Worst Best Picture: Is The Greatest Show on Earth Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1952 winner The Greatest Show on Earth. Is it better than Crash?

People hate this movie. It constantly makes lists of worst Best Picture winners. I read a lot of the worst lists to inform my own journey through these movies and man people hate the circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth. Is it really all that bad?

Let’s get this out of the way first: this is not a very good movie. It feels 20 or 30 years older than it actually is, mostly because no one edited it at all. You could cut more than half of the movie out and still be left with a full story. It’s a circus story, but it’s far too in love with the pageantry of the circus itself. “Murder your darlings” they say, but like the worst Tarantino movies (looking at you, 40-minute diner scene in Death Proof) this just goes on and on.

It’s supposed to be a love triangle. Brad (Charlton Heston, before he became a lunatic) doesn’t have time for love. He’s too busy running the business end of the circus to notice that his girl Holly (Betty Hutton) is in love with the new trapeze guy The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde, who gives a pretty awful performance). The German elephant trainer Klaus (Lyle Bettger) — what else could he have been named in 1952, I guess — is also in love with Angel (Gloria Grahame), but Angel has no time for him. Everyone falls in and out of love with each other for various reasons. That’s supposed to be what this is about.

It’s not, though, because director Cecil B. DeMille fucking loves the circus. You know you’re gonna get some circus when you watch a movie called The Greatest Show on Earth, but at one point there’s a ten minute scene of people taking down a circus tent, complete with narration about “the giant’s skin coming down.” It’s a quasi-documentary about circus life, and it’s straight up boring. The love stories aren’t enough to make a great movie, but the documentary elements aren’t really anything at all. They wouldn’t be out of place on a nature show from 40 years ago. They’re goddamned terrible, and they’re shoehorned in between every scene.

Jimmy Stewart is also in this weird damn movie as Buttons the clown. Buttons is a doctor who mercy killed his terminally ill wife, and now he’s hiding out in greasepaint at the circus. It’s really an interesting idea, especially in the non-digital world of 1952, and the movie deals with it far too rarely.

The biggest problem is that it’s just plain boring. It’s far too long and the good parts are few and far between. Most of the performances — outside of Charlton Heston’s cartoonishly “serious” Brad and Cornel Wilde’s “how much are you paying me again” The Great Sebastian — are fine. The problem here is that no one ever asked the question “is 90 minutes of circus footage too much?” It really, really is, but in a world that includes some truly awful movies with Best Picture on their DVD box, you shouldn’t hate The Greatest Show on Earth. You just shouldn’t watch it, either.

The Best Part: Jimmy Stewart gets a lot of love for his portrayal of Buttons. Most of the blurbs about this movie on other lists basically say “it sucks, but Buttons is interesting.” I think that’s a fine summary, but I really enjoyed Gloria Grahame’s character, Angel. She’s almost murdered by an elephant at one point. How do you play “almost murdered by an elephant?” I’d say she’s set the gold standard.

The Worst Part: The ending is outrageously stupid, but this is the spot where we need to talk about this train scene. Steven Spielberg is on the record saying that the climactic train wreck in The Greatest Show on Earth (stop it with the *spoilers*, you weren’t going to watch this, were you?) was a huge influence on him. It’s true that it was a technological marvel at the time, but it’s really funny to watch the toy train scene now. If you want a worst part that doesn’t have to do with how the movie has aged, go with that stupid damn ending. Motivations like “I love you because the movie is over” are a sign you’re watching something dumb.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? There’s no discussion of race at all in The Greatest Show on Earth. The only black people in the entire movie are in the crew that sets up the circus tent. But there is a comparison between the two that has nothing to do with race. Both movies are full-on hamfisted. They’re both trying to do something (talk about racism and show a love for the circus) and neither one does a great job of anything else. The problem with one movie is the problem with the other; both movies eschew interesting characters and pacing for “message.” Racism bad, circus good. Both movies are failures because their components don’t support the bigger message, they just fall down like a BAD CIRCUS TENT I HATE THAT I MADE THAT JOKE.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image: Telegraph

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