The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) (mini-review++)

(If you’re curious, my review process. It’s also pasted at the end of this post. I don’t believe in Rotten Tomatoes. I just believe in me.)

(***all-purpose SPOILER ALERT*** there may be some in this review)

acting 8

directing 8

effects 8

editing 6

writing 7


3.5 out of 5 🐙


I didn’t realize this film was shot with the cooperation of “Ringling Brothers – Barnum and Bailey Circus”. It’s remarkable because the movie shows all the good and very bad aspects of the circus world. I can’t imagine a modern company letting that happen. If it did, it would be in the context of a documentary without their consent.

Heston’s look reminds me of Indiana Jones, but that makes sense since the movie was released in 1952 and Indy’s movies are set in the 40s which aren’t too far apart stylistically. I know the style of the times did lend itself to overly dramatic monologues and statuesque delivery of lines, as if they are on the stage of the Globe theater.  But I don’t get why people thought Heston was such a great actor. He seems so stiff and overly dramatic. He is the definition of wooden. 

After I just slagged Heston’s acting ability, I do want to say something interesting about his character. Not that what I’m going to say is interesting, but how his character was written is interesting. I couldn’t tell if he was a good guy or a bad guy. That’s good. That means he has layers. He is a dick about money matters and that irritates most of the company. But he’s doing that so they will have jobs. He lets the trapeze artists go without a net to sell more tickets. But he stops Angel (Gloria Grahame) from attempting to break a circus record because it could easily result in her serious injury or death. 

It’s interesting to see a grey character in the 50s, or maybe I was just being naïve about how characters were developed back then. Certainly,  George Eastman in A Place in the Sun was morally ambiguous at best.

This movie could lose an hour easily. I get they are trying to portray an epic tapestry of a very complicated industry, but an unnecessary scene is an unnecessary scene. There is way too much that doesn’t advance the narrative or contribute to any characterization. Maybe Ringling Bros demanded all of their acts get some screen time. Because it feels like they didn’t leave a damn thing out. Shit, it feels like they made up stuff just for this movie. 

I get it’s Heston’s movie and the focus should be on him, but Jimmy Stewart is not used enough. He does have the most interesting costume choice in that he never takes off his clown makeup. How do you let that resource go wasted? They do give him an interesting backstory, but I wanted more. 

From a 2020 vantage point, the scenes with the little people are uncomfortable.  I know they are voluntarily doing jobs, but how many employment choices did they have in the 50s? They are targets of laughter. The audience is not laughing with them, and that’s not a problem.

The last 50s movie I watched was A Place in the Sun and the contrast between that film and this one is striking. It was released only one year prior to this, but it’s virtually a negative of this film. It’s black and white while this film is in gaudy technicolor. But that’s hardly the most striking difference. A Place in the Sun is spare and quiet and tense, but this film is an explosion of emotions and drama. But they do share some things. Both tease and include a tragedy. Both feel pregnant with tension. With all the death-defying acrobatics, I kept expecting a terrible accident to come.

(I get these trapeze scenes are both a literal and figurative representation of the drama in the film, but they just bore the tears out of me. Even as a kid, I didn’t like the circus.) 

As everyone expected, The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) falls and injures himself because he disregards all the safety precautions because he thinks he is, well, great. To be fair, Sebastian has a solid character arc. 

There are a plethora of subplots that run through this three-hour odyssey. There’s an organized crime gang that harasses and robs the circus people. The constant shots of the crowds are unnerving. Maybe that’s the point? It seems like they are the Romans cheering on the lions while they eat the Christians in the colosseum. There’s a love “square” between Holly, The Great Sebastian, Brad, and Phyllis. It’s tedious and gets lost in the slew of scenes that make this movie so long.   

The real climax in the film involves a horrific scene with an elephant. I love animals. And the elephant isn’t hurt or anything like that, but it bothered me to see all the circus animals. As a kid, I was charmed by them, but now I know they certainly aren’t happy to be living in a circus. 

I understand that huge musical numbers are to be expected in a movie with this title. But I dislike pageantry and musical numbers like this almost as much as I dislike extended trapeze scenes. But if those are your jam, there’s seemingly no end to them, so you’ll be very happy. 

The film ends with a massive train crash that injures many and allows all the circus animals to flee, causing epic chaos. By the time this climax hits, I was so inured by the crush of too many scenes and too many subplots and too many details and too many love tangles, that I was just glad it was over. 







(1) Shark Wrighter (SW) Score: Based on a sum of 5 sub-scores (acting, directing, writing/story, effects: cinematography &/or animation &/or effects, editing) with 1 being terrible and 10 being terrific.

(2) Octopuses (0-5 🐙, with 5 being fantastic and 0 being feces)

(3) Octopuses are my unquantifiable feeling…not that SW score is scientific…but this one is even less so

(4) ++ This optional section includes any incredibly *brilliant observations that don’t fit into simple quantitative slices like the scores and octopuses *(they are likely NOT brilliant)

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