Year Released: 2016
Directed by: Cecil M DeMille
Starring: Charlton Heston, James Stewart, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde
(NR, 152 min.)
Genre: Drama, Family, Romance
Academy Award: Best Picture
“You don’t have anything but sawdust in your veins.” Holly to circus manager Brad Braden
The title says it all. Brought to you by 1400 actual circus performers along with a little behind the scenes Hollywood love, intrigue, and action. Streaming this Oscar winner for a mere pittance is almost as good as going to the big top itself, and a heck of lot cheaper, too.
One thing that sets this 1952 Oscar winner apart is that the circus itself plays a leading role. Most circus flicks merely throw in a few acts as window dressing; the main ring is usually reserved for the behind the scenes melodrama.
A total of 85 acts from the Barnum and Bailey and Ringling Brothers Traveling Circus performed in this spectacle:
We bring you the circus—that Pied Piper whose magic tunes lead children of all ages into a tinseled and spun-candied world of reckless beauty and mounting laughter; whirling thrills; of rhythm, excitement and grace; of daring, enflaring and dance; of high-stepping horses and high-flying stars.
Earlier I said this film is almost a good as going to the circus itself, but actually it might be better. This screen version features an epic sized circus no longer found in the scaled down versions today. The elephants are there, too, in full force, something youngsters will no longer see now. And they appear in some pivotal moments as well, heroic rescues, implied threats, or even a little semi humorous kidnapping, such as when the circus manager Brad (Charlton Heston) sends one to retrieve his girlfriend Holly (Betty Hutton) who is flirting with the new circus star, trapeze artist The Great Sebastain (Cornel Wilde).
Holly: Sebastian, do something!
Sebastian: A lion I fight for you, a tiger! But the red-headed wildcat with an elephant, no.
And the costumes! To die for. Crowns, spangles, shining satin and soft velvet. A kind of over the top elegance we have forgotten about in our yoga pants world. Women decked out as Southern belles, Cinderella, and even living roses. The little princesses in the family will be especially delighted and probably their daddies as well.
Hollywood runs away to join the circus with the predictable results. The high impact razzle-dazzle will either delight – or not.
Sprawling across a mammoth canvas, crammed with the real-life acts and thrills, as well as the vast backstage minutiae, that make the circus the glamorous thing it is and glittering in marvelous Technicolor—truly marvelous color, we repeat—this huge motion picture of the big-top is the dandiest ever put upon the screen. –Bosley Crowther
Or a … "mammoth merger of two masters of malarkey for the masses: P.T. Barnum and Cecil B. de Mille.” Time magazine
The melodrama behind the scenes has its own three rings as well. Charlton Heston is Brad Braden, the circus manager, trying to keep the $2500 a day spectacle alive as the owners want to pare down its crew and travel schedule, cutting out the small towns and limiting the season to 10 weeks.
Only by hiring the temperamental trapeze artist, the Great Sebastian can he guarantee the crowds to fill the coffers. And that means giving him the center ring Brad has already promised to his girlfriend Holly. And the flamboyant Sebastian is a known womanizer with a history of causing dissension in the ranks.
Then there is Buttons the Clown (Jimmy Stweart), who mysteriously never takes off his makeup. And Klaus (Lyle Bettg), the elephant handler whose obsession with his assistant bodes ill. Not to mention Harry (John Kellogg), the crooked midway concessionaire who vows revenge when Brad fires him.
But the real focus is the rivalry between Holly and Sabastian as they dare more and more risky maneuvers high above ground. A rivalry that causes romantic sparks as well, making for a love triangle as complex as it is deadly.
The film is part documentary as well, showing the managed precision needed to put up and take down the huge big top tent as well as to load and unload the 60 train cars of equipment.
The stars had to perform their own stunts, too.
Cecil B. DeMille was always demanding of his actors and actresses. He insisted that everyone truly learn to perform the circus stunts they were supposed to be performing. This meant that Bety Hutton really learned the trapeze and Gloria Grahame had to let an elephant rest its foot an inch from her face. Cornel Wilde probably had it the worst since he was portraying a high-wire artist. He was seriously afraid of heights in real life.
And look for some other stars in cameos, especially those of us of a certain age who will recognize Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Danny Thomas and Van Heflin in shots of the circus audience.
Even Steven Spielberg has ties to The Greatest Show on Earth, which was the first film the six-year-old ever saw. The terrible train wreck featured in it is echoed in his 2011 film Super 8.
This film will please the whole family without pandering to either the kids or adults. It recalls a simpler time when our dreams and fantasies were as big and free as our hearts. When thrills came without computer-assisted special effects. We were not so cynical then and embraced the spectacle and melodrama for all it was worth, even the somewhat hammy description of it.
But behind all this, the circus is a massive machine whose very life depends on discipline, motion and speed—a mechanized army on wheels that rolls over any obstacle in its path—that meets calamity again and again, but always comes up smiling—a place where disaster and tragedy stalk the Big Top, haunt the back yard, and rides the circus train—where Death is constantly watching for one frayed rope, one weak link, or one trace of fear.
Must see family entertainment.
Just as our film ups the ante on everything, let’s do that to our regular movie popcorn, making it into delicious Kettle Corn. Use white sugar or brown if you like a more caramel taste.
Take a trip to the county fair with a bowl of old-fashioned Kettle Corn. Your family will never want plain popcorn again! If you use white sugar, it will taste like popcorn balls and if you use brown sugar, it will taste like caramel corn.
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup unpopped popcorn kernels
Heat the vegetable oil in a large pot over medium heat. Once hot, stir in the sugar and popcorn. Cover, and shake the pot constantly to keep the sugar from burning. Once the popping has slowed to once every 2 to 3 seconds, remove the pot from the heat and continue to shake for a few minutes until the popping has stopped. Pour into a large bowl, and allow to cool, stirring occasionally to break up large clumps.