Cecil B. DeMille brings the circus to the movies in his second to last film ever. Working with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, he created a drama centering around the big top, using actual circus performances within the film and making his actors learn their characters specific acts. That meant that Gloria Grahame really had to put her head under an elephant’s foot.
The story follows a traveling circus. Charlton Heston plays Brad, the leader of the whole circus who’s always thinking of the next show and all the details that go into making sure the show goes on. Holly (Betty Hutton) tries to be his girlfriend, but Brad is more concerned with her trapeze act. When Brad hires the famous Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) as the center ring trapeze act, Holly is upset and wants her spotlight back. She and Sebastian start a live competition during their acts, trying to match and one-up each other forty feet in the air with no nets. It’s daring, breathtaking and dangerous. Brad looks on trying to decide when to pull the plug, but the audience is eating it up faster than cotton candy. It’s only a matter of time before someone gets hurt.
My favorite role in this film is Jimmy Stewart as Buttons the Clown. For viewers out getting popcorn during the opening credits, they might not notice that familiar face behind the clown makeup. I think that was what DeMille was going for, especially when later in the film a picture of Stewart is shown. I can just imagine people in the audience gasping, “That’s Jimmy Stewart, I didn’t know he was in this movie!” I laughed at first, unable to imagine Stewart pulling off a decent clown, but was pleasantly surprised. He’s fun and really great with the physical comedy. Plus, it’s nice to see that he can wear floppy shoes and a goofy hat, rather than a suit.
The great thing about this film is the service DeMille did for thousands of kids to see the circus. Circuses can’t possibly travel to every town, but nearly ever kid had heard of them. So why not put Ringling Brothers on film and bring the circus to them? A story even goes that Steven Spielberg’s father took him to see this film at four years old, telling little Steven that he was taking him to the circus. I’m sure many of that generation had similar experiences.
Today, Ringling Brothers travels to arenas all over the country and very few circuses bring their own big-top. The stunts are more dangerous and spectacular. Many who see The Greatest Show on Earth now will laugh at the little circus parade and wonder when the sphere with motorcycles racing inside will happen. But I hope that others can appreciate the colorful spectacle before them, enjoy the plot behind the scenes and remember DeMille for his beautiful accomplishment. For kids and adults alike, this really was The Greatest Show on Earth.
“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.”