The Greatest Show On Earth (1952)
The Greatest Show On Earth rounds off a series of BP winners which are ostensibly about performance. All the way back to Gentleman’s Agreement, where Gregory Peck’s character performs as a Jew, there are explicit forms of peformance…theatre in All About Eve, political performance in All The King’s Men, and of course Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I enjoy watching self-conscious performance because it brings both the spectator and the performer to the same level, and there’s a real feeling that one cannot exist without the other.
Set both onstage and offstage at a circus, The Greatest Show On Earth uses performance devices to engage with the transportational ability of film. Historically, film has been used as a medium for the spectacular, as a way to transport the audience to a place they would normally be unable to access. Hollywood regularly employs this principle, but I would hazard to suggest that few Best Picture winners thus far have really been made with the intention of offering an escape, usually opting for a more serious exploration of the human condition. Not so with The Greatest Show On Earth, which thrusts us right into the middle of a circus, allowing us a peek at the internal goings-on of circus management and also extremely close-up experiences with circus acts – much closer than anything the average person is able to experience in real life.
Although its primary purpose is to entertain and please, it injects a narrative drive through character and human drama. James Stewart, last seen in You Can’t Take It With You, performs excellently as a clown on the run for murder. I’ve read some criticisms that his character has no purpose in the film, which is entirely untrue as he clearly plays a key role in the film’s climax. Yet even without a plot function it would have been fun enough just to watch this quirky character performance.
I’ve seen quite a few circuses in the past few years, some big and some small, and in all honesty I can say that The Greatest Show On Earth is the best circus I’ve ever seen. This is because we’re able to get so much closer to the action than in real life. Sure the film lacks the sense of danger that a real circus inhabits, but on film our intimacy with the stunts makes it every bit as entertaining. And though we know now that treatment of animals as it appears in this film is not really appropriate, the archival nature of The Greatest Show On Earth means that we can forgive it and enjoy seeing footage that today is almost certainly illegal, not to mention unethical, to film.
Were it not for the focus on people and relationships, The Greatest Show On Earth would effectively be a parade of circus images, but that’s fine with me as the best way to approach this film is to sit back with popcorn and enjoy the ride.