The Greatest Show on Earth is a 1952 film focused on a dramatized depiction of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, starring Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, and Charlton Heston, along with Cecil B. DeMille as the narrator, director, and producer. James Stewart, Gloria Grahame, and Dorothy Lamour also had roles, and to top this off, the 1951 troupe of the actual Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus' filled in as the rest of the circus.
The plot deals with circus manager Brad Braden (played by Heston) dealing with a number of issues facing the upcoming circus season, including dealing with the too-stingy board of directors, as well as a number of problematic circus "divas" with their own issues. Meanwhile, the past of a strange clown who refuses to remove their makeup is about to catch up with the circus as a whole...
Taking inflation into account, the film's box office is among the highest-grossing films in the United States and Canada. It won two Academy Awards (Best Picture and Best Story), and was nominated for three others. It's also notable for being the very first feature film Steven Spielberg ever saw, and plays a major role in The Fabelmans.
A television series of the same name (produced by Desilu Studios when it was a separate entity from Paramount, which produced the film), with Jack Palance in the lead role, aired on ABC for a single season (1963–64) of 30 episodes.
This film contains examples of:
- AB Negative: The circus train is derailed and a victim needs a blood transfusion. Guess what his blood type is? (It was thought in the 1950's, when the movie was made, that the more blood the patient lost, the more important it was for the donor to be an exact match to the receiver. However, if no exact match could be found, the doctors would have accepted a less ideal match if the alternative was the patient's death. That is not how it's portrayed here, though. The donor has to be AB-, or nothing!)
- And Starring: After all the actors in the opening credits are billed, down to the bit parts, Stewart gets a full-screen credit: "And James Stewart as 'Buttons', a clown."
- As Himself: Dozens of circus performers play themselves, many just in bit parts. John Ringling North appears as himself in the scene where the board of directors is talking about shortening the tour to cut costs.
- 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 and both of the circus's trains end up being crashed in a horrible fashion, 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 Sebastian.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.
- Contrived Coincidence: Buttons has been on the run for who knows how many years, but Holly just happens to pick up a newspaper with a big feature spread about his crime. And if that isn't contrived enough, Buttons drives up right behind her on a golf cart as she's reading, and sees it too.
- 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.
- Diabolus ex Machina: Button's attempt to hide his Dark and Troubled Past is literally derailed when Harry and Klaus's actions cause the circus trains to crash into each other, injuring Brad enough to where Buttons is forced to use his skills to save his life.
- 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.
- Dramatic Drop: One of the members of the board of directors lets his pipe fall right out of this mouth when Brad reveals that he's signed The Great Sebastian for this season's tour.
- Establishing Character Moment:
- Sebastian arriving half an hour before the train leaves, to the delight of every woman in the circus, accompanied by a police "escort" (who each picked him up for a separate traffic offence.)
- Brad's introduction shows his competence as a manager, his love for the circus, and his willingness to fight for his crew's success against his own superiors.
- 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 Sebastian, both trapeze artists competing for the center ring.
- Handshake Refusal: Sebastian refuses a handshake when Brad offers one after his return from the hospital. At first Brad is offended, but he quickly observes how Sebastian is holding a topcoat draped over his right arm, or how he lights a match with only his left hand before smoking a cigarette. It turns out that Sebastian's right hand has been turned into a useless claw by the accident. (It's implied near the end that it will get better).
- "I Can't Look!" Gesture: Buttons ends up hiding his eyes several times at Holly or Sebastian's stunts—especially when Holly does a handstand on top of a chair on a moving trapeze.
- 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. This later plays a role when he and Harry try to rob the circus train, only to turn around and try to stop the second section from smashing into it when Angel is onboard. Neither one of them make it, and the train crashes anyway.
- 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.
- Ironic Nickname: Of course the fat guy in the circus is named "Tiny".
- 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.
- Just Train Wrong: When the second section of the circus train crashes into the first, it's shown with a caboose on the rear. No passenger trains have a freight-train exclusive car on the tail end.
- Light Feminine and Dark Feminine: Blonde, impulsive, and slightly naive Holly versus the cooler, calmer, and more experienced Angel.
- 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.
- New Old Flame: Both Phyllis and Angel have had past relationships with the womanizing Sebastian and still have some feelings for him when he shows up to work at the circus (although Angel initially denies 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.
- Oblivious Guilt Slinging: Holly unknowingly throws some on Buttons by reminding him that he's got sweetheart waiting for him along the route somewhere, while she's stuck with Brad...
- Pair the Spares: Sebastian and Angel get together in the end.
- Reverse Psychology: Buttons bashes Brad to Holly to trick her into defending him—and see his point of view.
- 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.
- Title Drop: De Mille's opening narration references "the big top, and the men and women who fight to make it the greatest show on Earth."
- Track Trouble: Harry and Klaus forcibly stop the first section of the circus train carrying most of the equipment and animals so they can swipe the box-office receipts. Unfortunately for them, they forget about the second section (carrying passengers) until it's almost right on top of them, and Angel happens to be on that train. The crook's car is driven in a vain attempt to stop the train, but it gets both of them killed, and the second section, in spite of its best attempts to stop, ends up smashing into the rear of the first section in spectacular fashion.
- Wham Shot: Sebastian is all smiles when he returns after his fall, though he noticeably keeps one of his hands hidden under his coat. Brad finally insists on pulling it off, revealing his hand frozen in a horrible rictus.