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


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 or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image: Telegraph

Tough Questions: What’s the Hardest You’ve Ever Laughed?


Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed?

Rules are simple: Tell us a time you just full-on lost your shit. Pete Holmes asks this question on his podcast You Made it Weird, and it’s fascinating to hear what people who tell jokes for a living say. To be clear, this isn’t the best joke you’ve ever heard and it’s not the funniest thing that you’ve ever seen. If it was that, it would just be all of us talking about that scene in 30 Rock where Liz Lemon says “chocolate, chocolate, chocolate, ack!” like Cathy from Cathy. I can only talk about that joke for about 45 minutes, so we’ll need to pick other stuff.

Alex Russell

Part of me wants to answer this with Kristen Schaal is a Horse, but it’s more personal than that. On a trip with a bunch of people a million years ago a good friend of mine and I were getting on a girl’s nerves. We were all teenagers, but we already understood the reality that if you go on a vacation with someone, you’re eventually going to want to kill them. She was sick of both of us by day two, and she especially didn’t like being woken up from a nap. This was also back at an age when “quoting a thing” was the same as “telling a joke.” Watch two sixteen year olds talk to each other, that’s all they do. We were quoting Aqua Team Hunger Force bits (again, sixteen) and the quote he chose for the moment she woke up in shaking anger was the moment that pushed me over the edge. Here was this woman, angrily shaking a headband that he’d been flinging at her to try to wake her up, and she just kept screaming what is this what is this WHAT IS THIS? The context of the joke on the show isn’t important, you just have to picture a calm sixteen year old boy telling a girl filled with righteous fury: “Oh, that? That is a sweatband.” I’m surprised I survived that day from laughing so hard, and equally surprised she didn’t explode and form a new galaxy based on pure anger.

Alex Marino

Back in third grade I was on a school field trip to the Barnum & Bailey circus at the Hartford Civic Center. We were all just excited to not be in school so it didn’t matter what we were doing. How many of you have been to the circus? Looking back, it’s a really weird, fucked up event to go to. Every animal has a look on its face like it was just told it was fired and also its grandmother died. One of the few ways these animals could stick it to the man was just to shit everywhere all the time. Remember that I’m in the third grade here, so shitting is HILARIOUS to me and my best friend Matt. So we’re watching these elephants parade around the three rings just shitting the entire time. We’re crying from laughter. We had our own expectations of what a circus would be like. Trapeze artists, a lion tamer, and the elephants were all on the list. But we were not emotionally prepared for the elephants just dropping the biggest shits you’ve ever seen. And after enough time, we started to smell it. Matt remarked that they looked like ice cream scoops and that’s when we lost it. We both were doing that crying, silent belly laugh for a solid minute before we could even recover.

Jonathan May

Recently my friend Michael came back into town for a visit for California. A group of us who all played kickball together arrived at another friend’s house to drink and talk and the usual. One guy from the team had grown out some very slight facial hair, like a mustache/goatee combo. He was going to shave it off the next day, so the host of the party decided tonight was the night to dye it black. They ran down to the store and bought men’s black facial hair dye. The host slathered the purplish-blackish sludge on our friend’s face; neither had ever dyed anything before. After waiting the requisite ten minutes, our friend goes to wash it off. Of course, you’re not supposed to get this stuff on the skin. So he washes his face, and when he looks up, he had this huge black oil spill encasing his entire mouth, and it’s not going anywhere. This guy has a suit and tie job in the morning. Everyone was crying with laughter. I had to leave soon after, but I still wondered how hard he must have scrubbed his face all night.

Mike Hannemann

The hardest time I ever laughed was one of the dumbest moments of my life. There was a cancer awareness walk (this story is starting off terribly) where students were encouraged to walk through a designated path for 24 hours. You could take breaks and shifts and my then-roommate and I took a 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift. This was a college event, but no drinking was involved. We went back to our place at 4 a.m. and instead of going to bed, we turned on the TV. An episode of Franklin the Turtle was playing. I don’t remember what I said, but the joke was dumb we nearly doubled over from laughter and not sleeping. It was one of those rare moments where you’re so exhausted… anything is funny. Including some stupid turtle who blows his life out of proportions.

Brent Hopkins

I think the hardest I ever laughed was a very intoxicated evening in Seoul. My sister was visiting and I wanted to show her how they party in Korea: buckets of alcohol and dancing until 6 A.M. My buddy Gil was fully sauced and we got to talking about chest hair. This guy is smooth as a baby, as are many East Asians, so I started giving him crap. My friend was recording this whole interaction and he proceeded to rip a handful of hair from my chest and run around with it as if it were a victory. Everyone was shocked and everyone laughed about it for the rest of the night. Weird experience, but one I will never forget.