The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

6.0 Overall Score
Story: 4/10
Acting: 7/10
Visuals: 8/10

Great train wreck

Weak plot, long and bloated

Movie Info

Movie Name: The Greatest Show on Earth

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Genre(s): Drama

Release Date(s): January 10, 1952

MPAA Rating: Not Rated


The circus is coming!

Circuses are dying.  The high cost of maintaining the stops means big cutbacks and shortened tours.  Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) has convinced the owners of the show for a full run under the condition that the divisive Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) is going to bring in crowds…by displacing Brad’s on-again-off-again girlfriend Holly (Betty Hutton).  When Brad tries to clean up the crooked midway, danger could threaten the circus…but the show must go on!

Directed by Cecil B. DeMille, The Greatest Show on Earth is a drama focused on circus life.  The film won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Story with nominations for Best Director, Best Costume Design—Color, and Best Film Editing.


Clowns are creepy

Despite its awards, The Greatest Show on Earth is considered one of the worst “Best Pictures” of all time.  Bloated, the long film received criticism for lacking story.  Despite this, the movie does have some moments, but it is a really unnecessarily long story with a paper-thin plot.

The story is primarily a showcase for the visuals of the movie.  This is often the case for Cecil B. DeMille films, but this one also suffers from a lack of a plot.  The story of Holly trying to choose between Brad and Sebastian is quite weak and really falls apart to wrap up the movie.  The most interesting character has to be Jimmy Stewart as Buttons the Clown using the circus as a cover.  A scene with his mother in the crowd is one of the better scenes, but unfortunately, the melodrama of the movie wins out.


Not the best way to stop a train…

The cast in general seems to sleepwalk through their roles.  Even Charlton Heston’s bravado can’t carry the movie and the introduction of the con-artist men that he angers just seems like a weak addition to move the plot forward.  The movie does feature cameos from Bing Crosby and Bob Hope as spectators in one of the scenes.

The movie is a spectacle.  I’ve never really been one for the circus but the imagery in the movie is just what you’d expect at the classic big top.  The actors were made to learn aspects of the characters’ performances to blend in realism and the whole movie culminates in a really fantastic train crash.  Steven Spielberg credits this movie as his first film and part of his inspirations…so there is that if nothing else.


Seriously, Buttons…we get it, you’re a clown…

The Greatest Show on Earth is pretty forgettable other than the train wreck.  It is too bad too since it feels like the movie had a lot of missed opportunities.  Now, I could see the movie being made in a format like an Altman film with tons of characters and tons of stories that may or may not come together.  It is partially seeing this potential that makes The Greatest Show on Earth even more of a failure.  I don’t think it is a horrible movie, but Best Picture?  Probably not (especially considering High Noon was a contender that year).

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Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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