The Best Picture Project – The Greatest Show On Earth (1952)

Greatest.gifDirected by Cecil B. DeMille

Screenplay by Fredric M. Frank &  Barré Lyndon   &  Theodore St. John, story by Fredric M. Frank   &  Theodore St. John   & Frank Cavett

Starring Charlton Heston,

It’s a fact: sit around and talk to anybody about the Oscars long enough and eventually you’ll get around to arguing over which was the worst Best Picture Winner – that I s, which was the worst film to win in a given year.  Inevitably, people in my generation, or at least those with no sense of history, will make strong arguments for Crash, Shakespeare in Love or maybe Titanic being the worst choices in recent memory.  Those with any real sense of history will instead bandy about two other choices:

  1. Citizen Kane, one of which is arguably the greatest film of all time,  being bested by How Green Was My Valley, a film that isn’t even one of the five best films by its own director – for John Ford, his best films obviously include The Grapes of Wrath, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Quiet Man, The Searchers, and one of about ten other films not named How Green Was My Valley.
  2. The Greatest Show On Earth winning Best Picture over Ford’s own The Quiet Man and a little Gary Cooper movie called High Noon.

How Green Was My Valley poster.jpgIt’s hard to decide which of the two is the most egregious win.  On the one hand, the Citizen Kane loss was expected, because Welles’ hubris and his clashes, his clashes William Randolph Hearst and inability to play the Hollywood political game rubbed everybody the wrong way.  Plus, How Green Was My Valley wasn’t outright terrible – it just wasn’t very good – and the industry loved John Ford.  After all, they loved him so much they gave him six Oscars.

On the other hand, The Greatest Show On Earth win sticks out because the film is a big, bloated, boring mess of clichés and melodrama, mixed with documentary footage and wooden characters, that would be completely forgotten today – and rightfully so – if not for the fact the damned thing won Best Picture.

The strange thing is, at the time, neither film couldn’t actually have seemed like that bad of a choice – but The Greatest Show On Earth especially.  After all, leading up to the 1952 Oscar ceremony there really wasn’t much consensus as to what film should be Best Picture.  The Photoplay Gold Medal was given to With a Song In My Heart, The National Board of Review gave theirs to The Quiet Man, the New York Film Critics gave theirs to High Noon and the Golden Globes handed theirs out to The Greatest Show on Earth – they even gave best director to C. B. DeMille.  Given no film seemed to have a stranglehold on the awards leading up to the Oscars, in context the victory for The Greatest Show on Earth at least seems reasonable, condemning How Green Was My Valley to the status of worst Best Picture ever.

High Noon poster.jpgAlthough, perhaps The Greatest Show On Earth winning isn’t all that reasonable.  After all, there’s an argument to be made that High Noon didn’t win Best Picture because of its anti-McCarthy overtones and the fact High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman had just been blacklisted.  In other words, it lost the award because the Oscars lacked the nerve to honor a commie.  But honestly, if that were true, The Quiet Man should have won in a walk.  And yet it didn’t.

Whether it made sense at the time or not, The Greatest Show On Earth winning seems unfathomable today.  After all, there is the melodrama and the terrible acting, plus, the movie is paced terribly and bloated – I already said it was bloated before, but it needed to be said again.  Never mind it’s a weird mix of documentary, puff-piece and soap opera.  Or the special effects work in the train sequence could not be less convincing and look more like a Lionel Train being crashed than an actual train being crashed.  Or the matte shots are glaringly apparent and shoddy – compare the photographic work on Gone With The Wind, which recreated the old south on the back lot in Hollywood through matte paintings and process shots and the process shots here and you see just how shitty it really looks.  Or that…or that everything.  And I mean everything.

Or, how about this: the movies trailer is almost seven minutes long?  Don’t believe me – watch it yourself.

And yet – and yet – the win for The Greatest Show On Earth will never be as bad as How Green Was My Valley simply because High Noon, or The Quiet Man will never be Citizen Kane.  In that respect, How Green Was My Valley will always be worse.

In Fairness

In fairness, though, as lousy as I make it sound, The Greatest Show On Earth isn’t entirely terrible – there are indeed things about it I like.

  1. Charlton Heston.  I know lots of people think his acting style is terrible and antiquated, that he couldn’t emote worth a damn and was all square-jaw toughness.  Never mind his politics are completely off-putting – especially his gun-craziness.  But I’ve always liked him and even when the movie’s awful or cheesy, I still find him watchable.  I guess I’m just a sucker for the kind of tough-guy he used to play.  Besides, the guy was in at least five movies that everybody thinks – or should think – is great: Touch of Evil, Planet of the Apes, Will Penny, The Big Country and The Omega Man.  And even in dreck like The Ten Commandments or Ben-Hur, he’s still fantastic.
  2. The intermittently trashy dialog and innuendo.  Consider two of my favorites:

Sebastian (to Holly, as his blood is being transfused into Brad): “If he should make love well after this, pay no attention – it will be me.”

Or this:

Phyllis (washing her hair when a handsome man walks by): “Why is it that whenever he’s around I’m all wet?”

I suppose, on the whole, while The Greatest Show On Earth is definitely not the greatest movie ever, and could certainly use a judicious amount of editing – you could easily lose about a half-hour from the film and never miss it – but if you had to sit through it and didn’t fall asleep during the most boring parts, you’re not going to be completely un-entertained.

For other entries in the Best Picture Project, please go here.

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