Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Sh!#ting on the Classics: The Greatest Show on Earth

Awhile back, Patrick and I devoted an entire podcast to Plan 9 From Outer Space. Many people feel that Plan 9 is the worst film ever made, and we took issue with this contention. I believe that I have found what is REALLY the worst movie ever made.

Hear that, children?  It is the sound of a murderous clown!

The Greatest Show on Earth is not “good bad.” It is not “funny bad.” It is not cheezy enough to be camp. It is simply unwatchable. It is 143 minutes of blather, the filmic equivalent of chewing gum or cotton candy. This thing features a ludicrous plot, idiotic dialogue, wooden acting, non-existent editing, and a use of superfluous circus “stock footage” that has me questioning director and producer Cecil B DeMille’s sanity.

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: A circus is in financial trouble and may not be able to finish the season.  Manager Brad (Charlton Heston) does everything he can to save the show. He loves the circus! Holly (Betty Hutton), a daredevil trapeze artist, is in love with Manager Brad. Manager Brad hires another trapeze artist, The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), to perform in his circus. A rivalry develops between Holly and Sebastian; they keep trying to outdo each other’s stunts. Buttons the Clown (Jimmy Stewart) is really a former doctor and escaped killer, hiding in the circus under his greasepaint. Sebastian is crippled when a daring trapeze stunt goes horribly wrong. The Circus Train crashes when an attempt to rob it goes horribly wrong. Manager Brad is gravely injured. Buttons the Clown saves Manager Brad’s life, but goes to jail, exposed as the fugitive doctor/killer. The movie, mercifully, finally ends.

Here is the thing you need to know about “Buttons the Clown.” The Jimmy Stewart character never removes his clown makeup, not ever, not backstage, not on days off, not even when the circus is holed up in its “winter quarters” for months at a time. NO ONE in the film ever comments on this. The audience is supposed to accept this as some sort of charming, personal quirk. In reality, it is crazy and more than a little creepy. “Oh boy! Here comes Buttons, the clown who never takes off his makeup!  And has a bag of scalpels.”

The filmmakers cast Jimmy Stewart, so at least the clown/doctor/murderer is charming and sympathetic. Also, Jimmy Stewart is one of the few people on the planet who, even in full clown makeup, looks exactly like Jimmy Stewart.

Like other Cecil B. DeMille films, this one features incessant, unnecessary, purple narration delivered by Cecil B. DeMille’s favorite voiceover artist, Cecil B. DeMille. Here is a sample from the beginning of the film:

We bring you the circus, pied piper whose magic tunes greet children of all ages, from six to 60, into a tinsel and spun-candy world of reckless beauty and mounting laughter and whirling thrills; of rhythm, excitement and grace; of blaring and daring and dance; of high-stepping horses and high-flying stars. But behind all this, the circus is a massive machine whose very life depends on discipline and motion and speed. A mechanized army on wheels, that rolls over any obstacle in its path… that meets calamity again and again, but always comes up smiling. A place where disaster and tragedy stalk the big top, haunt the backyard, and ride the circus train. Where death is constantly watching for one frayed rope, one weak link, or one trace of fear. A fierce, primitive fighting force that smashes relentlessly forward against impossible odds. That is the circus. And this is the story of the biggest of the big tops, and of the men and women who fight to make it "The Greatest Show on Earth."

Okay, it is over.  You can wake up now! What kept ME awake was the bit about disaster and tragedy haunting the backyard. I do not want disaster and tragedy haunting the backyard! That is where I entertain in the summer.

All of the dialogue in this film sounds like silent movie title cards read aloud:

“You’re buying trouble, Johnny.”

“It wasn’t your arm I fell in love with… I fell in love with you!”

“Listen, sugar, the only way that you can keep me warm is to wrap me up in a marriage license.”

The characters talk about having “sawdust in their veins” so many goddamn times I wanted to rip one of them open with a steak knife just to see for myself.

There is also Charlton Heston’s odd and stilted acting style. Whether he is a Mexican police detective in Touch of Evil, the title character in Ben-Hur, or the last hope of humanity in Planet of the Apes, Heston always plays Heston, the cocksure alpha male with the curiously skewed speech patterns.

The Greatest Show on Earth was one of Heston’s first big roles. Some early audiences thought he was a real circus insider cast in this fictional film and commented on how well he did opposite big stars.  Heston always considered that a great compliment. Dude, they thought you were an amateur!

FULL DISCLOSURE: Apparently, Cornel Wilde and Betty Hutton did their own stunts as daredevil trapeze artists. One must admire their commitment, but I wish they could have been photographed in a more flattering way, edited in a more exciting way, and placed into a better movie. Their endless trapeze “fight” is at least 15 minutes long but feels like 45.

At another point the film stops dead for an interminable parade sequence. Good God, it is twelve fucking minutes long. Given that this parade contains hundreds more people than we see actually working the circus during the narrative scenes, I have to assume that DeMille took the “best parts” of many circus parades and cut them all together.

To add to the ordeal, endless circus act montages constantly interrupt this turgid melodrama. It took me a little while to figure out why the circus acts were so damn stultifying on the screen: they are all photographed from one unchanging angle, with no camera movement or editing to allay the tedium. It is as if DeMille decided to pad his 20 minutes of crappy, romantic hooey with two full hours of boring circus footage. He simply took a Technicolor camera to a real circus, locked it down tight, photographed two hours of colorful b-roll and then spliced it into this so-called epic without purpose or intent.

Have I mentioned this fucking thing also contains FIVE musical numbers?

What other film ever made stops dead NINETY MINUTES INTO ITS RUNNING TIME for a 10 minute montage of nonessential filler that features none of the leads? People upbraid Ed Wood for the overuse of stock footage in his ridiculous films. DeMille goes Wood one better, shooting all of his stock footage HIMSELF. This film is so long, I dare my readers to make it through the trailer:

Given the film’s overly padded running time, the film’s single famous scene is actually quite short.  The Circus Train Crash Sequence is celebrated for its spectacle, but is barely two minutes long. It is also not very impressive anymore, due to its obvious reliance on miniature models. Really, I kept waiting for Godzilla to show up and give the derailed circus train a good stomping.

FULL DISCLUSURE: I did kind of like when Charlton Heston takes a minor bad guy and literally throws him into a pool of horseshit. In case any viewers cannot recognize horseshit (and if they have made it this far into the movie without leaving, maybe they cannot), we hear a horse loudly whinny offscreen just as the bad guy lands. Ah, it was a simpler time. I would like to throw The Greatest Show on Earth into that same pool.

AND HERE IS THE KICKER: The Greatest Show on Earth was the Academy Award Winner for Best Picture in 1952. It also won the Oscar for Best Screenplay.

(A horse loudly whinnies offscreen)


  1. Thanks for shitting on this rancid and putrid Best Picture winner. Before "The English Patient" this was easily the movie you could point to as proof the Academy was out of touch when selecting a Best Picture as far back as the 1950's (or 40's if you point to "Citizen Kane" only winning an Oscar for writing).

    Let's be honest though, 1952 wasn't a very good year for nominees: http://www.filmsite.org/aa52.html "Ivanhoe" and "The Quiet Man" are OK but haven't aged well, while "High Noon" was/is still a classic but it's mostly a prototypical western. You mean to tell me the first year the Academy Awards were televised they choose the spectacle of a circus over the craftsmanship of a genre piece done right? No way, I'm shocked... rolls eyes! My guess is DeMille was the Harvey Weisntein of his era and pushed/sweet-talked/bought enough favors from Academy Members to secure "The Greastest Show on Earth" would win.

    Gotta give it to DeMille though, he bounced back (not that he ever thought he hadn't done anything but the FINEST and MOST INSPIRED work to date in his previous movie) and, for his final film four years later, he left on top with his biggest/most commercial/most memorable work to date. One in which Chuck Heston's acting chops, limited as they were on "Greatest Show On Earth," have improved with practice/comfort to give us a pretty iconic central figure to root for (with a foil to match in Yul Brynner's Rameses). "The Ten Commandments" should be an 'F This Movie' podcast (Easter's coming... wink, wink) so that (a) you can 'F' a movie older than 1959's "Plan 9" (by three years), (b) you 'F' the longest movie on the podcast to date (220 minutes) and (c) you and Patrick can summarize the impact of DeMille on the culture and Hollywood through the lasting legacy of his 'sandal epic as a Douglas Sirk melodrama' final film. It's also, by virtue of its scope, colorful set-pieces and giant parade of stars (even the supporting roles have the likes of John Derek, Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price breathing life into stock characters) a hell of a lot more fun to watch than "Greatest Show On Earth."

    1. JB already took a big shit on 'The Ten Commandments': http://goo.gl/MelQH And, seriously, who on earth would ever want to listen to a podcast on that?

    2. ^^^ (raises hand) Uhh, I am Spartacus?!!? :-) Actually I listen to all the 'F This Movie' podcasts whether I like the movie/topic or not (like last week's "Swingers" one) except the one's for movies I plan to see but haven't yet ("Minority Report," "Harry Potter 7" two-parter, etc.). If Patrick and JB (I assume) come up with an interesting angle from which to tackle it (like they with the "Plan 9 from Outer Space" podcast) they can talk about "The Ten Commandments" or any movie they want and I'd listen.

  2. You are obviously an amateur, armchair critic incapable of the imagination to embrace a totally different generation and way of life. The majority of the criticisms regarding this Academy Award winning classic film. It is the most accurate potrayal of what circus life was like. Barnum & Bailey worked with the filmmakers and even provided Emmett Kelly (the most famous clown in circus history) to be part of the film.
    My great grandfather retired from Barnum & Bailey and was part of the circus crew in the film. Your complaint about singing in the film shows you lack of knowledge about movies from that era, as it was not uncommon for there to be 2 musical numbers in movies back then. Can you say every Doris Day movie ever made? (if you're to young just look her up on YouTube).
    The parade scene you whined about was something that they did everyone time they set up in a new town. Just be grateful they only showed 12 minutes as the parades often lasted 30 minutes or more.
    You have absolutely no idea how many behind the scenes people it takes to put on a circus, especially back in the days of the "Big Top" circus tents!