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Voice-over narration, spoken by producer-director Cecil B. DeMille, is heard intermittently throughout the film. Onscreen credits note that the picture was "produced with the Cooperation of Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Circus, John Ringling North President, Henry Ringling North, Vice President, Arthur M. Concello, General Manager, Pat Valdo, General Director of Performance." The onscreen list of circus personnel concludes with the words "and many others." The film includes cameo appearances by Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Edmond O'Brien. William Boyd also appears in one of the circus sequences as his popular screen character Hopalong Cassidy.
Contemporary sources add the following information about the production: In 1948, producer David O. Selznick acquired the rights to make a picture called The Greatest Show on Earth, the circus' official slogan, from Ringling Bros. president John Ringling North. Selznick, who was dogged by rumors that he was about to leave the big screen for television production, announced that the film would be his biggest budgeted project yet and would star Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotten, Jennifer Jones, Valli, Louis Jourdan, Dorothy McGuire, Shirley Temple and Robert Mitchum, as well as Ringling circus performers. Shooting on the Selznick project was to start in the winter of 1948 in Sarasota, FL, and like the DeMille film, the story was to focus on a single season of the "big top." The announced budget of the picture was $6,000,000.
By May 1949, however, Selznick had abandoned the project, opting not to renew his $250,000 option with North. Paramount competed with both M-G-M and Twentieth Century-Fox in acquiring the rights, winning them in July 1949. Modern sources note that DeMille went through many drafts and writers before approving the screenplay. In preparation for filming, DeMille, who reportedly first became interested in doing a circus picture in 1940, accompanied the Ringling circus for several weeks during its 1949 tour. In December 1950, assistant director Edward Salven and unit manager Roy Burns accompanied the circus in Florida to assess potential technical problems.
Lucille Ball was first cast in the role of "Angel," but was replaced by Gloria Grahame. According to modern sources, Ball turned down the part, which Paulette Goddard also had coveted, because she was pregnant. Modern sources also note that Burt Lancaster, who had once performed with a circus, and Kirk Douglas were considered for the role of "Brad" before Charlton Heston was cast. Jimmy Stewart wanted the part of "Buttons" so badly that he offered to perform for scale, according to modern sources. Except for a shot of a still photograph, Stewart's face is never seen onscreen without clown makeup.
Many of the stars were coached by circus performers and executed their own stunts. Betty Hutton learned many aerial tricks from Lynn and Linda Couch, and Antoinette Concello and Bill Snyder, both of whom were with the billed Flying Concellos, performed onscreen with her. During one scene, Snyder, doubling for Cornel Wilde, caught the swinging Hutton by the ankles. Dorothy Lamour, who played the "Iron Jaw Girl," was also coached by Concello, who taught her to spin forty feet in the air while biting a leather strap, according to her autobiography. Graham learned about elephants from "elephant girl" Pat Scott and trainer Eugene "Arky" Scott while Stewart was coached by famed Ringling clown Emmett Kelly, according to publicity materials.
As noted in studio publicity material and other contemporary sources, principal photography began in Sarasota on January 31, 1951, after a "circus special" train, carrying three hundred cast and crew, including two writers, arrived from Hollywood. Approximately 1,450 circus entertainers and crew members participated in the picture, which shot intermittently for eighty-three days. In addition to six weeks of shooting in Sarasota, the production accompanied the circus for its dates in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., filming actual live performances under the big top. In April 1951, production was halted for ten days so that DeMille and his technical staff could observe the circus' opening in New York's Madison Square Garden. Eighty thousand Sarasotans were used as extras in the circus and parade sequences. The film marked the first time in thirty-one years that the Ringling Bros. had staged a full-dress parade, once a circus tradition.
For the train wreck scene, DeMille purchased a number of cars salvaged from actual wrecks and further "distressed" some of the cars by smashing them with steel balls. Six cameras recorded the scene. The big top used in the picture cost $100,000 to construct and was designed by Norman Bel Geddes. The circus costumes, especially designed for the picture by Miles White, cost $200,000. In order to film under the big top, where it was necessary to light from the bottom up, instead of the usual top down, the Technicolor company designed a new camera shutter and combined it with electronically controlled incandescent lights hung on tent poles and sensitized film stock.
Hollywood Reporter news items add Christine Wright, Fred Zendar, Mel Kuntz, Mabel Stark and Robert Mason to the cast, and note that Pierre Cresson, a "French film idol," had been tested for a role in the film. The appearance of these actors in the final film has not been confirmed. According to a March 12, 1951 Hollywood Reporter news item, Gladys Rosson, DeMille's longtime secretary-treasurer, appeared in some of the Sarasota scenes. Father C. L. Elslander, pastor of St. Martha's Catholic Church in Sarasota, appears in the film executing his annual blessing of the departing circus train.
Paramount roadshowed The Greatest Show on Earth starting in January 1952 and, according to a December 1952 Variety article, limited its sale to fifty "situations" between January and Easter week. When wide-scale booking began in the summer of 1952, Paramount instituted a releasing policy requiring that theaters screen the film for at least one full week. The film, whose budget was approximately $4,000,000, was a box-office hit, earning $10,000,000 in its first six months, according to an October 1952 Hollywood Reporter item. A May 4, 1953 Daily Variety item reported that it had earned $18,350,000 in worldwide rentals. According to modern sources, by the end of the 1950s, it ranked fifth among the all-time dramatic film money makers. In 1959, North sued Paramount for $195,000, claiming that he had not been paid a promised percentage of the gross after the film had returned twice its negative cost. The disposition of the suit is not known.
In addition to its financial success, The Greatest Show on Earth won many accolades and awards, including Best Picture and Best Writing (Motion Picture Story) Academy Awards. It was nominated for Best Director, Best Film Editing and Best Costume Design (Color). Although DeMille did not win the directing Oscar, he was honored with the 1952 Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. Prior to 1952, DeMille had never won an Academy Award. The Greatest Show on Earth was also honored by the Foreign Press Association and thirteen other organizations. The Legion of Decency, a Catholic organization, however, gave the picture a "B" rating because of its sympathetic portrayal of "Buttons," a self-confessed mercy killer.
The film was reissued in 1967, during Easter week. A television show inspired by the picture, also titled The Greatest Show on Earth, aired on the ABC network between September 1963 and September 1964. Jack Palance and Stuart Erwin starred in the series.