The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

151 or 153-154 mins | Melodrama | May 1952

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HISTORY

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 Jul 1949. Modern sources note ... More Less

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 Jul 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 Dec 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 31 Jan 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 Apr 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.
       HR 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 12 Mar 1951 HR 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 Jan 1952 and, according to a Dec 1952 Var article, limited its sale to fifty “situations” between Jan 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 Oct 1952 HR item. A 4 May 1953 DV 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 Sep 1963 and Sep 1964. Jack Palance and Stuart Erwin starred in the series. More Less

GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
BIBLIOGRAPHIC SOURCES
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
American Cinematographer
1 Aug 51
p. 324.
American Cinematographer
Dec 51
pp. 494-95, 522.
Box Office
5 Jan 52
p. 26.
Box Office
12 Jan 1952.
---
Daily Variety
4 Aug 1948
p. 1, 10.
Daily Variety
2 Jan 52
p. 3.
Daily Variety
4 May 1953.
---
Film Daily
2 Jan 52
p. 5.
Films in Review
15 Mar 1967.
---
Hollywood Reporter
25 May 1949
p. 1, 8.
Hollywood Reporter
21 Sep 1950
p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter
11 Dec 1950
p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter
10 Jan 1951
p. 5.
Hollywood Reporter
26 Jan 1951
p. 12.
Hollywood Reporter
31 Jan 1951
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
27 Feb 1951
p. 13.
Hollywood Reporter
2 Mar 1951
p. 9.
Hollywood Reporter
12 Mar 1951
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
20 Mar 1951
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
9 Apr 1951
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
17 Apr 1951
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
2 May 1951
p. 9.
Hollywood Reporter
7 May 1951.
---
Hollywood Reporter
8 May 1951
p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter
10 May 1951
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
5 Jun 1951
p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter
8 Jun 1951
p. 8, 10.
Hollywood Reporter
25 Jun 1951
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
29 Jun 1951
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
25 Jul 1951
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
14 Aug 1951
p. 5.
Hollywood Reporter
2 Jan 52
pp. 3-4.
Hollywood Reporter
30 Oct 1952.
---
Hollywood Reporter
28 May 1959.
---
Hollywood Reporter
15 Mar 1967.
---
Life
2 Jul 1951
pp. 63-65.
Look
5 Jun 1951.
---
Los Angeles Times
16 Apr 1948.
---
Los Angeles Times
24 Jul 1949
p. 1, 3.
Motion Picture Herald
21 Jun 1952.
---
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
5 Jan 52
p. 1177.
New York Times
25 Apr 1948.
---
New York Times
8 Aug 1948.
---
New York Times
21 Jan 1951.
---
New York Times
10 Jan 52
p. 33.
New York Times
11 Jan 52
p. 17.
New Yorker
19 Jan 1952.
---
Newsweek
21 Jan 1952.
---
Time
14 Jan 1952.
---
Variety
6 Dec 1950.
---
Variety
2 Jan 52
p. 68.
Variety
10 Dec 1952
p. 4.
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
Circus Personnel Photographed under the Big Top:
Rus Conklin
William Hall
Angelo S. Rossitto
Milt Kibbee
Bill Henry
Bill Meader
Paul E. Burns
+
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
Asst dir
Dial supv
Unit dir
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Addl photog
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
Art dir
Big top des
FILM EDITOR
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Set dec
COSTUMES
Cost
Circus cost
Circus cost executed by
MUSIC
Mus score
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec photog eff
Spec photog eff
DANCE
Circus mus and dance numbers staged by
Choreog
MAKEUP
Makeup supv
PRODUCTION MISC
Unit mgr
Unit mgr
COLOR PERSONNEL
Technicolor col consultant
SOURCES
SONGS
"The Greatest Show on Earth" and "Be a Jumping Jack," words and music by Victor Young and Ned Washington
"Lovely Luawana Lady," words and music by John Ringling North and E. Ray Goetz
"Popcorn and Lemonade," "A Picnic in the Park" and "Sing a Happy Song," words and music by Henry Sullivan and John Murray Anderson.
DETAILS
Release Date:
May 1952
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 10 January 1952
Los Angeles opening: 21 February 1952
Production Date:
31 January--7 June 1951
addl scenes late June and 25 July 1951
Copyright Claimant:
Paramount Pictures Corp.
Copyright Date:
1 April 1952
Copyright Number:
LP1842
Physical Properties:
Sound
Western Electric Recording
Color
Technicolor
Duration(in mins):
151 or 153-154
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
15440
SYNOPSIS

At the winter quarters of the Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Circus in Sarasota, Florida, dedicated, no-nonsense manager Brad Braden meets with Ringling executives, led by John Ringling North, and is told that the circus cannot afford to play small towns during the upcoming season. After Brad reveals that he has just signed popular European aerialist The Great Sebastian, however, the executives, anticipating brisk ticket sales, agree to a full tour. Although most of the performers are grateful for the extra work, Holly, the circus’ ambitious trapeze star, is devastated, as she knows that Sebastian will demand the center ring. Despite being in love with Brad, Holly tearfully reminds him that he had already promised her the center ring and accuses him of betraying her. That night, still brooding, Holly discusses her feelings with kind-hearted clown Buttons, who helps her to see that Brad was merely putting the best interests of the circus first. Holly also admits she is confused about her love for Brad, whose obsession with the circus overshadows their romance. Buttons comments that people often kill the thing they love most, then states that he “loved once” and will never love again. Later, as the circus train is about to depart on its tour, Sebastian zooms up in his sports car, trailed by several ticket-wielding policemen. The handsome Sebastian, who enjoys a reputation as a trouble-making womanizer, is greeted warmly by his former lover, the "iron-jawed" Phyllis, but Angel, the Elephant Girl, another ex-paramour, scorns him. Sebastian is immediately attracted to Holly and offers to give her the center ring, but Brad refuses to make the switch. ... +


At the winter quarters of the Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Circus in Sarasota, Florida, dedicated, no-nonsense manager Brad Braden meets with Ringling executives, led by John Ringling North, and is told that the circus cannot afford to play small towns during the upcoming season. After Brad reveals that he has just signed popular European aerialist The Great Sebastian, however, the executives, anticipating brisk ticket sales, agree to a full tour. Although most of the performers are grateful for the extra work, Holly, the circus’ ambitious trapeze star, is devastated, as she knows that Sebastian will demand the center ring. Despite being in love with Brad, Holly tearfully reminds him that he had already promised her the center ring and accuses him of betraying her. That night, still brooding, Holly discusses her feelings with kind-hearted clown Buttons, who helps her to see that Brad was merely putting the best interests of the circus first. Holly also admits she is confused about her love for Brad, whose obsession with the circus overshadows their romance. Buttons comments that people often kill the thing they love most, then states that he “loved once” and will never love again. Later, as the circus train is about to depart on its tour, Sebastian zooms up in his sports car, trailed by several ticket-wielding policemen. The handsome Sebastian, who enjoys a reputation as a trouble-making womanizer, is greeted warmly by his former lover, the "iron-jawed" Phyllis, but Angel, the Elephant Girl, another ex-paramour, scorns him. Sebastian is immediately attracted to Holly and offers to give her the center ring, but Brad refuses to make the switch. Frustrated, Holly issues Sebastian a challenge, bragging that she will outdo him in the air until Brad is forced to award her the center ring. Holly’s dare generates great publicity, and audiences delight in watching the young woman match Sebastian stunt for stunt. As the stunts become more difficult, however, Buttons and Brad grow concerned, and Brad finally orders Holly to stop the “dog fight.” Holly, however, enjoys the thrill of the duel and insists on continuing. When the worldly Angel warns Holly not to sacrifice Brad for Sebastian, Holly retorts that Brad only loves the circus. Later, during a performance, Buttons, who never removes his clown makeup, spots his mother in the audience and surreptitiously speaks with her. The old woman warns Buttons that the “men” are still looking for him, but he assures her that he is safe as long as he remains in costume. Brad then upsets Holly when he yanks her down in mid-trick and the audience laughs at her. Furious, Holly allows Sebastian to romance her after the show until Angel directs one of her elephants to scoop her up with his tusks and deliver her to Brad. After Brad explains that he stopped the stunt because the rope she was using was about to break, Holly forgives him and agrees to end the duel. Angel, meanwhile, must contend with Klaus, the elephants’ trainer, who is jealous of Sebastian and frustrated by Angel’s repeated rejections. Sure that Angel would love him if he had more money, Klaus talks with Harry, a thug who operates crooked side show games for racketeer Henderson. When Brad learns about Harry, he orders him to pack up and go, and the two men fight. Henderson warns Brad about opposing him, but Brad is not intimidated. Meanwhile Sebastian, who senses he is losing Holly, announces he is performing a new, dangerous stunt, and when Holly teases him about the safety net that Brad has ordered for the center ring, Sebastian disengages the net before going on. Unprepared for the stunt, Sebastian misses his mark and falls to the ground, stunning the crowd. After the broken Sebastian is carried off on a stretcher, Brad tells Holly she is “center ring” now, and Holly cries with guilt. Sometime later, a recuperated Sebastian strolls into the circus camp and tells Holly and Brad that he has been hired by a rival circus, whose women, he hears, are especially beautiful. Holly is hurt by Sebastian’s apparent fickleness, but Brad senses that Sebastian is lying and grabs his coat off his arm, exposing Sebastian’s crippled right hand. Surmising that Sebastian returned only because he is in love with her, Holly declares her love and insists on taking care of him. One night, after Angel makes a final attempt at discouraging her about Sebastian, Holly notices a discarded magazine article about a doctor “who killed the thing he loved.” Holly shows the item to Buttons, pointing out the phrase Buttons had used with her, but Buttons shrugs it off. With the way now clear, Angel goes after Brad, and he happily accepts her attentions. Angel’s new romance makes Klaus irate, and during their act, he threatens her as she lies under the raised foot of an elephant. Brad rushes into the ring and pulls Angel to safety, then fires Klaus. In revenge, Klaus plots with Harry to rob the circus’ money car that night, while Brad is approached by a detective who is on the trail of a doctor wanted for the mercy killing of his terminally ill wife. Brad claims not to recognize the photograph the detective shows him but gives him permission to fingerprint some of the performers on the train. Buttons, meanwhile, discovers that Sebastian, who now works as a balloon seller, has some feeling in his bad hand, a sign that the damage is not irreparable, and later on the train, reports the good news to Brad. Although Brad and Buttons have never discussed Buttons’ past, Brad has deduced that Buttons is the fugitive doctor and warns him about the detective. Brad then deliberately provokes Sebastian into taking a swing at him, and Sebastian realizes that he has sensation in his damaged hand. Overjoyed, Sebastian races to see Holly and, believing that he will be able to “fly” again, proposes. Just then, however, Klaus and Harry set a trap to stop the front train, which contains the money car, and steal the strongbox. When Klaus suddenly realizes that the second train, on which the performers and animals are traveling, is fast approaching and will collide with the front train, he drives Harry’s car onto the tracks and tries to signal the engineer. The engineer cannot stop in time, however, and Harry is crushed between the two trains and passengers and animals are sent flying. Although Klaus is the only fatality, Brad is pinned under some rubble and the circus doctor is knocked out. Desperate to save the bleeding Brad, Holly, who has also figured out Buttons’ identity, asks the clown to tend to his wound, and although he knows that by doing so, he will expose himself to the detective, Buttons agrees. When Buttons declares that a transfusion is needed, Sebastian, who has the same rare blood type as Brad, volunteers. The transfusion is a success, and Brad is saved. Brad then orders that the show go on, despite the destruction of the big top, and Holly suggests they hold the circus in the nearby field. Buoyed by her rekindled love for Brad, Holly directs the others in setting up the impromptu circus and leads a colorful parade into Cedar City, their next scheduled stop. Back at the train wreck, Henderson offers to buy Brad’s “washed-up” venture and is stunned when a huge crowd comes marching up, eager to buy tickets. After Buttons gives himself up to the detective, Brad declares his love to Holly, and Sebastian proposes to Angel. Under the bright blue sky, the Greatest Show on Earth then goes on. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.