Having won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1952 (beating off stiff competition from Fred Zinnemann's classic western High Noon and John Ford's The Quiet Man) and being put together by the extremely revered director Cecil B DeMille, a movie about a struggling circus seemed like a more-than appealing way to pass a couple of hours on a Monday afternoon. However, The Greatest Show on Earth did not live up to my expectations. The particularly ropey plot, which occurs in small bursts between over-extensive shots of circus performances, revolves around a selection of mostly dislikeable characters travelling across America with the Ringling Brothers Circus. These dislikeable protagonists are portrayed on screen by some very weak acting; the ever-melodramatic Charlton Heston and the incredibly annoying Betty Hutton are particular culprits.
Although this award winning flick does have the occasional highlight; a fairly convincing train crash, the sight of a trapeze artist falling to the ground, and plenty of clips of genuinely talented circus folk, the film fails by never really focusing in on its potentially interesting side-plot. As previously stated, I never really warmed the central protagonists, whether it be because of the acting or the characters inability to be loyal or kind the those closest to them... however, the site of James Stewart on screen is always a pleasure and it is also the case here. His warm-hearted (and enormously under-used) character, Bubbles the clown, is hiding a dark secret that is eventually revealed - leading to a criminal investigation. This storyline is kept on the fringes, much to my disappointment, and the movie plunders on with Hutton's character Holly (a female trapeze artist) falling in and out of love like it's going out of fashion.
And so, my Monday afternoon viewing was plagued by a number of disappointments. Had DeMille focused on the Bubbles plot, cut out some of the circus scenes, and given Heston and Hutton the boot, we may just have had a good film on our hands... and not a movie that was voted the third worst Best Picture of all time by Empire magazine.
Rating: a fairly generous 2 out of 5