Sunday, January 10, 2016

Nothing But the Best: "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952)

Scene from The Greatest Show on Earth
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

The Greatest Show on Earth
Release Date: January 10, 1952
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Written By: Frederic M. Frank & Barre Lyndon & Theodore St. John (Screenplay), Frederic M. Frank & Theodore St. John & Frank Cavett (Story), Jack Gariss (Uncredited)
Starring: James Stewart, Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton
Genre: Drama, Family, Romance
Running Time: 152 minutes

Oscar Wins: 2
-Best Picture
-Best Screenplay

Oscar Nominations: 5
-Best Director
-Best Costume Design
-Best Editing

Other Best Picture Nominees

-High Noon
-Moulin Rouge
-The Quiet Man

And the winner is...

Prior to 2005's Crash, one would be hard pressed to not call director Cecil B DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth as the worst Best Picture winner in history. For many, the film embodied a sense of excess over story, with more focused paid to stage performances that dragged down the plot and pointless romances. It didn't help that in the half-century since its win, the American fondness for circus culture has practically dwindled and the impact of spectacle has shifted so rapidly that it's hard not to see it as anything but dated. Whether you agree that DeMille's work is an unnecessary win or an underrated foray into the world of future blockbusters, it definitely has a strong reputation and singular vision the likes of which wouldn't be seen again. It was a love letter DeMille's grandiosity as well as a highlight of his many, many dated flaws.

Unlike most films that have won Best Picture, this wasn't adapted from a specific story. It was more of a love letter to the Ringling Brothers & Barnum Bailey circus, of whom were known to put on elaborate shows in tents across America. Featuring clowns, trapeze artists, and dozens of animals; the circus was populous entertainment that captured a sense of excitement. While there's no published reason why DeMille was attracted to make a film about the circus, it was right in his wheelhouse. For a director known for spectacle, he could tackle the real life equivalent of his movie magic. With that in mind, and permission from the company, he bought their slogan ("The greatest show on Earth!") for $250,000 and started making what would become a love letter to the circus, even featuring an opening narration by the director himself.

Among the casting was a relatively unknown Charlton Heston. The story goes that when the young actor passed DeMille on the studio lot, the director was impressed by his wave and decided to use him in an upcoming movie. Despite using actual actors like Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde, he insisted that they all do their own stunts. This meant that Hutton actually learned how to perform trapeze artist techniques and Wilde, despite his vertigo, would perform high wire acts. It wasn't entirely actors learning their traits, as DeMille had a lot of assistance from Ringling Brothers & Barnum Bailey (founder John Ringling North even makes a cameo), including noticeable appearances by clowns Emmett Kelly and Lou Jacobs, and the 1951 troupe. This included 1400 people, hundreds of animals, and 60 carloads of trucks and tents. In some cases, DeMille even filmed actual circus performances - including a show at The Hippodrome in New York.

Among the film's most iconic scenes was the train wreck that happened in the third act. It was filmed on Stage 16 on The Paramount Lot. While the film used models to depict the wreckage, the real problem came from the use of real life animals. Because the scene asked for the animals to be freed and running around carelessly, it caused many problems of wrangling them up. This was most problematic for the monkeys, of whom were scared of the lions and tigers. In a moment of animal instinct, they fled the studio to a nearby cemetery. It was considered impossible to retrieve them. Among the other highlights of the film's production included fairly private Emmett Kelly appearing briefly out of make-up. There were also said to be cameos from a variety of actors (all in crowd shots) including Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.

The film's initial success was big. The film would become, as of 2015, the 59th highest grossing movie of all time when adjusted for inflation. Many loved the spectacle and felt that DeMille did a fantastic job with the production. However, later detractors claimed that the film was style over substance and have gone on to consider it one of the worst Best Picture winners in history. Some would even argue that this was done solely because High Noon featured a blacklisted writer. To many, The Greatest Show on Earth was seen as a safe bet winner compared to films that have had more of an impressive legacy, including Ivanhoe and the not even nominated Singin' in the Rain. Its legacy was made even more ridiculed by the fact that it was the last Best Picture winner to receive less than three Oscars and the last until Gladiator to win without a Best Director or screenplay win. While the film was popular at the time and proved to be the most successful film in England that year, the ongoing reputation hasn't been the most positive.

For many, the bigger reason that the film won isn't as much about politics as it was about DeMille himself. To classic cinema fans, he is a name that could equate to a predecessor of Steven Spielberg. His films had massive scales and served as crowd entertainment akin to the blockbuster many decades later. The issue is not so much at The Academy had snubbed him, but that his best work was considered to be before The Academy formed. Since DeMille was increasing in age, many assumed that this would be his final film, and took the opportunity to reward him for a career achievement. This is a trend that continues to happen, most notably with Al Pacino losing Best Actor for The Godfather Part II to Art Carney in Harry and Tonto, only to win for a mediocre role later with Scent of a Woman (subsequently beating Denzel Washington for Malcolm X, thus leading to his win for Training Day). This wasn't DeMille's last film, but his penultimate title. He would next do The Ten Commandments, which many have considered to be a better film.

The film's legacy is problematic, if just because it was a spectacle film that won over substantial favorites. It also hurt that the circus culture would fade, in recent decades being replaced by Cirque du Soleil's more refined take. The film lead to a 1963 TV series with Jack Palance in Heston's role, and its theme song became the theme for Bozo's Circus later on. Among the film's passionate lovers is Steven Spielberg, who claims that it was the first film that he ever saw. It made him want to be a filmmaker. Over the course of his career, Spielberg has dropped homages to DeMille's film, specifically that of the train crash - which he considered to be one of the most influential scenes of his early movie going experiences. He has dropped that footage into a brief moment in War of the Worlds and has claimed that it inspired his own version of a train crash in Super 8 (a film that he produced). Beyond this, the film has only garnered a reputation as the worst Best Picture winner until Crash.

So whether or not you believe that The Greatest Show on Earth is among the worst winners in history, it's interesting to see it as a predecessor to what would be considered Oscar bait. It is a film of elaborate and lush visuals that may not have dated well, but served as an interesting peek into what audiences of the 50's saw as entertainment. In a time where everything had to be real, one cannot help but appreciate the film's intentions, even if they're not void of being occasionally cheesy and sometimes even unnecessary. For what it's worth, DeMille was an influential director whose successors have unfortunately trumped his influence as a whole. Even if this doesn't go down as his best film, it definitely serves as a solid piece of escapist fare the likes of which are both interesting in their successes and failures. 

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