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The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) began as an idea by producer David O. Selznick. In April 1948 he announced he would film a circus story that centered around the Ringling Brothers-Barnum, and Bailey Circus. However, when Selznick failed to get the necessary funding, he abandoned the project. Director Cecil B. DeMille would pick up where Selznick left off. The following year, on July 24, 1949, he and John Ringling North, the president of the circus, held their own press conference to announce that they would be making the film, with DeMille stating, "This is not to be a history of the circus...We will tell the story of the circus and its people in relation to all other people." North added that his favorite actress was Ann Sheridan and that he hoped she would be in the film. DeMille smiled but made no comment. Sheridan was not in the movie.
Unlike most of DeMille's films, The Greatest Show on Earth would be based on an original screenplay - and it would take over a year to produce an acceptable screenplay. As Phil Koury, DeMille's executive producer later wrote, "DeMille's antics during this period were not of a kind to endear him to his writers. He flayed them in conference, then openly at staff luncheons. There were moments when he seemed close to panic. Costs were piling up. More than $50,000 had gone into writers' salaries. There were thick stacks of material. Conference notes, bits of plots and miscellaneous ideas - but nothing together into dramatic sequence. Then Cecil had an idea. Cecil's grandson, Jody Harper, was eight years old at the time and loved to watch films with his grandfather. 'When Jody says, "'that's the bad man, grandfather", or "That's the good man" I know all is well with the story', he told the staff at lunch one day. By this time five writers had been on the script and he turned to one and asked him to bring him an outline of a circus story that Jody could understand. The writer came back a few days later with seventeen typewritten pages that began: 'Once upon a time there was a circus and the boss of this circus is a strong, tough young fellow called Brad Gable. Brad lives and breathes circus...he eats and drinks circus. Brad is in love with Holly, the flyer, but Brad could never tell Holly that he loves her. In fact, he hardly admits it to himself. He knows it isn't good for the boss of a circus to be in love with a performer. When this happens he gets to worrying about her because she might fall and be hurt. She becomes more important to him than the circus, which shouldn't be...' Cecil was delighted."
With an approved storyline, DeMille, his secretary Gladys Rosson, his granddaughter Citsy, a writer, a publicist, and Phil Koury met up with the Ringling Brothers Circus in Milwaukee and followed them through their September 1950 northern tour. Koury wrote that during this time DeMille was a "stalking figure in breeches, boots, and open shirt, peering through a camera 'finder' at Bengal tigers within a foot of striking range...scaling rope ladders to aerialist platforms." He even went up forty feet in the air above the highest point of the aerialist platform in a bucket seat to get an idea of how it would look on camera. Unbeknownst to his staff, DeMille, then nearing seventy, was pushing himself to the limit. One night at dinner, "he slipped into a sort of semi-consciousness...Gladys Rosson held up his head to keep it from striking the dishes. When he awoke he went right on with his meal as if nothing had happened."
For his leading man, DeMille had originally thought of Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster, but settled on Charlton Heston after seeing him in a film version of Julius Caesar (1950). For the aerialist, DeMille choose Betty Hutton over the likes of Hedy Lamarr, Paulette Goddard, and Marlene Dietrich. Hutton was so anxious to get the role, she purportedly sent DeMille a $1,000 flower arrangement that featured herself as an aerialist, perched on the top. Gloria Grahame and Dorothy Lamour joined Hutton in doing many of their own stunts, and Jimmy Stewart, at the height of his career, took the role of a doctor on the run from the FBI who hides out as a clown in the circus. For the entire duration of the film, Stewart never appears without his full clown makeup. Dorothy Lamour later said, "Few other big names would agree to completely hide their identity. But Jimmy felt so secure he did it willingly and had himself a great time." Stewart had personally contacted DeMille when he heard about the project and asked for the role. DeMille said, "It's a very small part and the clown never takes off his makeup." Stewart asked if the role was essential to the plot. When DeMille told him it was, Stewart said, "You've got a deal!".
Shooting began on a grand scale on January 15, 1951. DeMille wrote, "There must have been more than 50,000 people on the streets of Sarasota, Florida, the circus's winter home, when we let it be known that we were going to film the circus parade there and, of course, photograph the crowd. After a month's work of shooting in Sarasota, we returned to Hollywood for two months of studio production, then rejoined the circus in Washington, and went on with it to Philadelphia."
The Greatest Show on Earth premiered at Radio City Music Hall on January 10, 1952 with a running length of two and a half hours. The critics' reaction to the film was typical: DeMille's films were critic-proof in that they would do well regardless of what was written, so they let him have it. Films in Review wrote "Mr. DeMille is so accomplished a showman that one is astonished he did not just photograph a circus performance without the synthetic story he injected here. After all, the Ringing Brothers-Barnum and Bailey Circus is a wonder in itself. But he had to add love interest - and schmaltz it up." The New York Herald Tribune commented "The train wreck looks as luridly contrived as rubber octopuses, falling temples, and all the other divertissements of past epics." Once more, despite the critics, DeMille had a hit. The film would eventually gross over $14,000,000. It also won the Best Picture Oscar® in a year where the competition included The Quiet Man, Moulin Rouge, and High Noon.
Producer: Cecil B. DeMille, Henry Wilcoxon
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Screenplay: Fredric M. Frank, Theodore St. John, Frank Cavett, Barre Lyndon
Cinematography: George Barnes
Film Editing: Anne Bauchens
Art Direction: Hal Pereira, Walter Tyler
Music: Victor Young
Cast: Betty Hutton (Holly), Cornel Wilde (The Great Sebastian), Charlton Heston (Brad Braden), Dorothy Lamour (Phyllis), Gloria Grahame (Angel), Henry Wilcoxon (FBI Agent).
by Lorraine LoBianco
The Motion Picture Guide , by Jay Robert Nash and Stanley Ralph Ross
The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille by Cecil B. DeMille, edited by Donald Wayne
Everybody's Man by Than Robbins