Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Birthday Take: Cecil B. DeMille in "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952)

Scene from The Greatest Show on Earth
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Cecil B. DeMille
Born: August 12, 1881
Died: January 21, 1959 (77 years old)
Nomination: Best Director (Nominated) for The Greatest Show on Earth

The Take

There is a common notion that floats around about the Oscars: The Greatest Show on Earth is among the worst Best Picture movies in history. There's complaints that it is nothing but spectacle, and dated at that. It has a nonsensical story that involves evil clowns and egotistical acrobats. There's a lot that people generally don't like about it. Then again, the very idea of the circus isn't as popular as it once was. As entertainment has evolved, the appeal of going to a tent where clowns, animals, and colorful things attack your senses doesn't hold weight to far more fictional and stylized worlds. In a way, it helps this film to work as a nostalgic piece of work or a look at how dated the circus is. Your call.

Here's a more controversial statement: Cecil B. DeMille was actually a great director for what he was trying to do. He was like the Steven Spielberg of his era, choosing to make films with giant spectacle and sweeping imagery that captured something more awe-inspiring about the medium. While his work may not date as well as, say, Alfred Hitchcock, he does manage to brig something unique to his work. Just look at The Ten Commandments where he turns the story of Moses into an epic that is unlike any other. He once said that he could take two pages of the bible and make it into a movie. That feels fairly true, for better or worse. He was ambitious unlike anyone of his time. His films were often too expansive for their own good.

I am not one who hates The Greatest Show on Earth. It isn't among my favorites, nor even in the 50 best. However, I do think that there was something to the spectacle that gets overlook. Yes, there were politics involved in it beating favorite High Noon, but consider the current era. It was escapism at its finest. The film was light on story, but for audiences who couldn't afford to go to the circus, it was a journey into a world where they could watch acrobats soar and clowns act with the crowd. It may not be the most memorable outing, but it gave you that front row seat to something that hasn't been captured on film too often since. I do think that DeMille has something here that at very least made for a film worthy of production awards.

It would be odd to imagine a world of cinema where DeMille didn't exist. His contribution to film may be more maligned and hard to appreciate, especially with far more talented directors honing the epic into something far more compelling. Yet, there had to be a basis for this sort of genre. Between him and D.W. Griffiths, there is a specific evolution that is necessary to understand in order to appreciate where cinema went. It is unlikely that The Greatest Show on Earth looks like great cinema anymore. To most, it looks very silly. But I think that its sole defense is that it was escapist entertainment, which was common during the 50's (see the somewhat inferior Around the World in 80 Days). Is it bad? Sure, in some respects.

I am not entirely sure how to best assess the career of DeMille beyond this film and The Ten Commandments. It may be a testament to how history has progressed and how dated his films can feel. However, I do think that as a director of spectacle, he is someone that is worth keeping around in the history books. Even if he made a lot of films better than this one, I do think that there's some merit in rewarding this one to him, even if it was more for a career achievement than anything else. Who knows. The 50's was a tumultuous time for the Best Picture category. This is strong evidence as to why.


  1. It's certainly not a bad film, but voting it as Best Picture is undeniably one of the worst decisions the Academy made. (Btw, there's a difference between talking about Oscar-winning films by the quality of the film and by the quality of the decision. You know, things like competition and how the decision holds up today.)

    High Noon should've been the winner, but since the Academy gave John Ford his fourth Directing Oscar, why not vote for The Quiet Man just to sync it up? It would've made sense (because the film is just as awesome and is magnificently colorful), they'd've dodged the blacklisting stigma, and it would've demonstrated that "oh hey, the Academy just liked one film over the other." The fact that they compromised with DeMille's fairly decent escapist circus film is both baffling and bad because they just put more controversy upon themselves by making a dishonest decision, despite how good Greatest Show is.

    1. I'm with you on the "film/decision" thing. As I continue to develop more personal thoughts on the Oscars, I find them often shifting to better understand the eras. For instance, I think that the politics debate has and will continue to sabotage the Best Picture race (that, and Harvey Weinstein). It is the reason Citizen Kane lost as well as High Noon. Controversy has likely kept films as recent as Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper from being more prominent winners. They help attract buzz, but the safe bet is too tempting.

      This is where I begin to shrug my shoulders and accept that I am fascinated just as much about what the Oscars does right as I do its faults. I believe more often than not, they began going with the safe bets. Safe bets - in more understandable words - means "appeals to mass audience." This is why Titanic's winning year ceremony had the highest ratings of the past 20 years. As dumb as it sounds, it partially has to do with how recognizable the mass audience finds the film.

      I think that Birdman is a good example of this. Much like Greatest Show, it is spectacle and an "intellectual Hollywood satire." It's already appealing to voters who have no connection to politics. You can also recognize Michael Keaton on a poster in the Birdman outfit more often than say Boyhood's Mason (I don't think Boyhood stood a chance anyways) - who isn't conventional enough to appeal to mass audiences. I argue that this is the case with Greatest Show. You are more likely to recognize Charlton Heston and trapeze artists over Gary Cooper as a cowboy. It may sound dumb, but I think there's truth in there and I have tried not to get bent out of shape when my favorites lose (2010 was rough when The King's Speech beat The Social Network. I had quite the hissy fit over that). I may not always agree, but sometimes I find the "How" it won to be too baffling to worry about.

      Now, I will say this: I am not up to par with my 1952 filmography knowledge. I have only seen 2/5 of the nominees (High Noon being the better). I have no strong ties, and it is likely why I am capable of just shrugging off that spectacle won. Then again, I just think that the 50's was a very weak Best Picture decade anyways between Greatest Show, Around the World in 80 Days, GiGi, and Ben-Hur. None of those are necessarily my favorites and all indicative of a larger trend: spectacle over craft.

      I don't agree with it, but I do try to think more rationally about this stuff as I educate myself more. Sometimes you get the Birdman win and you have to just piece together "Spectacle, Hollywood satire, mass audience appeal" without deeper concern. It made this past ceremony a little apathetic for me, but indicates that this is always how the Oscars operated (at least post 1950. I'm willing to forgive 1927-1940 because of the award's newness). It's why I run a seasonal "Failed Oscar Campaigns" column to understand how films vie for top prize. It has made me both more understanding and unfortunately more skeptical.

      Do I love Greatest Show? Not really. I like it just fine (I've even seen it twice). I just think that you have to look at the bigger picture. Yes, High Noon was plagued with politics. It's just one of the many victims. It's why I believe that there is endless merit in the best "film/decision" debate and why it's interesting to debate this, even if I will likely just sigh and say "It's politics" and judge the film for what it is - in this case, cornball escapism.