The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille

Artistic Value: * *
Entertainment Value: * * *

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Brad (Charlton Heston), the rough and taciturn manager of a circus, hires a famous acrobat, Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), to boost ticket sales. This new arrival, however, soon begins a dangerous professional rivalry with another acrobat, Holly (Betty Hutton), who just happens to be in love with Brad. Sebastian, nonetheless, begins to fall in love with Holly himself. Meanwhile, another performer, Angel (Gloria Grahame), competes with Holly for Brad's affections, even though still another man loves her. If all these troubles were not enough, the circus also happens to employ a sad clown, Buttons (James Stewart), who just might be a fugitive from the law.

Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth is a wonderfully overwrought, wildly campy spectacle. It may not be a good movie, but it is an entertaining one.


It is very unlikely that the director's melodramatic narrative, with its childish rivalries, love triangles, and vague hints of intrigue will make much of an impression on the viewer. Most of it is pretty trite, and all of it is presented in such an exaggerated, maudlin way that it is funnier than it is moving. That said, after a while, once its unintentional humorousness has lost its appeal, the story can become a little tedious.

Fortunately, much, even most, of the film is composed of depictions of real circus acts, and these are all enjoyable to watch. Actually, they are the best parts of the movie. The viewer is, in one scene or another, treated to several colorful parades featuring women dressed like ladies from the court of Louis XVI, extravagant floats, animals being drawn in lavish cages, and much more. In other sequences, DeMille shows acrobats leaping high above the air, the silly antics of clowns, a dog jumping onto and riding a horse, trained elephants, and so on and so on. All of these are intercut with images of the circus's audiences, whose members appear to be so overawed by the spectacle before them that the viewer may well be amused by their simple, exaggerated expressions of wonder.


At other times, DeMille concerns himself with presentations of the work involved in operating a circus. In these sequences, he depicts crews of men putting up the vast tent, herds of animals being loaded onto trains, and various individuals scurrying industriously about. Though such images may be interesting in their own right, the narration spoken over them is so wonderfully overblown, so ridiculous, and so weird that it is absolutely hilarious to listen to and so greatly adds to the charm of these scenes. The narrator, in a bombastic voice, talks about the mighty army, the terrible machine that is required to attend to the circus's colossal structures and of the dread responsibilities the persons doing such work have. These comments really are deliciously overdone.

Lastly I should note that the performances of the actors are, without exception, gratuitously hammy. Some, such as Betty Hutton's portrayal of Holly, are forgettably so, but others are genuinely entertaining to watch. Cornel Wilde is comically smarmy as the vain, acrobatic lothario, Sebastian, and Charlton Heston is so straight-laced, dour, and macho that he is almost a parody of himself..


While I cannot say that The Greatest Show on Earth is likely to impress many viewers, it is unlikely to bore many either.

Review by Keith Allen

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