Thursday, December 21, 2017

Theory Thursday: "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952) is Underrated

Scene from The Greatest Show on Earth
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: The Greatest Showman is released in theaters this past Wednesday.
Theory: The Greatest Show on Earth is underrated.

With the holiday season upon us, it's time to see the biggest movie spectacles of the year. Among them is the new  P.T. Barnum musical The Greatest Show, starring Hugh Jackman in the lead role. Who wouldn't love a bombastic performance full of what made the circus so beloved for many decades (putting aside the controversy that lead to its demise)? My only complaint is that the music is too idiosyncratic for my liking, but I'll hold judgment for how I think it fits within the movie. However, this Barnum story got me thinking about the forefather of the circus epic: director Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth. For those who simply look at the statistics, it's hard to wonder why I'm calling it "underrated," but for those who have lived in a society that has seen it and talks to movie lovers, then you'll understand the general perception that it is, in fact, more seen as a turkey of a movie that is all filler and no killer.

Before I continue, I will admit that my opinion is formed on what I think a circus movie should be. It's not necessarily a view I share about GREAT cinema, but what spectacle art can be. DeMille made his career on exploring the medium and creating some of the most dazzling visuals imaginable. I think one could argue how much substance those movies had, but he knew how to make populous entertainment, and I would hold The Greatest Show on Earth as being an exemplary sign of that, even starting at the film's opening segment where he narrates men putting up circus tents. It's the deconstruction of what it takes to put on a great show. You need hours of preparation, whether you're pitching a tent or preparing for high wire acts. In that way, DeMille's choice to explore the circus feels indicative of how he sees cinema: an art form that involves a lot of forces coming together to make something dazzling that looks effortless.

In the 21st century, the circus is a divisive force anyways. As the recent success of IT has proven, people are scared of clowns. The general idea of Americana has been decried for being hollow, with many not finding the charm of a pre-technological boom era. If that's a hindrance, then I understand why a film about the circus is unappealing to you. However, I think that what DeMille's film does is depict the circus as an event that people would want to go to. The story itself is rather pointless and cornball. Who would care about James Stewart playing a clown with a shady past? Why even care about Charlton Heston as the ringleader? There's a lot that feels placed in here for story's sake, in order to make it more than just a slideshow of circus highlights that are itself intertwined with audience reactions - of which seem cornball to the cynics out there. 

Yet I firmly believe that DeMille captures the mood of what a 1950's audience would want from the circus. Who wouldn't want to see bright outfits and comical figures running around committing shenanigans? It's all so madcap and works in an era where live entertainment was still a more prominent fixture in American culture. The one criticism is that maybe DeMille could've shot the sequences where performers do the stunts in a little bit more of a liver fashion. There's definitely parts that haven't aged well because of how simple the acts are. Then again, film direction wasn't quite as inventive as it would be in later years. Never forget that early Best Picture winners like The Great Ziegfeld were more showcases for spectacle than rip-roaring, with many scenes simply being long shots of set pieces. DeMille may have mastered spectacle, but he was very much indicative of his era, before directors like Steven Spielberg came along and made the blockbuster a more active genre.

I am not an expert on the history of circus entertainment, and I firmly believe that the ongoing stories are fictional while the performances are real. This is a movie that exists in order to show wild stunts for an audience unable to go out to a three ring circus. I admit that maybe the film could've centered more around the event and made it fun, but I'm sure DeMille was trying to make a narrative that explored the dynamic of the crew better, as if to sympathize those who work hard. It helps make them into blue collar figures who simply want to entertain. In that way, the plots are actually valuable to the film, no matter how cornball they actually are. By the end, it lives by the principle that the show must go on, and the film's old school 50's niceness shines almost too brightly for a modern sensibility. The kooky song that closes the film is an advertisement for the circus, and it's likely that those far removed from this era will wonder why it was so appealing. In my opinion, the film at least tries to capture it better than most mainstream films.

I will address the elephant in the room: people hate this because it won Best Picture. It's a sticky situation, because many of the 50's movies were spectacle winners that I feel won partially because of ingenuity and because of the advancement of color film. It should be noted that 1951's An American in Paris marked only the second color film to win Best Picture, meaning that this portion of the medium was still being explored. Audiences weren't used to images this colorful or a spectacle this large. Sure, David Lean epics did it better, but I give the film a small pass for winning because I do firmly believe it won because of how big everything was. You could make the argument that High Noon deserved it, in spite of its own controversies. I don't think that The Greatest Show on Earth is necessarily the best movie nominated, but I think it's a misunderstood film because it won. Maybe if it hadn't, its legacy would be different. Then again, the lack of love for the circus nowadays would suggest otherwise.

I admit that I am a bit of a simpleton who finds value in the circus and sees this as a slice of Americana that is hard to recreate nowadays. I have gone to a Cirque du Soleil show, and I really didn't like it. It was too calculated on the spectacle that it never became about the thrills that come with madcap energy. I'm a bit worried that The Greatest Showman is too contemporary to ever capture the energy that I would love the circus to have. With all of this said, The Greatest Show on Earth is a movie that is merely fine, and I think should be viewed as something of its time. It's a bit tragic for those who lived to see the circus close, making the film even more special as a document of how the culture used to be. It glorifies it in all of its hokey ways, and I think manages to create a sense of why people went to the circus. The story make be shaky at times, but it's still a unique film, and one that probably deserves more credit than it gets. Maybe it's not Best Picture worthy, but it has some value as a document of its time.

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