Written by: Fredric M. Frank, Theodore St. John, Frank Cavett, Barré Lyndon
Starring: Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston, James Stewart, Dorothy Lamour
Managing any group of people comes with its massive challenges with the various personalities working together with inevitable friction causing issues. This happens with individuals in regular settings, with The Greatest Show on Earth daring you to imagine what this would look like with the pressures of individuals involved in putting together a circus. While showing the spectacle involved with this type of entertainment, this feature fails to create any truly engaging storyline with its plethora of characters.
Amidst financial issues ailing many industries, general manager Brad (Charlton Heston) of a railroad circus puts on a set of shows but ensures it makes enough money for his performers to be rightfully paid. As they go about putting on their shows for the masses, Brad needs to put out several metaphorical fires in order to keep things running.
Watching this feature as someone who manages any number of people would be a terrifying reminder of the difficulty inherent with the job. So much can go wrong and mending relationships get even more difficult with the level of ego involved here. Brad certainly has an unenviable position here and it shows as the film progresses through its narrative. Emotions run high with all of their interactions and as ideas of love begin to seep into their minds, the well-being of the entire crew might as well be doused with gasoline while at a bonfire. Plenty of drama, for sure, but it severely lacks in major intrigue within them because the characters come off as incredibly bland.
Sure, you have Brad portrayed by the ever-dashing Charlton Heston but even he could not, even with all of his gloriousness, lift something remotely intriguing about this character. He serves as the caretaker for all of these individuals but he never gets the opportunity to shine in this role. He gets to face several moral quandaries throughout the feature, especially with the drama enacted by the very performers who have to maintain the jobs of but it all gets ploddingly put together with no real sense of urgency as one would want. When obtaining the services of someone with this level of talent, it feels like a complete waste to squander his abilities with such a weak role.
By far, the selling point of this entire production comes from Cecile B. DeMille, as he knows how to put together spectacles. With the title this film holds, one would expect something huge and the grand nature of the production certainly exists here. The scenes exhibiting the performances put on by these performers demonstrate the hefty amount of skill necessary as well as the daring mental fortitude they need to entertain the crowds. These sequences certainly add some flair to the feature but with it adopting the name it did like the film’s title, it certainly needed to do much more in relation to the plot. These moments in the circus definitely showed where most of the production budget went, but unfortunately, none was left to ensure the quality of the script around characterizations of the feature.
The cast brought together for this movie along with Heston contains some heavy hitters such as Jimmy Stewart, Gloria Grahame, and Betty Hutton but even they could not outdo what the script failed to give them with their characters. From shoddy dialogue and with the narrative underbaking all of their character arcs, these individuals feel far too one-dimensional in regard to the story, especially when the lead protagonist does not get much either. Too much of the focus relied on the spectacle, but that alone does not make for a successful film.
Pretty much a misfire in its attempts to be an actual film rather than just a spectacle, The Greatest Show on Earth heavily disappoints and stands as an unfortunate Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards. It fails in its attempt to create any sort of intriguing characterization and instead tries to dazzle you with its spectacle when the circus performers put on a show. Unfortunately, those moments did not last for the entire 152-minute runtime, as everything else in between lacked nuance, intrigue, or genuinely competent storytelling by any stretch. Truly a wasted opportunity and its reputation have rightfully slipped far down since its release.