Before Tackling Moses, DeMille and Heston Teamed Up to Make THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH

1952’s smash hit big top adventure hit Blu-ray this week on the “Paramount Presents” lineup

The Greatest Show on Earth is out today on ‘Paramount Presents’ Blu-ray, arriving alongside Paramount’s highly anticipated 4K release of The Ten Commandments.

These days, the combination of Cecil B. DeMille and Charlton Heston immediately brings to mind their biblical epic collaboration on the perennial favorite telling of the story of Moses, The Ten Commandments. But 4 years before a bearded Heston bid Yul Brynner’s Pharaoh to let his people go, the pair’s earlier endeavor together, The Greatest Show on Earth, had been a massive hit for Paramount — the studio’s biggest ever, in fact.

The circus has fallen to the wayside as old fashioned in favor of other forms of entertainment, and therein, to modern eyes, lies the film’s greatest intrigue as a time capsule of a mostly bygone phenomenon.

The Greatest Show on Earth tracks several loose subplots set across the backdrop of employees of the Ringling Bros Circus. But equally interesting is its dedication to documenting the inner workings of the circus itself, a massive engine of activity which is assembled and disassembled continuously, involving a herculean effort of labor, resource management, transportation, and finance. A giant mechanism for the delivery of, in a word, spectacle.

Human drama unfolds in DeMille’s tale as it follows the exploits of several colorful characters. Charlton Heston is Brad, the man in charge — he may seem cold and distant, but his entire energy is focused on managing the mighty enterprise — keeping his company in the black, his employees safe and paid, and his customers duly entertained.

To that end, he hires a famous acrobat, the Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), a flashy and charismatic ladies’ man who is likely to be disruptive behind the scenes — but draws a huge crowd. This is upsetting news for Brad’s girlfriend Holly (Betty Hutton), who has worked hard to secure her position as the show’s star acrobat, and is arguably the film’s primary protagonist. Things heat up once Sebastian and Holly work together, fiercely competing but also finding undeniable romantic chemistry in the air that threatens the balance of things on the ground.

The love triangle turns to a quadrilateral with the glamorous Gloria Grahame, whose character Angel, an elephant trainer and stuntwoman, swoops in to steal Brad while Holly’s looking the other way.

My favorite character and subplot, though, is that of Buttons the Clown (James Stewart). The circus is, as the cliche goes, an attractant to runaways, nomads, and vagabonds, and Stewart’s lovable Buttons is show-stealing as the lovable clown — a mysterious, sad soul who hides behind his makeup, forever on the run from a past which threatens to catch up with him.

DeMille was provided with unprecedented access to the Barnum & Bailey Circus to research, document, and create his film, and it shows. The narrative takes plenty of stops to simply marvel at the documentary-style footage not only of the entertainment and circus acts, but of the setup and teardown that takes place behind the scenes.

The film’s actors are also putting in the real work of the circus themselves — Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde learned to perform real trapeze acts, and that’s really Gloria Grahame performing impressive stunts with real elephants.

A late development in the story results in the circus’s train crashing, crafted using impressive miniatures and practical effects. Besides providing a setup for the film’s climax, it also makes the point of showing just how delicate the operation is — and how easily it can become derailed.

The film is somewhat corny and its subject matter is dated, and on a technical level there’s a copious amount of obvious green-screen compositing to plant the actors into separately-filmed environs. The plot, such as it is, is fairly loose and designed to accommodate the film’s rather unique format of being both a fictional narrative and something akin to a documentary.

But on the whole it actually comes together pretty well, interesting for its historical significance, and pleasingly entertaining as both as jumble of competing stories and a grand show of spectacle.

The Package

The Greatest Show on Earth arrives on Blu-ray as spine #16 in the Paramount Presents series which showcases beloved films with new restorations and packaged with transparent cases and gatefold slipcovers which feature the films’ original poster art within. A digital copy is also included.

Special Features and Extras

Filmmaker Focus: Leonard Maltin on The Greatest Show On Earth (7:42)
Maltin is one of my favorite film historians and commentators, and here he discusses the film on both its historical merits and as a spectacle, noting the primary cast members and aspects of the film’s production (some of which I’ve brazenly parroted in this review).

A/V Out.

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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system.

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