Wednesday, May 05, 2010

1952, Year in Review: The Greatest Show on Earth

The Greatest Show on Earth
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Starring: Betty Hutton, James Stewart, Charlton Heston, Gloria Grahame, Cornel Wilde
Grade: C -

The closest modern equivalent to Cecil B. DeMille's oft-criticised Best Picture winner is probably 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Not really because of any crossover with regard to plot (one film is about backstage tension among a circus troupe, the other about a man ageing backwards) but because the two pictures share a level of self-importance synonymous with Oscar Bait. While Button was beaten by Danny Boyle's Slumdog piledriver The Greatest Show managed to hold on for victory, amidst stiff competition from John Ford's The Quiet Man and legendary anti-Western High Noon.

Most frustrating about DeMille's picture is the feigned sense of grandeur that filters through it, spelled out by an intrusive booming narration that stresses the sensational and urges you to absorb the Serious Spectacle. The impetuous immediacy of DeMille's emphasis on scale -- not necessarily even style -- over substance feels all the more redundant as the narrative comparatively dwindles in complexity and ambition. The troupe of performers (the likes of which include Betty Hutton as a vivacious trapeze artist and James Stewart as a depressed clown) engage in some seriously unconvincing, self-conscious scenery, strewn with storm-in-a-teacup-style issues that feel extracted from films like William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, but with no consideration for thematic relevance or involvement.

It's certainly true that The Greatest Show on Earth hasn't aged at all well - not least because the emphasis on technicolour showmanship and general business is so motivated towards seeming innovative for the early Fifties. With relative retrospective enlightenment the coarsely theatrical set-pieces that intersperse the film's misjudged melodrama are strangely laboured, and fail to engage enough to warrant their lengthy sojourn.

I do wonder how much influence DeMille had in Hollywood at this period. Just two years previous to this Norma Desmond had clamoured for his attention in the delicious Sunset Blvd. and he's still regarded as one of the most famous Producers of all time. I can't help but think though that Oscar made a cardinal error in bowing down to The Greatest Show on Earth, since every frame reads of arrogant, lazy filmmaking, to the extent where I don't see how anybody could ever believe that it attains the level of expectation and ambition that it purports to have.

Academy Awards

Best Picture
Best Writing, Motion Picture Story

Best Director
Best Costume Design, Colour
Best Film Editing

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