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The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) starring Charlton Heston, Jimmy Stewart, Cornell Wilde, Betty Hutton

The Greatest Show on Earth

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) starring Charlton Heston, Jimmy Stewart, Cornell Wilde, Betty Hutton

DVD review of “The Greatest Show on Earth” starring Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, James Stewart.   To ensure a full profitable season, circus manager Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) engages The Great Sebastian (Cornell Wilde), though this moves his girlfriend Holly from her hard-won center trapeze spot. Holly and Sebastian begin a dangerous one-upmanship duel in the ring, while he pursues her on the ground. Subplots involve the secret past of Buttons the Clown (Jimmy Stewart) and the efforts of racketeers to move in on the game concessions. Let the show begin!

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The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) starring Charlton Heston, Jimmy Stewart, Cornell Wilde, Betty Hutton

I have to admit to being a fan of The Greatest Show on Earth on several levels.   First, it’s simply a good, enjoyable film, with some very good performances by Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde and Jimmy Stewart — who shines through his makeup as Buttons the Clown.   Secondly, it serves as a wonderful snapshot of what the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus was like in it’s prime, complete with performances by circus greats such as Emmett Kelly, Otto Griebling, and many more.

Jimmy Stewart as Buttons the Clown in The Greatest Show on Earth

Are there any negatives?  Yes.   The great train wreck, towards the end of the film, looks truly unrealistic by today’s standards.  Not quite as bad as Godzilla eating Tokyo, but in that general vicinity.   The plot resembles a soap opera, but that’s okay.  It gives us an excuse to see more of the various circus performers behind the scenes.

Overall, it’s a very good movie that I enjoyed when I was younger, enjoyed again now that I’m not quite so young, and held my four youngest children spellbound the first time that they saw it as well.

Editorial review of The Greatest Show on Earth, starring Charlton Heston, Jimmy Stewart, courtesy of Amazon.com

The Greatest Show on Earth is a heaping helping of flapdoodle served up by one of Hollywood’s canniest entertainers: producer-director Cecil B. DeMille. This overripe melodrama purports to be life inside the Ringling Brothers Circus; maybe it’s not, but the circus ought to be like this. The actors wrestling with the purple dialogue are: early-career Charlton Heston, as the tough-as-nails circus manager; Cornel Wilde and Betty Hutton as trapeze artistes; and Gloria Grahame (who won an Oscar), dangling from elephants. Best of all, James Stewart plays a clown who — €“for mysterious reasons — never removes his makeup. (Stewart took the supporting role simply because he’d always wanted to play a clown.) This is a fried-baloney sandwich of a movie: it ain’t sophisticated, and probably isn’t good for you, but once you start you can’t stop. It was the box-office champ of 1952, and it shocked everybody by winning the best picture Oscar. —Robert Horton

Charleton Heston in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

Movie quotes from The Greatest Show on Earth

[first lnes] Narrator: We bring you the circus, pied piper whose magic tunes greet children of all ages, from six to 60, into a tinsel and spun-candy world of reckless beauty and mounting laughter and whirling thrills; of rhythm, excitement and grace; of blaring and daring 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 and 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, haunt the backyard, and ride 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 — €œThe Greatest Show on Earth. — €

Angel (Gloria Grahame): Listen, sugar, the only way that you can keep me warm is to wrap me up in a marriage license.

Angel (Gloria Grahame): You are a sourpuss, aren’t you?
Brad Braden (Charlton Heston):: Yeah.
Angel (Gloria Grahame): You want to bite somebody?
Brad Braden (Charlton Heston):: Yeah.
Angel (Gloria Grahame): Well, pick your spot.

Buttons the Clown (Jimmy Stewart): Clowns are funny people, they only love once.
Holly (Betty Hutton): All men aren’t that way, even if they act like clowns.

Holly (Betty Hutton): [singing] When things go wrong, and life’s no song, and you’re flat on your back, that doesn’t mean you have to lie there: be a jumping jack!
Buttons the Clown (Jimmy Stewart): [singing] Keep on the hop, and if you flop, and everything looks black, stand on your head and holler — €œhi there! — € Be a jumping jack!
Holly (Betty Hutton): When things go up, they must come down, and also visa verse. If things look bad, don’t fret and frown — €“ they could be ten times worse!
Buttons the Clown (Jimmy Stewart): Your train of luck, it may get stuck if something’s on the track; give a good jump and you’ll get by there …
Holly, Buttons the Clown (Jimmy Stewart): Be a jumping jack!

[Holly and Sebastian are one-upping each other on the trapeze]
Buttons the Clown (Jimmy Stewart): How long do you think this can go on before something happens?
Brad Braden (Charlton Heston):: It’s circus, isn’t it?
Buttons the Clown (Jimmy Stewart): Do you believe in prayer?
Brad Braden (Charlton Heston):: And practice.

Angel (Gloria Grahame): Did he say you were like cognac? All fire in zee glass?
Holly (Betty Hutton): No, he said I was like champagne. I made his head spin.
Angel (Gloria Grahame): Yeah, only you’ll be the one who winds up with a hangover.

Angel (Gloria Grahame): [Sebastian almost drives his car into the elephant Angel is riding] Hey! Don’t crowd, mister! Can’t you see an elephant or do I have to paint her red?
The Great Sebastian (Cornell Wilde): I was blinded by the memory of a beautiful night in Paris.
Angel (Gloria Grahame): [to the other circus performers] Blow up your water wings, girls, here comes the big wave! [to Sebastian] Angel (Gloria Grahame): How come no husband ever shot you?
The Great Sebastian (Cornell Wilde): I never offer a sitting target.
Angel (Gloria Grahame): I thought I’d seen the last of you when you got mixed up with that wire walker in Lisbon.
The Great Sebastian (Cornell Wilde): You will never see the last of me, Angel.
Klaus (Lyle Bettger): ANGEL!
Angel (Gloria Grahame): That will be arranged when you meet Klaus.

Klaus (Lyle Bettger): You always have a smile for that high-flying peacock.
Angel (Gloria Grahame): Well, what do you want me to do, cry over him?

Klaus (Lyle Bettger): Your legs are too thin, your hair is too red, you have lips like a cat. You’re no good. You give me too much trouble. Angel (Gloria Grahame): Flattery rolls right off me.

[while Sebastian was speaking, romantically to Holly, Ruth, an elephant, was directed by Angel to pick up and take Holly away, from Sebastian, to Brad] The Great Sebastian (Cornell Wilde): [Sebastian, speaking French] Qu’est-ce qu’al y a?
Holly (Betty Hutton): Let me go. Sebastian.
Angel (Gloria Grahame): Never try to take anything from an elephant.
Holly (Betty Hutton): Sebastian, do something!
The Great Sebastian (Cornell Wilde): A lion I fight for you, a tiger! But the red-headed wildcat with an elephant, no. [then he chuckled, with a big grin]
Holly (Betty Hutton): You make this two-tailed jackass put me down. [Ruth let go of Holly, in front of Brad]

Holly (Betty Hutton): I’d hate to have your nerve in a tooth!

Holly (Betty Hutton): [Very frustrated] I send Angel for a doctor and she comes back with an *elephant*!
Angel (Gloria Grahame): [Filled with sarcasm] You better let Birdie bandage up the pixie if you want to say good bye to our boyfriend! Holly (Betty Hutton): [Horrified] Brad!

Brad Braden (Charlton Heston):: [while Buttons is doing first aid] Buttons! If that detective sees you doing this, he won’t need fingerprints!

[to Holly, as his blood is being transfused into Brad] The Great Sebastian (Cornell Wilde): If he should make love well after this, pay no attention — €“ it will be me.

[last lines] Midway barker: That’s all, ladies and gentlemen, that’s all. Come again to the greatest show on earth. Bring the children. Bring the old folks. You can shake the sawdust off your feet, but you can’t shake it outta your heart. Come again, folks. The Greatest Show on Earth. Come again.

Trivia for The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

  • Cecil B. DeMille was demanding of his actors and actresses and insisted that everyone truly learn to perform the circus roles they were supposed to be “acting”. This meant that Betty Hutton really did have to learn the trapeze and Gloria Grahame had to let an elephant rest its foot an inch from her face. Cornel Wilde probably had it the worst, as he was portraying a high-wire artist — and he was seriously afraid of heights.
  • Lucille Ball was Cecil B. DeMille’s first choice for “Angel”, but she became pregnant and was replaced by Gloria Grahame. Paulette Goddard also campaigned strongly for the role but was turned down owing to her reluctance to perform stunt scenes.
  • Cameo: Bob Hope as circus spectator
  • Cameo Diana Lynn as circus spectator
  • Cameo: Bing Crosby as circus spectator
  • Special effects produced a green halo around Gloria Grahame and Betty Hutton in the “Grand Parade” scene, so a shot was added of green floodlights turning on above them.
  • Rights to use of the title motto, and of Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey’s facilities and performances, were purchased for $250,000. DeMille advised the writers to view the German film Variete (1925) as a model for the type of story he wanted. DeMille toured the Midwest for 2 months with the circus, collecting anecdotes, slang, and behind-the-scenes ideas. Publicity resulting from his involvement drew sellout crowds to the performances.
  • Charlton Heston was driving through the Paramount studio when he spotted Cecil B. DeMille (whom he had never met) and waved at him. DeMille was so impressed by Heston’s “wave” he made inquires that ultimately led to Heston being cast as Brad in this film. This was only Heston’s third film which skyrocketed him to fame. One fan wrote a letter to DeMille on how much she enjoyed the movie and commented, “And I’m surprised how well the circus manager (Heston) worked with the real actors”.  Heston thought it was one of the best reviews he ever received.
  • The first movie Steven Spielberg ever saw. His dad took him to the theater, promising him a trip to the circus. He was four years old at the time.
  • While filming this movie, Cecil B. DeMille presented Betty Hutton with the Photoplay Award for favorite actress of 1950 for Annie Get Your Gun (1950). The presentation was filmed and shown on a newsreel.
  • Scenes of this motion picture were filmed at the actual winter quarters of the Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Circus in Sarasota, Florida. Additional scenes were also filmed at an actual circus performance in which the film’s actors participated in the Grand Hippodrome Parade with the regular circus performers. If you look very closely at the bottom left-hand portion of the screen during a brief long-shot of the Grand Parade, you can see Cecil B. DeMille’s camera unit in a corner of the Hippodrome where the parade takes a turn around the ring, along with Mr. DeMille himself standing next to the camera.
  • During one scene Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) is hanging from the trapeze by his knees. He catches Holly (Betty Hutton) then pulls her up and kisses her. This shot took several takes and during one of the early takes Wilde tore the ligaments in his shoulder. He managed to make it through two more takes, then had to stop. He was unable to use his arm for several days so Cecil B. DeMille shot scenes where he was not needed.
  • The movie is often cited as the least deserved Best Picture winner ever. It is widely believed the film only won because many members of the Academy were reluctant to vote for the anti-McCarthyite western High Noon, whose screenwriter Carl Foreman had just been blacklisted from Hollywood.
  • After the train wreck, Emmett Kelly is briefly seen without his “Weary Willie” makeup, which is surprising since he was a very private individual and rarely allowed himself to be photographed out of character.
  • During the film’s spectacular set piece sequence of the train wreck, the Paramount sound Stage 16 was filled with animals running around loose. The greatest problem occurred when the large cage of monkeys was opened. The simians were so frightened of the lions and tigers that they panicked and fled the building, ending up in the adjoining Hollywood Cemetary. According to Cecil B. DeMille biographer Charles Higham, it proved almost impossible to retrieve them.
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