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. The film's 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 won two Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Story, and was nominated for Best Costume Design, Best Director, and Best Film Editing. It also won Golden Globe Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Director, and Best Motion Picture - Drama. Adjusted for inflation, the film's box office is among the highest-grossing films in the United States and Canada.
DeMille's opening remarksEdit
"We bring you the circus—that Pied Piper whose magic tunes lead children of all ages into a tinseled and spun-candied world of reckless beauty and mounting laughter; whirling thrills; of rhythm, excitement and grace; of daring, enflaring 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, 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 back yard, and rides 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—The Greatest Show On Earth!"
Brad Braden is the no-nonsense general manager of what was at the time the world's largest railroad circus. He has a number of problems on his hands for the upcoming season.
The show's board of directors plan to run a short 10 week season rather than risk losing $25,000 a day in a shaky post-war economy. Brad bargains to keep the circus on the road as long as it is making a profit, thus keeping the 1,400 performers and roustabouts who make Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus the Greatest Show On Earth employed.
Brad's first problem is having to tell his girlfriend, Holly, a flyer who has been expecting to be the star of that season's show, that she's out of the center ring. The only way he was able to get management to agree to a full season was to hire The Great Sebastian, "the debonair King of the Air" and world-class trapeze artist, as the star of the show. Holly knows Brad must think of the circus first and personal feelings second, and that he does not take chances with the show, but is nevertheless infuriated at his decision.
His second problem is keeping Sebastian under control. He has a well-deserved reputation as a ladies' man who has cut a wide swath through the female contingent of every show he's ever worked in, to the detriment of the running of those shows.
His third problem is keeping an eye on Harry, a midway concessionaire he suspects of running crooked games of chance, who works for a mysterious gangster named Mr. Henderson (who has a healthy respect for Brad Braden and not much for Harry).
Another situation unbeknownst to Brad involves the beloved Buttons the Clown, who is never seen without his makeup. During a performance, Buttons converses with a woman member of the audience — who warns him that an unnamed "they" are asking questions about him again. She is in fact his mother and they see each other only once a year. Hints about his former life are revealed as he gives first aid to performers and wraps bandages around a trapeze for Holly in an expert manner. Holly later finds a newspaper article about a doctor who had "mercy killed" his wife, but does not immediately make the connection to Buttons.
The competition between Holly and Sebastian for the center ring develops into a romantic triangle as well, with both Sebastian and Brad vying for Holly as the aerialists' acts become increasingly daring and dangerous. Sebastian ignores his former lovers on the show: Angel, who performs in the elephant act; and Phyllis, who does a double turn as an iron jaw artist and a vocalist starring in a South Seas spectacular built around her talent as a singer. The duel ends when, in response to a challenge from Holly, Sebastian removes his safety net and suffers serious injuries in a fall when a trick goes wrong. Buttons tends to him, and when a doctor expresses admiration for the way he dealt with the injuries the clown explains, a little nervously, that he used to be a pharmacist's mate. Holly finally has the center ring and star billing — but not the way she wanted it. Brad is unable to comfort her because she is in love with Sebastian.
One problem at least is resolved. When Harry is caught cheating circus attendees on the midway, Brad calls him on it and fires him, finishing the fight Harry started by throwing him into a puddle of mud. Harry leaves the lot, vowing revenge. He is seen now and then on the periphery of the show, shooting craps and sowing disaffection, particularly with Klaus (Lyle Bettger) the elephant trainer who is obsessed with Angel, one of the "ballet girls" (female performers whose primary job is to look beautiful, as opposed to performing a specialty act) who works with his elephants as "the Sultan's Favorite."
Sebastian rejoins the show, but is unable to return to the trapeze because his injuries from that fall have left him with a useless right arm. A guilt-ridden Holly professes her love for her former rival over the cold, unfeeling Brad. Calling Holly a fool "for busting up the swellest guy in the circus," Angel makes a pass at Brad and they become an item. This sits badly with Klaus, who has spent the entire season pursuing Angel. He cannot accept that she is not in love with him and does not want him.
As they are about to leave one stand, Special Agent Gregory of the FBI intercepts Brad, asking if the circus doctor looks like the photograph of a man he is hunting (the photo is of Buttons without makeup). Having never seen Buttons without makeup, Brad doesn't recognize the man in the photo. The detective boards the train to continue his investigation. Brad mentions this to Buttons, who tells him that Sebastian has feeling in his injured hand — a sign that his disability is not permanent. Brad makes the connection between Buttons and the fugitive doctor and comments that the police will be taking fingerprints at the next stand. The implication is that Buttons should make himself scarce until the detective leaves the show to search elsewhere.
The joy of Sebastian's potential recovery is overshadowed by a spectacular collision of the circus' two trains, set up by Harry, the crooked midway operator fired by Brad, and Angel's rejected suitor, Klaus, as a byproduct of their robbing the circus pay wagon of the money earned by the show at the last stand. Buttons, who had been about to flee, returns after a plea from Holly who like Brad had made the connection between the doctor "who killed the wife he loved, then vanished" and his new identity as Buttons the Clown. Buttons saves the critically injured Brad by giving him a blood transfusion from Sebastian "on the fly," despite knowing that Gregory is watching. This in turn leads to Gregory reluctantly arresting Buttons, whom he declares "is all right."
Holly realizes that she is actually in love with Brad, that she has always loved him; and takes command of the show, mounting a circus parade through the town nearest the crash and staging an open air show by the crash site (as the Big Top and lighting were lost in the wreck). Brad's brush with death forces him to admit that he is in love with Holly, but ironically she now hasn't time for him because the show must go on. The final loose end is tied up when Sebastian proposes to Angel and she accepts. The movie ends with the troupe mounting a "spec" to open their improvised performance, which will keep the show in the black and enable them to continue their tour, a magnificent recovery from disaster.
- Betty Hutton as Holly
- Cornel Wilde as The Great Sebastian
- Charlton Heston as Brad Braden
- James Stewart as Buttons the Clown
- Dorothy Lamour as Phyllis
- Gloria Grahame as Angel
- Henry Wilcoxon as FBI Agent Gregory
- Lawrence Tierney as Mr. Henderson
- Lyle Bettger as Klaus
- John Ridgely as Assistant Manager
- Frank Wilcox as Circus doctor
- Brad Johnson as unnamed reporter
- John Kellogg as Harry
All primary cast members are now deceased. The film features about 85 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus acts, including clowns Emmett Kelly and Lou Jacobs, midget Cucciola, bandmaster Merle Evans, foot juggler Miss Loni, and aerialist Antoinette Concello. John Ringling North plays himself as the owner of the circus.
There are a number of unbilled cameo appearances (mostly in the circus audiences) including Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour's co-stars in the Road to... movies. William Boyd appears in his usual guise of Hopalong Cassidy. Danny Thomas, Van Heflin, character actor Oliver Blake, and Noel Neill are seen as circus patrons, among others. Leon Ames is seen and heard in the train wreck sequence. However, the plot and cameos play second fiddle to the documentary-like look at The Greatest Show On Earth in its last years under canvas.
A barker, kept anonymous until the very end, is heard in the closing moments of the film. The voice is finally revealed to be that of Edmond O'Brien.
Lucille Ball was offered Gloria Grahame's role in the picture by DeMille, but dropped out when she discovered she was pregnant with her first child, Lucie Arnaz.
The music for the song, "Lovely Luawana Lady", was written by John Ringling North, who appears briefly as himself during the discussion about whether the show would play the road rather than have a short 10 week season. North was a nephew of the five Ringling Brothers who founded Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. At the time the movie was filmed, John Ringling North was the owner of The Greatest Show On Earth.
The film earned an estimated $12 million at the North American box office in 1952 and was the most popular film in Britain that year.
In 1952, Bosley Crowther called The Greatest Show on Earth a "lusty triumph of circus showmanship and movie skill" and a "piece of entertainment that will delight movie audiences for years". Sprawling across a mammoth canvas, crammed with the real-life acts and thrills, as well as the vast backstage minutiae, that make the circus the glamorous thing it is and glittering in marvelous Technicolor and truly marvelous color, we repeat and this huge motion picture of the big-top is the dandiest ever put upon the screen.
In 1952, Time magazine called it a "mammoth merger of two masters of malarkey for the masses: P. T. Barnum and Cecil B. de Mille" as well as a film that "fills the screen with pageants and parades [and] finds a spot for 60-odd circus acts" with a plot that "does not quite hold all this pageantry together."
In 1952, Variety wrote that the film "effectively serves the purpose of a framework for all the atmosphere and excitement of the circus on both sides of the big canvas."
In 1999, critic Leonard Maltin opined that "like most of DeMille's movies, this may not be art, but it's hugely enjoyable".
In 2005, "The Official Razzie Movie Guide: Enjoying The Best of Hollywood's Worst" includes The Greatest Show On Earth. The general sentiment about the film seems to be: it was a heinous mistake on the part of the Academy to give it the coveted Best Picture award. And in that same year the magazine Empire listed it as the third worst Best Picture winner of all time.
In 2006, in an article for MSNBC about the 78th Academy Awards selection of Crash as Best Picture, Erik Lundegaard called Crash the "worst Best Picture winner since the 'dull, bloated' film The Greatest Show on Earth"
At the 25th Academy Awards, the movie won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Story. It received nominations for Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Costume Design, Color. It is the last Best Picture winner to win fewer than 3 Academy Awards until Spotlight.
Many consider this film among the worst to have ever won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It also won that award over highly rated films such as High Noon, Ivanhoe, The Quiet Man, and Singin’ in the Rain. The American film magazine Premiere placed the movie on its list of the 10 worst Oscar winners and the British film magazine Empire rated it #3 on their list of the 10 worst Oscar winners. It has the second lowest spot on Rotten Tomatoes' list of the 81 films to win Best Picture.
Stanley Kramer alleged that the film's Best Picture Oscar was due to the political climate in Hollywood in 1952. Senator Joseph McCarthy was pursuing Communists at the time, and DeMille was a conservative Republican involved with the National Committee for a Free Europe. Another Best Picture nominee, High Noon, was produced by Carl Foreman, who would soon be on the Hollywood blacklist, and one of the scriptwriters of Ivanhoe, Marguerite Roberts, was also blacklisted.
Another likely reason The Greatest Show on Earth was voted Best Picture of 1952 was that it was seen as a "last chance" vote for Cecil B. DeMille, to honor him for a lifetime of filmmaking going well back into the silent movie era. DeMille's best work had been done before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) was created. It may be that the members of the Academy (which included many veterans of the silent era) felt that as an elder statesman of Hollywood and founding member of the Academy, he deserved the honor even if other films that year were better than The Greatest Show on Earth. Many people agree that The Ten Commandments, DeMille's next (and last) film which he produced and directed, was more deserving of the 1956 Best Picture Oscar than Around the World in 80 Days and more deserving of an honor to DeMille's magnificent and legendary career and his contributions to the growth and evolution of cinema than The Greatest Show on Earth.
A television series of the same title, was inspired by the film, but with Jack Palance in the role of Charlton Heston's character. The program ran on Tuesday evenings for thirty episodes on ABC during the 1963 and 1964 season.
The self-titled theme song later served as the theme for WGN-TV's long running Bozo's Circus. The Greatest Show On Earth was the first film that director Steven Spielberg saw and he credits it as one of the major inspirations that led him into a film career. He pointed out the film's train crash scene as a major influence, and this influence was later reflected in the 2011 science fiction film Super 8, which he produced.
In Steven Spielberg's remake of The War of the Worlds, an early scene shows two kids channel-surfing on their television, and the train-wreck scene from The Greatest Show On Earth is being broadcast.