I'm not sure about younger generations, but when someone says the words, "The Greatest Show on Earth" those of a certain age automatically think of Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Circus. The traveling show, which was created in 1919 after the merger of two smaller traveling circuses, boasted everything from trapeze artists and clowns to exotic, Asian elephants, amongst other animal acts. Across the United States, the arrival of the circus was a highlight of the year for many small towns. Wanting to capture such an exciting part of American culture, Director Cecil B. DeMille created the pseudo-documentary/drama film called The Greatest Show on Earth. Winning the Oscar for Best Picture in 1953, the beloved film has been restored by Paramount Pictures Presents and is now available for purchase.
Holly (Betty Hutton; Annie Get Your Gun) had been practicing new moves for the Circus' upcoming season while rumors were spreading that the show would have a shortened season. Excited to finally be in the center ring, Holly was overjoyed when her boyfriend and manager of the circus, Brad (Charlton Heston; Ben-Hur), announced there would be a full season. That is, of course, until she found out the reason why. The circus had hired the world-famous, high wire stunt artist, The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde; Sword of Lancelot) to perform in the center ring hoping his reputation would sell tickets.
Hurt and disappointed, Holly made it a point to show off to Sebastian, who, in turn, would show off for Holly. Their "one-upmanship game" not only garnered their mutual respect for one another but also made for a great show. One night, after Holly teased Sebastian about the new safety net that was installed, he cut it down and then, unsuccessfully, attempted a highly dangerous stunt. When Sebastian returned to the circus months later, he could no longer perform which caused Holly was ridden with guilt. She decided to help Sebastian causing a breakup between Holly and Brad. However, their love triangle is only one of the many stories behind the scenes.
Intertwining the scripted scenes with documentary-like footage, DeMille almost makes the audience feel as if the actors are real-life circus performers, especially since they learned aerial moves and performed many of their own stunts. Heston, at the time a relative newcomer to the film industry, infuses Brad with a cowboy-esque swagger and nobody is confused who the man in charge is. Hutton and Wilde have some decent chemistry making their relationship onscreen cute and playful. James Stewart (Vertigo) also has a wonderful but small role in the film, as the man who literally ran away to the circus to become a clown. Extras on the set include real-life circus performers lending an air of authenticity to the movie.
Paramount's restoration and transfer to 1080p video quality adds a level of richness and depth to the picture that enhances one's viewing of the film. Scenes under the big top are still dark but one can only do so much to brighten up an older film. There are also some big issues with some of the special effects/green screen, especially towards the end of the movie. The DTS-HD master audio 2.1 is serviceable but somewhat flat unfortunately because the orchestration is as big and full as one would expect. The only extra on the disc is the same thing they do every time with this Paramount Presents series, Filmmaker Focus – Leonard Maltin on The Greatest Show on Earth. It offers some interesting insights into the actors, DeMille, and the movie but it is short at just under eight minutes.
The Greatest Show on Earth is certainly one of DeMille's grandest undertakings but dubbed one of the worst of all the Oscar Best Picture winners, it isn't his best. How many times can you watch circus acts before they start to become redundant?
I'm not generally a proponent of movie remakes but with today's technology, I wouldn't mind seeing this one redone.
Still, if you are a film buff, this is a good one to add to your collection.