Saturday, January 11, 2020


#4 The Greatest Show on Earth

Charlton Heston and James Stewart in
The Greatest Show on Earth

"To Everyone's astonishment (including presenter Mary Pickford), the winner was The Greatest Show on Earth. Back in New York, the audience at the Century could not even applaud and a voice asked, "Who decides these things, anyway?"-Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona

"I thought High Noon or The Quiet Man would get it," Cecil B. DeMille said backstage.


I had to qualify the never seen before tag on this one, as I did see it on TV in the late 70's, so I may have to change the heading on this to "Haven't seen in the last forty years."

Anyway,  The Greatest Show on Earth isn't really a choice that has aged well. DeMille was right, High Noon or The Quiet Man (or Singin' in the Rain) would have been better choices. I think at the time the Academy was trying to give an award to a film directed by DeMille, probably the greatest living filmmaking pioneer at the time. The movie itself is a big color extravaganza of the circus featuring an all-star cast (Yes, Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde were major stars at one time) that reminds me a little bit of 1970's disaster films in having the name cast in a somewhat soapy melodrama, though we aren't waiting to see who will die or not like in those films. That being said, the film does end with a massive train wreck of the Barnum and Bailey circus train that was pretty spectacular for the time, but doesn't particularly date that well either, though I still kind of like the train scene, anyway.

Worth seeing, though I'd argue with you if you call this the Best Picture of the Year.

Star that comes off best: Easily the best story under the big top is Jimmy Stewart as a clown named Buttons that is secretly an on the lamb doctor accused of murder. He wears his make-up throughout the film. I honesty wish the film had been centered more around his character.

Star that comes off the worst: Dorothy Lamour. Not that she is particularly bad, but the film gives her very little to do. She just pops up every twenty minutes or so to remind us that Dorothy Lamour is indeed in this picture!

Rising star: Demille cast Charlton Heston as the head of the circus in what was easily his biggest role to date. Demille and Heston would team up a few years later to in what was possibly the most iconic film for both of them, The Ten Commandments.

1952 Best Picture Nominees:
The Greatest Show on Earth
High Noon
Moulin Rouge
The Quiet Man

John Ford did win Best Director for The Quiet Man over Demille.

The Greatest Show on Earth's elaborate costume design by Edith Head lost out on that award to Moulin Rogue. Ms. Head  did win the costume design award eight other years.

The Greatest Show on Earth's only other Oscar went to Frederic Frank, Theodore St. John and Frank Cavett for their screenplay.

Cornel Wilde, Betty Hutton and Charlton Heston
under the big top
in The Greatest Show on Earth


  1. Listen I absolutely don't think this deserved to win Best Picture, or even be nominated truthfully, but I still enjoyed it very much.

    It's big, splashy and entertaining in a garish over the top way....just like Betty Hutton's performance!

    I love the cast, Jimmy Stewart does seem an odd fit even if his story has the most heft. From what I understand he pursued the role because of his childhood love of the circus.

    Gloria Grahame stepped in at the last moment, her role belonged to Lucille Ball-who had done an atrocious movie called The Magic Carpet for Columbia (she and Raymond Burr play Bedouins!) to complete her contract so she would be available only to discover she was pregnant with Lucie Arnaz and had to drop out.

    I understand the desire to give De Mille an Oscar though I would have rather they waited for The Ten Commandments-not that I'd award it either but it is such an ultimate De Mille picture.

    By the way my choice for Best Picture this year is the unnominated The Lusty Men but of the nominees it should have been High Noon.

  2. Thanks for your comments! I am a fan of Nicolas Ray films, so I may have to check The Lusty Men out.

    1. The Lusty Men is very much worth watching. It's a wonderfully spare film told with an economy of focus by Ray and some of the best work Robert Mitchum (he would have been my pick for Best Actor over Cooper), Susan Hayward and Arthur Kennedy ever did.