Film / The Greatest Show on Earth

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The Greatest Show on Earth is a 1952 drama film set in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, starring Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, and Charlton Heston. The film was produced, directed, and narrated by Cecil B. DeMille, and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Its storyline is supported by lavish production values, actual circus acts, and documentary, behind-the-rings looks at the massive logistics effort which made big top circuses possible.

The film stars Hutton and Wilde as trapeze artists competing for the center ring, and Heston as the circus manager running the show. Jimmy Stewart also stars as a mysterious clown who never removes his make-up, even between shows, while Dorothy Lamour and Gloria Grahame play supporting roles.

In addition to the film actors, the real Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus' 1951 troupe appears in the film, with its complement of 1400 people, hundreds of animals, and 60 carloads of equipment and tents. The actors learned their respective circus roles and participated in the acts.

Adjusted for inflation, the film's box office is among the highest-grossing films in the United States and Canada.

A television series, also called The Greatest Show on Earth, was inspired by the film, but with Jack Palance in the lead role. The program ran on Tuesday evenings for thirty episodes on ABC during the 19631964 season.

Legend has it that Heston got the lead role of the tough circus manager by waving at DeMille on his way out from the studio. This impressed DeMille so much that he started asking around about Heston, saying "I like the way he waved just now." Heston himself said that one member wrote in saying of his performance that she was impressed with "how well the circus manager got along with the actors", indicating that his performance was so authentic that she thought he really was a circus manager. Heston considered this one of the best reviews he ever got.

Notable for being the very first feature film Steven Spielberg ever saw.


This film contains examples of:

  • Betty and Veronica: Holly is torn between the hardworking and steadfast but often distracted beau Brad and the dashing, roguish, foreign Sebastian. She ultimately chooses Brad... mostly. Just like Brad, the circus is the most important thing to her.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Buttons is arrested, but Holly single-handedly directs the circus to success when Brad has to recover.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: Betty Hutton's Holly, Dorothy Lamour's Phyllis, and Gloria Grahame's Angel.
  • The Cameo: During Dorothy Lamour's South Seas number, her Road to ... co-stars Bing Crosby and Bob Hope can be seen in the audience.
  • Career-Ending Injury: Sebastian falls without a safety net while attempting a risky trick, crippling one of his arms. Subverted in that Buttons asserts that it can fully recover, and Brad's taunting riles some energy to have him return to form.
  • The Casanova: The Great Sebastien.
    Angel: Did he tell you you were like cognac, all fire in the blood?
    Holly (indignantly): No, I was champagne. I make his head spin.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Buttons mercy-killed his ailing, dying wife, and went on the run because of it.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Angel's lines are almost entirely made of snark.
  • Dialogue Reversal: "You've got sawdust in your veins" is primarily said by Holly to Brad. In the end, he says this to her as she's busy getting ready for a show and totally ignores his attempt to propose.
  • Epic Movie: Two and a half hours long, an All-Star Cast, and a supporting cast of thousands, with a stunning and bombastic set production. Though the film itself is considered one of the weakest Best Picture winners ever, it's still pretty impressive to look at during the circus scenes.
  • Friendly Rivalry: between Holly and Sebastien, both trapeze artists competing for the center ring.
  • If I Can't Have You...: Klaus, the elephant-trainer, is so fueled with jealousy after Angel rejects him and starts dating Brad that he seems to seriously consider having an elephant crush her head during their act. Fortunately, Brad stops him.
  • Inconvenient Hippocratic Oath: Buttons has to hide his past as a doctor, as he's on the run for mercy-killing his dying wife. However, he's forced into service when tending to the injured Sebastian and the dying Brad, who ultimately pulls through because of him — though it causes Buttons's arrest.
  • It's All My Fault: Holly blames herself for Sebastian's fall and injury, as their friendly rivalry drove him to remove the safety net right before he attempted a risky trick.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Holly is in a relationship with Brad, but is also attracted to Sebastian, who is attracted to both her and Angel. Angel loves Brad and rebuffs the advances of Klaus, but eventually ends up with Sebastian.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Angel's elephant-trainer boyfriend, Klaus.
  • Mercy Kill: What Buttons is on the run for.
  • Nice Hat: Brad's fedora. Don't touch it.
  • Non Sequitur Thud
  • No Romantic Resolution: Brad tries to propose to Holly as she always wanted in the end, but she's too distracted by running the circus to pay attention.
  • Not So Stoic: Brad's rant when Sebastian donates blood for him.
  • Pair the Spares: Sebastian and Angel get together in the end.
  • Sad Clown: Jimmy Stewart's character, Buttons.
    • Also, Emmett Kelly, perhaps the definitive Sad Clown, plays himself.
  • The Show Must Go On: Holly is forced to continue performing after Sebastian's fall. After the train crash, Holly also works to continue the show.
  • Shown Their Work: The characters actually had to train in their circus professions for the film. This was particularly hard on Cornel Wilde, who was terrified of heights yet had to play a high-wire performer.


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