“The Greatest Show on Earth” is often considered to be one of the worst films to win the Best Picture Oscar. I found much of the film to be above that categorization. I also found many of director Cecil B. Demille’s decisions about the format of the film and length of sequences to be questionable. It is basically half-feature film and half-documentary. Its "cast" includes the 1400-member crew of the 1951 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus with much of the film's footage shot during the actual set-up, tear down, and performances of this crew. I love that the film preserves the legacy of performers like Emmett Kelly as the sad hobo clown "Weary Willie" and famed circus band leader Merle Evans, as well as the exciting atmosphere surrounding the circus that has faded with each new generation. One of the most interesting segments of the film is pure documentary with an in depth look at the set-up of the circus tent. It has nothing to do with the plot but it's fascinating. Still, it doesn’t fit with the actual storylines of the film. Some of the circus sequences go on for way too long. I understand that the inclusion for the real Barnum and Bailey performers is what makes this an epic, but it is never good when 20 minutes goes by without any story. All of the non-circus actors do a good job of bringing their characters to life within the circus atmosphere. Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, and Gloria Grahame all have nice performances but we forget that during the long tangents away from the plot. The final 20 minutes is cinema at its finest. The mystery behind Jimmy Stewart's character and his acting in the final moments are the film's saving grace. Many have criticized this film for not deserving to win the Oscar for Best Picture but this is the portion of the film that they should be praising. I believe that the film could have cut 30 minutes of material to make the story feel more consistent and still maintained its epic stature. “The Greatest Show on Earth” will always be remembered in infamy but it is a film that every movie fan should see, even just for the final 20 minutes.
[Pictured: I don’t like clowns but Jimmy Stewart manages to make “Buttons” a likable character]