal 11 aired it.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Chuck Heston's leather jacket and, to a lesser degree, his hat are much the same as they would be in the later "Secret of the Incas," the film Lucas/Spielberg shamelessly ripped-off...ah, borrowed from...for Indiana Jones.

I saw this at 6 years old and loved it, thrilled to death by the train/car collision and the color and scope of the same thing. Sorry to say I agree with those who contest its Best Picture selection--yes, there were many more just as outrageous as TGSOE over the years. Now, if FUN and hugely-entertaining were the criteria, there'd be no debate.

4:23 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

A couple of things. I have read that for TGSOE, some theaters in major cities revived the "Magnascope" concept for the train wreck. For those of you not familiar with the process, for key scenes the screen would enlarge in size and the projectionist would use a special magnifying lens to enlarge the image. DeMille used it also for the finale of SAMSON AND DELILAH and Selznick for PORTRAIT OF JENNIE. TGSOE has recently turned up on Netflix streaming, but sadly though the image quality is pretty good, they have cropped the image for fit the 1.75 aspect ratio for HD tv.

10:45 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson remembers TGSOE from a double-feature --- with BATMAN!:

My first encounter was as half of a double feature with the 1966 "Batman" movie. Since the Granada in Morgan Hill was a bit slow to get the big hits, it was probably in 67.

Even then, I thought Gloria Grahame was more interesting than Betty Hutton, and was genuinely spooked by that scene under the elephant's hoof. Elephants are smart, but not actors. Was this one tempted by his "trainer's" joking encouragements to crush her?

When it reached TV, it filled a three-hour slot and I felt vaguely heroic for staying with it to the bitter end. By that time I had mentally conflated it with "Jumbo" and kept expecting Martha Raye singing in a lion costume. I suspect the length was an issue for TV. Did local stations try to make it fit shorter slots?

"Jumbo" deserves a post. There are bits and pieces of a nifty musical in there, but a lot of problems (note how little the title elephant actually appears) and a last reel that defies description. It also figures prominently in the novel "A Confederacy of Dunces", as the unnamed but identifiable epic Ignatius Reilly yells at in the theater.

5:22 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Thanks, Rick. I'm glad you're glad I like it.

10:49 AM  
Blogger KING OF JAZZ said...

It had a terrific Dorothy Lamour number. Good enough for me.

Also curious to see Disney characters in a Paramount movie (parading to a tune from Gulliver's Travels!)

1:50 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Please correct me if I'm wrong but according to my memory as a then-sixth-grader, ABC first telecast this movie on a September Sunday from 9 p.m. to midnight, which was way too late for families to stay up for on a school night. ABC had no problem running movies very late into the evening, such as its frequent broadcasts of The Cardinal from 9 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.

5:21 PM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

OK, you've talked me into it!

Never liked TGSOE, but having only seen in on a 35" cathode ray set, I'm gonna fire up the projector, make some popcorn, and give it another try. (And I just checked the Amazon quality and it's good enough that the visuals alone just might hold me...)

I recall being way ahead of Stewart's plotline, which won't be an issue this time, and never having liked circuses even as a kid (in person or on screen) couldn't have helped.

My main objection, however, had to do with casting. I never had a problem with Hutton, but I tend to avoid anything with Heston in it -- I just find him such a stick of wood. (I'll never again sit through Touch Of Evil -- his presence ruins it for me.)

And I second the call for a Jumbo post! When I'm putting the home theater through it's paces for friends, there are a couple of numbers from it that I use for demonstration. Not a great film by any means, but Donald is right, there's terrific stuff in there.

Thanks for encouraging me to look at a movie afresh -- I'll let you know if viewing it large changes my initial assessment.

6:26 PM  
Blogger David Simmons said...

I prefer "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla".

12:21 AM  

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