The Perfect Mix of Drama and Documentary in ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’

American cinema’s showman brought the circus to the movies 66 years ago.
Greatest Show
By  · Published on January 8th, 2018

American cinema’s showman brought the circus to the movies 66 years ago.

Cecil B. DeMille is considered to be one of the founding fathers of American cinema. Working in silent film and continuing well into the industry’s move to sound, DeMille continues to be a Hollywood great through legacy and influence long after his death. In 1951, he teamed up with legends of the circus the Ringling brothers to create a feature about the people behind the show. A production that made circus performers out of high-profile Hollywood stars and employed documentary style unlike any feature film before, The Greatest Show on Earth is worth a watch after all these years.

The rights to a film about the Ringling brothers was first acquired by MGM giant David O. Selznick. He talked up the production quite a bit before it ever started filming, claiming stars like Shirley Temple, Gregory Peck, and other stars would be involved. It seemed to be an effort to combat the harsh rumors that Selznick was planning to migrate to television, Hollywood’s newest competitor. He would abandon the project a year later, leaving the rights up for grabs by competing studios Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox. DeMille was reportedly interested in a circus film as early as 1940, and so he jumped at the opportunity Selznick gave up.

The new producer wasn’t just interested in making a spectacle film, a typical dramatic look at another form of entertainment using Hollywood techniques. DeMille was dedicated to bringing the real experience of the big top to the big screen. He spent an entire 1949 season riding along with the Ringling Bros. Circus to get a feel for the people he was trying to bring to life on screen. This intricate commitment to getting as true to the real circus as possible extended throughout every aspect of the movie.

Most scenes were filmed on tour with the real circus from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. Those that weren’t were filmed in Sarasota, setting up the big top as if it were just a regular show and even doing a full traditional circus parade, which hadn’t been done in 30 years. Instead of using a soundstage and artificial glamorous lighting, DeMille opted for a more realistic and sometimes flat lighting. The circus doesn’t lack color, however, and the film is still a beautiful Technicolor dream.

This realistic approach feels more like a documentary than a dramatic film most of the time. DeMille filmed the complete circus performances with his actors included. He had each actor trained by the circus professional they were portraying, allowing them to perform their own stunts. It’s hard to believe Gloria Grahame hadn’t been working with elephants before the production when you see her effortlessly ride their trunks and feed them treats. The actors’ hard work pays off, as they blend in perfectly with the real circus performers featured throughout the film.

While the documentary aspects are remarkable, what brings this film to Hollywood standards is the character work done in the story. DeMille turned down several versions of the script before approving the one he would direct. He knew the story needed heart and excitement to make the film worthwhile and not just a behind-the-scenes look at the circus. Each character brings a different aspect of the entertainers in the circus to the story. There are tough heroes, reckless daredevils, talented egos, jealous villains, and warm-hearted outlaws all in one film.

Despite being supporting characters, the real heart and talent of the film come from its most established actors. James Stewart, America’s dopey sweetheart, begged for his role of Buttons, the fugitive clown wanted for killing his terminally ill wife. Buttons is a pretty conventional Stewart role, the kind that never gets old. It’s his job in the film to make people laugh and smile, which Stewart always excels in doing. In my favorite scene below, Buttons gives sage advice to Holly (Betty Hutton).

Grahame accepted the role of Angel after Lucille Ball turned it down, but its hard to imagine anyone else could bring the sass and genuine feeling that she does. Angel is thrown into the ring with the largest animal in the circus, but the most dangerous thing she encounters is the men of this business. She is at odds with Holly most of the film but acts as an older mentor trying to protect her from her blind ambitions and youthful spunk. It’s a role different from the mysterious women Grahame played in noir films, but it’s just as exciting to see.

It’s the combination of documentary style filming and dramatic character work that earned The Greatest Show on Earth Best Picture and Best Story awards at the 1953 Oscars. It was a revolutionary combination, a real-life spectacle with the storytelling of Hollywood. DeMille’s mark is throughout, his own voice narrating the entire film. The poetic and adoring narration in the clip below demonstrates his genuine love for the subject; it’s obvious no other director could have handled it as well.

Viewing it through modern eyes brings out a deeper side to the film, though. A lot of its story harks resemblance to the demise of Old Hollywood that would follow DeMille’s death. The old owners of the circus institution don’t know how to keep the show going as they make less money in smaller towns. Young hero Brad, played by Charlton Heston, brings in new and French talent the Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) to save the circus. After the production of The Greatest Show on Earth, films like it stopped bringing in young audiences like they once did at the height of Old Hollywood. Young filmmakers inspired by the French New Wave tried to save American cinema. The old stars of Hollywood are in supporting roles as young talent takes over the leads. DeMille’s film didn’t predict what would happen in Hollywood in the ’60s, he just dealt with an age-old theme in stories about entertainment: change.

If anyone could understand evolution to survive the changing needs of an audience, its DeMille. He made over 70 features in his time in Hollywood and didn’t allow the extinction of silent film to stop him like many directors of his time. His story of The Greatest Show on Earth makes that clear. Even after tragedy, change, and opposition, great entertainers adapt to keep the show going.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_