It’s easy to make fun of C.B. De Mille films: they’re crass, melodramatic, too partial on the workings of society and extremely facile on the workings of the human heart. But by golly can he do narrative and spectacle.
The Greatest Show on Earth is widely considered the worst Oscar winner for Best Picture in history. But I found it moves along at a merry pace, managing a large cast of characters relationships and conflicts with ease – the viewer always knows where s/he’s at – and De Mille knows how to render the spectacle of the circus cinematically spectacular.
The colour is that candy-floss early fifties technicolour, on the garish side but intense and heart-lifting; the circus stunts are filmed so as to convey the wonder and danger: can it really be Cornel Wilde on the trapeze? Look, it’s Betty Hutton’s face that appears as the swing tilts towards the camera! It really is Gloria Graham riding that elephant!
Each star is given their moment in the narrative and the spectacle: Betty Hutton on the trapeze and singing with James Stewart on a trampoline; Stewart himself clowns around not too successfully whilst being chased by the police for the murder of his wife; Cornel Wilde showing off his body and overcoming a physical disability; Gloria Grahame riding her elephants and looking for love; Dorothy Lamour sings a song in a hula skirt under the big top, looks beautiful and moans a lot about everyone else; a very young and spectacularly handsome Charlton Heston is the boss man women fight over (see clip at the end).
The audience under the big top is always referred back to, sometimes jokily as when Hope and Crosby appear as part of it, and their wonder at what they are seeing becomes ours. De Mille’s camera rarely loses sight of the Circus in general and the big top in particular, and if he sentimentalises what it represents, he honours the mental and physical skills necessary to perform the quite extraordinary feats we see under the big top.
On top of that there are cars crashing into trains, lions and tigers on the loose, many of the great Ringling and Barnum & Bailey circus acts of the day, filmed at leisure and with the certainty that they will please — they do.
What doesn’t are the hokey narration by C.B. himself, the gender politics so typical of its day, Betty Hutton’s nervy performance and anything in the film to do with love and relationships. But it’s amazingly easy to draw the veil over all of that. A colourful and crude spectacle that still work on the level it originally intended.
A catty fight, a bit of a bitch-fest, sadly typical of the relationships between women in 1950s cinema ….and not uncamp.