3/10/09

The Greatest Show on Earth

Despite the screenplay, I'm going to call this a documentary. Cecil B. DeMille rode along (in his own private railroad car!) with the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus during the preparation and filming of this corny epic. The end result is a meticulously filmed, step-by-step description of how a three-ring circus traveled from town to town in the United States. This type of circus is as outdated now as a buggy whip, a manual typewriter, or a Studebaker.

This Best Picture Oscar winner for 1952 is available on DVD from your local library or possibly from Netflix or Blockbuster. When you get it, I hope it includes Robert Osborne's interview with star Betty Hutton ("The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" and "Annie Get Your Gun"). Just to watch this exuberant 80-year-old fall back in her chair laughing and kicking up her leg with glee is worth the price of admission. Hers is a life worth noting.

Clich├ęd and predictable, we watch a trapeze artist (Hutton) accustomed to the center ring, as she is bumped to second billing by a new hotshot Italian, played by Hungarian Cornel Wilde ("Leave Her to Heaven" and "The Naked Prey") who also happens to be a handsome ladies' man. She soon discovers that she is not impervious to his charms, much to the dismay of Charlton Heston ("Ben Hur" and "Hamlet" - 1996), the hard-working manager who directs roustabouts in the loading and unloading of the tents, animals, costumes and rigging at every whistle stop along the way. We watch the raising and lowering of the Big Top, a spectacular train wreck and lots of circus acts.

We also are treated to Jimmie Stewart as Buttons the Clown who always stays in makeup, Gloria Grahame as the worldly elephant trainer who has a shared past with the Italian fellow, Dorothy Lamour as a glamour-puss performer and many, many luminaries from the circus who play themselves.

Robert Osborne introduced this classic at the Sedona Film Festival. He stressed that this film depicts an event we took for granted in the 40s and 50s, but which will never pass this way again.