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Case Number 04240: Small Claims Court

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The Greatest Show On Earth

Paramount // 1952 // 152 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // April 14th, 2004

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All Rise...

Judge Patrick Naugle's intense coulrophobia may have colored his judgment of this circus film.

The Charge

Step right up for action, laughs, romance, and thrills!

The Case

So you say you like the carnival? Well mister, have I got a big top show for you!

In director Cecile B. DeMille's epic The Greatest Show On Earth, viewers follow the famous Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Circus as is heads from town to town spreading joy to every man and woman aged 6 to 60. But fun and games isn't always on the agenda! When the circus boss, Marc (Charlton Heston, The Ten Commandments), seems to care more for his grueling job than his girl, talented trapeze artist Holly (Betty Hutton, Somebody Loves Me), she finds herself drifting into the arms of The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde, The Fifth Musketeer), the circus's star attraction and Holly's rival for the prominent position in the center ring. As the circus bounds around the country, drama ignites when the train cars hauling the circus are entangled in a wreck that threatens the very livelihood of the The Greatest Show On Earth.

I've gotta admit that I'm split on Cecile B. DeMille's peanut and elephant epic The Greatest Show On Earth. On one hand the film is a grand spectacle of circus fancy, a bawdy beast filled with acrobats, clowns, antics, monkeys, lions, cotton candy, tigers, trapezes, costumes, jugglers, hippos, midgets, and just about every other facet found under the big top. On the other hand it's an overblown, plodding mess of a story, a script that is filled with a romantic triangle I couldn't have cared less about and a slight murder mystery that isn't very mysterious.

If The Greatest Show On Earth strives to be the quintessential movie about the circus, it certainly comes close—from Jimmy Stewart's Buttons the clown to Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde's dueling trapeze artist Sebastian, there's something for everyone who still looks at the circus with a bit of wonder. Yet while I enjoyed watching the parades and animals to a point, it eventually got tiresome—there's only so many times I can watch costumed performers ride around a ring before my attention span begins to dwindle. I'd estimate three fourths of The Greatest Show On Earth is eye-candy circus filler while only a third of the screenplay deals in actual human interaction and drama.

Square jawed Charlton Heston works well in his role as the seasoned circus boss Marc, though his acting often comes close to being a parody of himself (I kept imagining Phil Hartman as Heston yelling out "Soylent Green is PEOPLE!…"…not a good sign). Dorothy Lamour (fun fact: her final film would be 1987's Stephen King penned Creepshow 2) and Betty Hutton are the women who pine after Marc's affections, though the sentimentality rarely moved me. And Jimmy Stewart seems all but swept to the sidelines as Buttons, a circus clown who hides a deep, dark secret under his smiling visage (you see, he's a clown that's really crying on the inside).

The Greatest Show On Earth was a popular movie in its day, as evidenced by its Oscar win for Best Picture and Writing and nominations for Director (DeMille), Costume Design, and Film Editing. Yet the fact remains that as a dramatic film it's aged about as well as a those orange circus peanuts I used to eat as a kid. If you're looking for some nicely documented circus footage, The Greatest Show On Earth delivers. On all other levels, it's as flat as the bottom of Pearly the elephant's foot.

The Greatest Show On Earth is presented in 1.33:1 full frame, the film's original aspect ratio. Paramount has done an excellent job at making sure that the transfer is as good as the film has ever looked. There is a considerable lack of dirt and imperfections in the transfer, and the colors are bright, bold, and very pleasing to the eye (many of the circus scenes feature a vast array of sights and sounds to behold). Black levels are also thoroughly solid throughout. Though the transfer sometimes suffers from a small amount of softness around the edges, overall fans of the epic will be very happy with how The Greatest Show On Earth turned out.

The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono in both English and French. I can't say this is a very exciting sound mix—as it stands the music, dialogue, and effects are all clearly heard without any major distortion marring the track, and that's good enough. Also included on this disc are English subtitles.

It's a bit surprising that Paramount has forgone any extra features on this first ever DVD edition of The Greatest Show On Earth, especially considering it won Best Picture. Not even a theatrical trailer has been included, which is enough to make the bearded lady's hair fall out.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 72

Perp Profile

Studio: Paramount
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
• English
Running Time: 152 Minutes
Release Year: 1952
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Classic
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• IMDb
• Ringling Bros. Official Site

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