Showbiz Follies 4 : Under the Big Top World

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Grandpa Felicius Grandpa Felicius: What Cecil B. DeMille did with 1952’s “The Greatest Show on Earth” is turn the promises of a circus barker like P. T. Barnum into manifest realities. DeMille didn’t win the Best Director Oscar that year, but “The Greatest Show on Earth” did win a Best Picture Oscar, which he got to pocket, as a producer. The movie is not well-regarded these days, although none of the critics make much sense in their criticism, beyond “Waaaah, ‘High Noon’ should have won just to piss off Joe McCarthy!” or “Waaaah, ‘Singing in the Rain’ had more singing in the rain!” or “Waaaah, Charlton Heston wouldn’t even let us pry his guns from his cold dead hands and we will never forgive him for it!” True, the flick is a little thick around the middle, like one of its starring elephants, but “The Greatest Show on Earth” is still a classic, blasted naysayers aside.

One could even praise it as a stylistic hybrid. Part of it is a non-fiction advertisement in praise of the thousands of working folk that made any given evening of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Show a possibility, with many segments simply devoted to filming real circus acts without much bothersome artifice. The other part is a love triangle between an ambitious acrobat (Betty Hutton, who you can see doing most of her own stunts) and the two men that occupy her attention: a ladies’-man daredevil (Cornel Wilde), and a workaholic boss with “sawdust in his veins” (Charlton Heston). The triangle feels particularly mature because the two men are practically cordial to each other, refusing to let something as ignoble as jealousy control their behavior. They both understand that a lady will choose whom a lady will choose.

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Rounding out the cast are two of Hollywood’s most underrated treasures: sassy Gloria Grahame and brassy Dorothy Lamour. During a crowd-pan, you can even see Lamour’s “Road” pals, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, quietly enjoying their night at the circus. That’s entertainment- and synergy!

Father Hank Hank: “The Greatest Show on Earth” puts circus peanuts in your right hand, a teardrop in your left eye, and a song in the middle of your chest, and darn it if it didn’t deserve that Best Picture Oscar of 1953, no matter what the critics and cynics say. Heck, Jimmy Stewart should have won a Best Supporting Actor nod for his role as a lovable, murderous clown. Robbed!   

Tracey Tracey: UGH. This movie, shot in glorious Sap-O-Rama, includes such “charming” lines as: “The girl may say ‘NO,’ but the woman inside you means ‘YES.’” Rapist says what? That’s not the only problem in this problematic movie. As a member of PETASS, (and here I have to specify that PETASS, the “People-for-the-Ethical-Treatment-of-Animals Sympathizer Society,” is in no way affiliated, endorsed, or even acknowledged by PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) I am sick and tired of circus movies eulogizing Barnum and Bailey. Now I hear there’s a Hugh Jackman one down the line? How is this possible? We closed those RB&B&B bastards down, the war is won, and now the happy elephants roam free through northern Florida, as Mother Nature intended!

Trent Trent: You know, all those unemployed Barnum and Bailey pagliacci didn’t exactly vanish into thin air. They set up their rotting canvas shacks in a small town called Chuckles Falls. There, the clowns bide their time. They listen to their Cirque du Soleil. They put on their leprous make-up. They grin their red grins into their cracked mirrors. And they wait. And wait. What do they wait for? They wait for the Clown King to summon them. What will happen then? No one knows. Should you be frightened, Tracey? Maybe we all should be.

Tracey Tracey: MOOOOOOM, MAKE HIM STOP!

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Beatricia Beatricia: While I agree with Tracey that clowns are disreputable, Hanky is right: Jimmy Stewart is heart-breaking as Buttons, a wise, self-effacing clown hiding a tormented past as a surgeon. He never takes off the piles of face paint, but of course he talks like Jimmy Stewart so it’s not like he succeeds at going incognito. Buttons exudes a knowing sadness that doesn’t feel pathetic. It’s that “Jimmy Stewart” attitude: it recognizes the worst aspects of life, and reacts with dignity and decency. In the presence of despair, dignity and decency are better than dopey hope.

Cousin Franz Cousin Franz: I recall an “Entertainment Weekly” list of the greatest directors of all time that made room for Jerry Lewis, but not for Cecil B. DeMille. Live all your life at the foot of a mountain, and you might miss the full impact of its height. Cecil B. DeMille is like Steven Spielberg. Both are directors of spectacle, and so culturally pervasive, so consistently successful, so cornily conservative, that taking them for granted is the default “hip” reaction to their work. Spielberg often cites “The Greatest Show on Earth” as the first movie to make an impression upon him; there’s little doubt that what caught Stevie’s eye was the epic train crash that concludes the film. We now casually use the word “epic” to describe almost anything: a win, or a fail, or a good sandwich, but we don’t mean “epic, like Homer.” Whether we know it or not, we mean “epic, like Cecil B. DeMille.”

Blurbarella Blurbarella: “I Am– Ready For My– Oil Change– Mister DeMille.”

5 out of 6 Cherries

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