Greatest Show on Earth, The (1952): One of Worst Best Picture Winners–DeMille’s Garish Circus Melodrama, Starring Cornell Wilde, Betty Hutton, Charlton Heston, Gloria Grahame

My Life as Oscar Historian, 1986-Present

My book on the Oscars, And the Winner Is: History and Politics of the Academy Award, published in 1986, was the first comprehensive chronicle of filmdom’s top prize.


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The first adventure movie to win the Best Picture Oscar was Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, which also earned, for no apparent reason, the writing award, then called Motion Picture Story, by Frederic M. Frank, Theodore St. John, and Frank Cavett.

Grade: C+ (** out of *****)


The film also has received technical nominations for Editing (Anne Bauchens) and Color Costume Design (Edith Head, Dorothy Jenkins, and Miles White), but the winners were “High Noon” for editing (Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad) and John Huston’s “Moulin Rouge” for costumes (Marcel Vertes).

Produced by Paramount, it was the only DeMille film to win the Best Picture Oscar. The tale’s inspiration derived from the Ringling Bros, Barnum and Bailey Circuses.  Paramount paid the notable circus $250,000 for the rights to use its name, acts, and equipment.  The collaboration between DeMille and the Ringling Circus is a match made in heaven: The movie is big, long, loud, garish, and vulgar.

The melodramatic story revolves around a romantic triangle between a tough manager (Charlton Heston), his beautiful aerialist (Betty Hutton), and a trapeze artist (Cornell Wilde).

The picture, a lurid extravaganza adventure, contains some interesting circus acts, but the most spectacular sequence is no doubt a train crash, with falling structures and hundreds of animals running around. (Spielberg and other filmmakers have singled out this sequence as one inspirational influence on their subsequent careers).

A mass entertainment, “The Greatest Show on Earth” still ranks as one of the most commercially popular pictures of the 1950s, opening to bonanza box-office at the Radio City Music Hall on January 10, 1952.

But it is also one of the least accountable and least distinguished Oscar-winners in the Academy’s history.

The film’s lavish production values and actual circus acts illustrate the massive logistics effort which are responsible for the magic of top circuses.

Furthermore, this movie began the tradition of honoring big-budget, special-effects blockbusters with a large number of nominations, as will become evident in 1956, when “Around the World in 80 Days” won Best Picture and other honors.

DeMille won his first and only directorial nomination for this picture, but the winner was John Ford for “The Quiet Man.” The Academy must have anticipated DeMille’s failure to win a competitive award for it decided to honor him with a Special Oscar, in recognition of “The Greatest Show on Earth,” as well as other blockbusters. This tribute was well-timed: DeMille made just one more film, “The Ten Commandments,” before dying in 1959 at the age of 78.

DeMille’s Opening Narration

Director DeMille’s voice-over, which precedes the film is bombastic and pretentious, a fitting overture to the spectacular soap opera that unfolds on screen.

“We bring you the circus — that Pied Piper whose magic tunes lead children of all ages into a tinseled and spun-candied world of reckless beauty and mounting laughter; whirling thrills; of rhythm, excitement and grace; of daring, enflaring and dance; of high-stepping horses and high-flying stars.

“But behind all this, the circus is a massive machine whose very life depends on discipline, motion and speed — a mechanized army on wheels that rolls over any obstacle in its path — that meets calamity again and again, but always comes up smiling — a place where disaster and tragedy stalk the Big Top, haunts the back yard, and rides the circus train — where Death is constantly watching for one frayed rope, one weak link, or one trace of fear.

“A fierce, primitive fighting force that smashes relentlessly forward against impossible odds: That is the circus — and this is the story of the biggest of the Big Tops — and of the men and women who fight to make it “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Read about 1950 Best Picture Oscar: All About Eve

All About Eve (1950): Mankiewicz’ Witty Satire, Starring Bette Davis in her Best (but Snubbed) Performance

Detailed Plot

Brad Braden, the manager of the world’s largest railroad circus, faces problems before the upcoming season. The board of directors plans to run a short season rather than risk losing $25,000 a day in a post-war economy. Brad bargains to keep the circus on the road as long as it is making a profit.

Brad tells his girlfriend Holly, a flyer expecting to be the star, that she won’t be the center, because he was forced to hire The Great Sebastian, “the King of the Air” and trapeze artist, as the show’s main star. Moreover, he needs to watch Sebastian, who gets too involved with the female performers.

The other characters include Harry, who is suspected of working for the gangster, Mr. Henderson. Buttons the Clown, never seen without makeup, is warned by a mysterious woman (who turns out to that there are questions about his past. Indeed, his former life is revealed, when Holly reads an article about a doctor who had “mercy killed” his wife.

Romantic triangle: Sebastian and Brad are both vying for Holly as the acts become daring and dangerous. Sebastian ignores his former lovers on the show, Angel, who performs in the elephant act, and Phyllis, who does a double turn as an iron jaw artist. When Sebastian removes his safety net, he suffers injuries in a fall.  Holly, who’s in love with Sebastian, gets the center ring and star billing.

Brad fires Harry when he is caught cheating, and Harry leaves, vowing revenge. Sebastian rejoins the show, but he is unable to return to the trapeze due to injury.

The guilty Holly professes love for her former rival over the unfeeling Brad. Calling Holly a fool, Angel makes a pass at Brad, which upsets Klaus.

Special Agent Gregory of the FBI interrogates Brad, showing a photo of the man they are pursuing. Though at first Brad doesn’t recognize the man in the photo, he later makes a connection between Buttons and the fugitive doctor.

The joy of Sebastian’s recovery is overshadowed by a collision of the circus’ two trains, set up by Harry, the crooked fired by Brad, and Klaus, Angel’s rejected suitor, Klaus. When Buttons returns, Holly identifies him as the doctor who had killed his wife.  He saves the critically injured Brad with a blood transfusion from Sebastian, and is later arrested by Gregory.

At the end, Holly takes over the show, mounting a circus parade through the town, while Brad’s near-death forces him to admit his love for Holly.

Betty Hutton, trailer for the film


Cornel Wilde, trailer for the film

Betty Hutton as Holly

Cornel Wilde as The Great Sebastian
Charlton Heston as Brad Braden
James Stewart as Buttons the Clown
Dorothy Lamour as Phyllis
Gloria Grahame as Angel
Henry Wilcoxon as FBI Agent Gregory
Lawrence Tierney as Mr. Henderson
Lyle Bettger as Klaus
John Ridgely as Assistant Manager
Frank Wilcox as Circus doctor
Brad Johnson as unnamed reporter
John Kellogg as Harry
Cecil B. DeMille as Narrator (uncredited)
Charmienne Harker as Charmienne (uncredited)

John Ringling North plays himself as the owner of the circus.

The film boast about 85 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus acts, including clowns Emmett Kelly and Lou Jacobs, midget Cucciola, bandmaster Merle Evans, foot juggler Miss Loni, and aerialist Antoinette Concello.

There are a number of unbilled cameo appearances (mostly in the audiences) including Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour’s co-stars in the Road to movies. William Boyd appears in his usual guise of Hopalong Cassidy. Danny Thomas, Van Heflin, character actor Oliver Blake, and Noel Neill are circus patrons, among others. Leon Ames is seen and heard in the train wreck sequence. A barker, kept anonymous. is seen in the film’s closing moments of the film; the voice belongs to Edmond O’Brien.