I would like to preface this article by say that they simply do not make them like they used to. I’m not saying that the lows are necessarily lower than they were or that the highs were necessarily always higher: the quality of movies has, in fact, always been somewhat variable. Whether for better or worse, though, we have to acknowledge that they do not make movies like they did back in the day.
Case in point: The Greatest Show on Earth, a Cecil B. DeMille picture about the circus from the early 1950s starring a young Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Gloria Grahame, and none other than Jimmy Stewart as a sad clown. There are a lot of reasons why this movie is so quintessentially 50s, and indeed why they don’t make them like this anymore, but there are just as many positive lessons to be learned about the craft, and a few things—some things they don’t do anymore—that they ought to.
The Plot: Charlton Heston is the dashing, no-nonsense manager of the greatest show on earth: the circus. He’s romantically involved with the show’s top trapeze artist, played by Betty Hutton, but when attendance stops to dip and the PTB threaten to limit the circus’ tour, Heston must put his romantic interests on hold to save the show, which he does by hiring Cornel Wilde’s outrageous French accent, which happens to be attached to the greatest trapeze artist in the world. Not willing to let Wilde steal the center ring without a fight, Hutton begins a series of aerial exploits to upstage this French marvel. Enjoying the competition, Wilde becomes infatuated, and a belabored love triangle ensues.
The Greatest Show on Earth earns its title in three major capacities. First, its depiction of the circus is incredible. DeMille shot the movie in a real circus, so most of the acrobatics and other acts are real. Cornel Wilde and Betty Hutton even had to do a few of their own amazing trapeze stunts. DeMille also peppers the film with documentary inserts about how the circus is run and operated: all the behind-the-scenes stuff that you never hear about. It’s really quite interesting. But the greatest thing you get from this is a window into a bygone form of entertainment, one that’s been replaced mostly by video games. At one point, Charlton Heston delivers a typically impassioned speech about how important their work is, how entertaining children is one of the most honest and decent things a person can do, especially in show biz. It’s depressing, really, that children have gradually gravitated away from enjoying actual live, skilled entertainment performed by actual live humans and toward virtual wish fulfillment, but what can you do? They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
The second thing The Greatest Show on Earth has going for it is its mastery of the subplot. As I previously mentioned, James Stewart plays a clown in a small supporting role. He wears makeup throughout the whole movie, and would otherwise be difficult to recognize except for his truly singular voice, which you could probably pick out of a chorus. Now, when I first heard “James Stewart plays a clown,” at first I smiled, thinking, “Oh, I bet that’s great,” but before I could finish verbalizing that sentence the smile faded and I realized, “Oh, I bet that’s heartbreaking.” And I was right. Jimmy Stewart as a clown is heartbreaking. He has a fully developed backstory and beautiful arc despite almost never appearing as the center of attention. How often do you see that? I really wish people put more care and effort into their supporting cast.
The third and final thing, the thing that above all else earns this movie the right to call itself The Greatest Show on Earth, because truly nothing could be more entertaining, is a love scene between Cornel Wilde and Betty Hutton in which the former tries his darnedest to woo the latter. The barrage of bad, hilarious pickup lines he employs here, delivered in his perfectly fake French accent, sets this so impossibly far above every trashy airport romance you’ve ever laid eyes upon. Seriously.
Sebastian: You are beautiful and exciting, like wine. You know, women are like wine. Some are like sweet sauterne; some are warm like burgundy? Some—
Holly: Which one was Angel?
Sebastian: Oh, Angel was like cognac: all fire in a glass. But you! [Pulls her in close] You are like champagne: sparkly and tantalizing.
(no seriously, I kid you not)
To jump ahead a bit:
Holly: I better go.
Sebastian: When we are up in the air, I fall more and more in love. You too, no?
Sebastian: A girl may say no, but the woman in her means yes. Do not be afraid of me.
Holly: I’m just scared of myself.
Sebastian: Oh, it is not of yourself. It is love that frightens you.
And it just goes on like that. This movie won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. It did.
This dialogue is only improved by Cornel Wilde’s outrageous accent, and Betty Hutton’s earnest sincerity.
So no, they don’t make them like that anymore, and I really wouldn’t want them to, not across the board, at least, but every now and then what could be better than that? So yeah, The Greatest Show on Earth. Indeed.