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