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Paramount Studios presents
"Into the sunshine of spring, the circus rises from its winter hibernation, spic-and-span, and ready for eight months of excitement and adventure."
DVD ReviewCecil B. DeMille certainly defined just what a long-lasting Hollywood epic was with the perennial classic, The Ten Commandments, in 1956, with Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea to let his people go. The fact that a biblical film could be made with Edward G. Robinson is another story entirely, but DeMille, all post-Golden Age excess and star power, was all about bigger and better. In 1952, just a few years before he hit the biblical goldmine, DeMille delved into the world of the travelling circus for the equally sprawling cornball epic—and oddly enough, Best Picture winner—The Greatest Show on Earth.
Mac Braden (Charlton Heston), a gruff, hands-on road manager, is about to take the Ringling Brothers circus on tour, but the higher-ups want to chop out the small towns, and just do a quick 10-week stop of the big cities. This goes against everything Braden stands for (one character says he has "sawdust in his veins"), and the only way to convince them to extend the tour is if he brings along womanizing but popular trapeze artist, The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) as his center ring act. This causes trouble with Braden's current center ring performer and sometime squeeze, the annoyingly shrill trapeze artist Holly (Betty Hutton), who TALKS REALLY LOUD all the time.
The percolating and steamy three-way hokum that quickly builds between Braden, Holly, and Sebastian is almost lost within the fast-paced vastness of the DeMille's presentation of day-to-day circus life, and great chunks of the film are devoted to actual footage of real-life acts and crew doing their thing, from washing elephants to raising the big top, to performing, interspersed with the actors. The effect is pretty well done, and it enhances the believability and feel of being part of a living, breathing circus—and in case you don't get it, the deep-voiced narrator will remind you periodically. For this reason, it never really feels like a simple backlot project and it's no surprise that DeMille's film was made with the Ringling Brothers blessing, so marquee circus stars like Emmett Kelly and Lou Jacobs appear right alongside Hutton and Heston.
There's lots of other fun, high melodrama stuff going on here too, such as Angel's (Gloria Grahame) dangerous relationship with jealous Teutonic elephant trainer Klaus (Lyle Bettger), or Phyllis (Dorothy Lamour), the brassy girl with "the iron jaw." DeMille's quirkiest element that is sadly telegraphed almost as loudly as Betty Hutton talks is the storyline of Buttons the Clown (Jimmy Stewart), a rubber-nosed man of mystery who is Braden's right hand man. Stewart's character is always in full clown makeup, and always knows the right thing to say, but when the cheesy movie coincidence machine cranks up, things like incriminating newspaper articles that literally fall into the lap of key characters have the dramatic impact of a Scooby-Doo episode.
All of this drama eventually builds to DeMille's precursor to the Red Sea parting, in this case a magnificently tacky circus train accident that will make you weepy for the days of bad-looking miniatures. The sequence itself is nicely constructed, and is still rather exciting, even if it looks like so many toy train pieces scattered about. The old adage "the show must go on" is the battle cry for the survivors, and when the walking wounded rally together to put on the show, it is unfortunately buttressed by Betty Hutton's painful warbling of one of the film's circus-themed songs.
For all of its predictable shortcomings, there is still a lot of popcorn-munching fun to be had here, and growing up I couldn't get enough of this film. Back then, I was easily pleased by all of the glossy circus acts and of course the big train wreck scene, but looking at it today, the authentic circus footage really adds immeasurably to the legitimacy of the story. Who cares if Hutton's Holly isn't built like a trapeze artist or Heston's know-it-all Braden, looking like an early version of Indiana Jones, simply barks out instructions and never seems to actually be doing anything?
This is one of the few tolerable big-top dramas (Carol Reed's Trapeze is another), and DeMille did a fine job capturing the vibe of the circus in big, broad theatrical strokes, and he snagged a unexpected Best Picture award for his troubles.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: I'm not certain of the original aspect ratio for this film, but it is presented here in 1.33:1 full frame. Regardless of what it was originally, my widescreen brain makes me think the full-frame image seems to crowd things slightly, though I never had that problem when I used to watch it as a kid. Colors look fairly bright, but occasionally have a weird artificial hue to them, as if it was colorized. I don't know if this is good or bad, but this transfer really shows off the numerous process shots in all their poorly-shot glory.
A few nicks and specks were evident during some scenes, but overall it looks pretty fair for a 52-year-old film.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: Audio is provided in a straightforward English Dolby Digital mono track that is free of any distracting hiss or crackle. Dialogue is nicely mixed, and all lines are clearly discernible. What more do you need?
A French language mono track is also included.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Extras Review: What's the deal, Paramount? Why so bare? This is an epic bit of filmmaking, from an era long ago and far away, and there's not a single extra—not even a trailer to enjoy.
The disc is cut into a meager 23 chapters, and includes optional English subtitles.
Extras Grade: F
Final CommentsThis is the kind of pre-CG, large-scale Hollywood blockbuster that has long gone the way of the dinosaur, and Cecil B. DeMille seemed to have "epic" for a middle name (that is, if his middle name didn't already start with a "B"). DeMille's The Greatest Show On Earth always thrilled me as a kid, and I'm glad to say it has held up remarkably well.
Gloriously corny, with a veneer of prefab danger. I can almost smell the greasepaint and sawdust now.
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