Plot: The circus seems like the happiest, most carefree place in the world, with laughter, games, and excitement around every corner. But the circus is also a business and of late, the gates haven’t been as crowded as usual. This presents a problem, as profits fuel the circus and without solid attendance, some stops might be taken off the schedule. Ringling Brothers is one of the biggest, most popular circus attractions, but business has been down even for them, which has caused some talk of a shortened run. But Marc Braden (Charlton Heston) has no intentions of cutting out shows, as he plans to do whatever is needed to keep the schedule intact. Of course, that means the money has to be coming in, but Braden is confident. In order to ensure the profits rise, he has turned over the main attraction status to The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde). Sebastian is not well liked with the troupe, with a few people in particular who despise him. In the process of bumping up Sebastian, Braden had to demote his own girlfriend, trapeze artist Holly (Betty Hutton). This doesn’t sit well with Holly, as she worked hard to become the circus’ main attraction. Now Braden must hold the circus together, as it ventures from town to town, with internal woes of all kinds. Will his efforts be rewarded, or will the group break down from the inside out?
Entertainment Value: This epic look inside the circus world won Best Picture, while boasting direction from Cecil B. Demille and a sprawling ensemble of talent that is stacked from top to bottom. I wouldn’t rank it as one of the top tier Best Picture winners, but the scale is impressive and the movie is ambitious, crafting an authentic and quite immersive circus experience. Of course, I love films that take place in the circus or carnival worlds, so I appreciated all the little details and general atmosphere, as those were so well done here. I think the realistic approach to the circus adds a lot to the movie, but I can see how some might prefer a more dialed up, over the top take, just to add to the drama. But in truth, the movie has a good deal of drama and some big set pieces, so while grounded, it also turns up the action when needed. The stories told are competent, with several threads going on at once, which makes sense given the sheer number of people involved with the circus. To be honest, I wasn’t all that hooked into any of the stories that much, but the characters were interesting and the circus setting was effective, which compensated. I do think the movie drags at times as well, with a run time of over two and a half hours, but I wouldn’t call it dull, just a touch on the slow side in some stretches. If you’re a fan of the circus or just love big star studded ensembles, this movie is recommended.
This movie has an impressive cast of performers involved, with big name talent in every aspect of the production, down to the crowds at the circus that include uncredited folks like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. You can also see some genuine circus talent on hand, such as Emmett Kelly and John Ringling North, among others. While this is very much an ensemble, the central role belongs to Charlton Heston as the hard driving, charismatic Braden. He has a great look here and his attitude commands the screen, so his presence in The Greatest Show on Earth is a powerful one. This was said to be the first movie Steven Spielberg ever saw and it fairly obvious he used a little of Braden when he put Indiana Jones on the screen decades later. James Stewart has an understated role in this one, always under clown makeup, but he is able to do a lot with his limited scenes and his side thread is always interesting. I wish he was given a little more time, as this is such a unique side to his performance abilities. The cast also includes Betty Hutton, Dorothy Lamour, Cornel Wilde, and Gloria Grahame.