Clowns terrified me as a kid, but Jimmy Stewart’s “Buttons” didn’t.
The greatest show on earth: Cornel Wilde, Betty Hutton, Charlton Heston and the greatest revelation of cinema!
Circus month continues! Those who were quick to rank Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth as the least deserving winner of a Best Picture Oscar must have been sick this week Chariots of Fire, Crashand Forrest Gump played in town. To follow online.
The greatest show on earth (1952)
It was to be director Cecil B. DeMille’s penultimate film. Exemplary of the studio system he helped create, with dozens of feature films to his name, DeMille had long established himself as a master of showmanship, trained in the art of reading paying audiences. Back in the pre-code days, he was known for devoting 95% of a movie’s runtime to sex and sin, only to pack enough salvation into the remaining 5% of the script to push it past the censor board. But what’s racy about the circus, especially one run by an erotically indifferent Charlton Heston and whose stars at its center sound the impeccable Betty Hutton – a.k.a the human embodiment of the worst qualities of loudmouth Martha Raye and professional virgin Doris Day combined? But push past that and resist the urge to browse the myriad circus acts, and you’ll find entertainment that truly deserves its title. To follow online.
For years, DeMille has been in the business of fantasy and spectacle. But someone must have smuggled a print of Open city on the Paramount backlot, because the images of the “day in the life of a circus” that he recounts throughout the film border on neorealism. Additionally, Pepe LePew-sounding Hutton, Gloria Grahame and Cornel Wilde performed many of their own stunts. “We bring you the circus!” begins the autocrat who saw God every time he looked in a mirror. Convinced fascists, DeMille’s circus is a machine, “a primitive fighting force” that advances despite impossible obstacles and over which death constantly presides. Such a flowery setup for a finished product that contains more corn than a July 5th bm. It was Heston’s second screen appearance and one of Hutton’s last; the promise of chemistry was never fulfilled, leaving one to wonder how much stronger a romance might have been if Gloria Grahame and Hutton had switched roles – although it’s doubtful the latter could pack a pipe with the same liveliness. And quickly seek out that glorious moment when Gloria dismantles Jumbo, only to land feet first in an elephant pie.
Brad Braden (Heston) masters all aspects of midway. He is on a first name basis with all of his employees and can, if the opportunity arises, perform an emergency tonsillectomy on a giraffe. The top brass are led by a real Ringling Bros. nephew. (John Ringling North) who, when presented with the option of a lighter season to adapt to changing times, agrees with Braden that skipping the boonies will have a detrimental effect on children. (No mention is made of the degree of animal cruelty that has gone into running a circus.) Suggesting that only a center ring superstar can save them, Braden employs the services of The Great Sebastian (Wilde). That means knocking headliner (and Braden’s wayward girlfriend) Holly (Hutton) into a ring. Fuck her, if it means improving the show.
DeMille’s bleachers are filled with true Hollywood history. Arthur Q. Bryan (Elmer Fudd) and Clarence Nash (Donald Duck) enjoy the show, as do Kathleen Freeman, Mona Freeman, Ross Bagdasarian (minus the Chipmunks), Hope & Crosby, Martin & Lewis. , Daisy “Freaks” Earles and Bess Flowers – a small player who had the distinction of appearing in the background of more films than any other performer – to name a few. And for those who like a local angle, be on the lookout for DeMille descendant and Del Mar CEO Joe Harper as “Little Boy Spectator.”
Clowns terrified me as a kid, but Jimmy Stewart’s “Buttons” didn’t. Guilty of manslaughter, Buttons hides behind layers of greasepaint to hide his secret identity. (The only time we see Stewart without her makeup is in a cut of what appears to be a photo of Hitchcock’s head. Rope.) As a child, I had enormous compassion for a character so scared of revealing his secret that he limited his time with his mother to a few seconds a year when he walked through the audience when the circus played in his town. It takes a brilliant actor to allay my fears of creepy men hiding behind sad-faced jesters. Once again, Stewart shows an astonishing capacity not to be mistaken.
Once upon a time in a long-forgotten specials section, a colorist sang while digitally scraping off enough emulsion to reveal Dorothy’s freckles in The Wizard of Oz. If David O. Selznick had wanted the public to see freckles, he would have seen freckles. Technicolor dye transfer called for four rolls of film – one for each primary color and a roll of black and white for contrast – to be passed through the camera simultaneously and then printed onto 35mm tape. With all those layers of emulsion to film, a few freckles had to be sacrificed for the overall good of the process. In the early 80s, I was lucky enough to see a pristine Technicolor print come to life on Sunday mornings, whose greens and purples could not be matched by the greatest video transfer on earth. Once again, a digital spice reveals flaws not evident in the original theatrical prints. And the winner of the most awkwardly staged special effect in a feature film takes to the stage between villains John Kellogg and Lawrence Tierney. DeMille positioned the actors in front of a rear screen projector and filmed the scene twice: once with the camera positioned four feet from the actors and again about 10 feet away. As if the criss-crossing of the two shows wasn’t jarring enough, the image is so crisp you can see the beams through the brim of Kellogg’s hat.
None of the five best American films of 1952 – The Bad and the Beautiful, Singin’ in the Rain, The Marrying Kind, Bend of the Riverand notorious rancho – did the Oscar cut. Among the official selections, the inclusion of Ivanhoe casts doubt on the sanity of the Academy. Clockwise Cutaways Outperform Gary Cooper In high noonwhile the only entrant worthy of a prize at red Mill, cinematographer Oswald Morris, was snubbed. And John Ford lover that I am, the cult of The quiet manwith its reels of booze and brawls, has yet to win my membership. The greatest show on earth is the closest I want to get in a circus. For once, Oscar was right!