Charlton Heston’s Break-Out Role

The Greatest Show on Earth can be construed as a two-hour commercial for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, made with all the pomp and grandeur that Hollywood can conjure. The results are quite spectacular for anyone yearning for a dramatic, over-the-top showcase of the circus. The movie vividly captures life as a circus performer in a way only director Cecil B. DeMille could pull off at the heights of his storied filmmaking career. Some have called the Best Picture-winner a case of spectacle over substance and they may be correct.

Cecil B. DeMille stages a circus epic that goes behind the glamorous performances, capturing the quintessentially American business at its glorious peak. The Greatest Show on Earth actually merges two great strains in American entertainment – Cecil B. DeMille’s uncanny command of epic Hollywood productions and the highly nostalgic, traveling circus shows that are now gone. While shows like the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus may not exist anymore, they aren’t forgotten by generations of Americans.

The Greatest Show on Earth ends with one of the most memorable set pieces from Hollywood’s Golden Age

Star Charlton Heston plays the rugged Brad Braden as an archetypal alpha male managing the circus and all its performers. Brad balances the struggles of managing the huge operation while keeping his relationship with Holly on the backburner, a star trapeze artist. It’s a stiff performance strongly rooted in a pre-Brando style of acting from the 1940s. Heston’s clunky narration adds almost a semi-documentary feel to DeMille’s storytelling.

This is the role that turned Heston into a household Hollywood name across America but he’s merely the token lead in a pantheon of talented ensemble performers. The all-star cast includes Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame, and even Jimmy Stewart alongside a cast of hundreds plucked from actual circus shows. Stewart appears as Buttons, a popular clown who always appears in make-up on screen. The real star is the amazing production design and grand staging of a real operating circus in all its glory.

The primary dramatic narrative is a tired love triangle between Brad, Holly, and daring trapeze legend Sebastian. Corny by modern standards, Holly yearns for Brad’s affections. However, Brad only has eyes for keeping his circus running. The hot-blooded Sebastian attempts to woo Holly away from Brad.

The Greatest Show on Earth ends with one of the most memorable set pieces from Hollywood’s Golden Age, a spectacular train wreck made with miniatures. While primitive and crude compared with modern special effects, the electrifying scene amazed audiences and influenced an entire generation of movie magic.

Video

The crowd-pleasing film wowed audiences in 1952, ultimately earning a Best Picture Oscar that some critics felt was undeserved. It’s quite telling that it took Paramount almost fifteen years to release the film on Blu-ray, leaving its only presence on home video as a sub-par DVD.

The 1952 Technicolor film has never been treated particularly kindly on home video before this new Blu-ray edition. Boasting a new 4K scan from the original negative, the ancient DVD has been easily surpassed in picture quality by this 1080P presentation.

Properly transferring the original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Paramount encodes the video in high-bitrate AVC on a BD-50. Running over 150 minutes, the film’s soft grain structure and middling textural detail is nicely replicated.

The film negative isn’t in utterly perfect shape like some other recent transfers of classic Hollywood movies – Paramount didn’t break the bank on the photo-chemical restoration. The transfer exhibits occasional processing and chroma errors visible in the elements, including obvious cue marks.

Registration errors and rear projection problems stick out like a sore thumb. Some wobble is also evident, expect a little jitter for the rougher scenes. This isn’t the high-grade restoration afforded Paramount’s most famous films – viewers may find the picture quality rather ordinary and drab compared to new reference transfers such as The Court Jester.

The Greatest Show on Earth displays a colorful Technicolor palette with some fringing and a few halos. The contrast maintains strong clarity held up by saturated primary colors with a mild cyan shift. This isn’t the pristine, tack-sharp cinematography common during the 1950s. A soft-focus helps soften and glamorize the leading actresses, especially romantic female lead Betty Hutton.

Audio

The limitations of a fairly lackluster recording arise in the film’s lossless 2.0 DTS-HD MA soundtrack. The original monaural mix is a dated affair with limited range and extension, especially compared with better recordings from the 1950s. The Greatest Show on Earth’s dialogue exchanges hold up well in decent fidelity. The audio isn’t necessarily harsh or strained, but mildly flat.

Occasional musical performances by the circus performers have mostly smooth harmonies without much strain. Circus noises add atmosphere but there isn’t a perfect sense of space and realism in the mix. The audio design comes to life for the climactic train wreck.

Optional English, English SDH, German and French subtitles play in a white font. Original French and German dubs are presented in mono Dolby Digital selections.

Extras

The Best Picture-winner is #16 in the Paramount Presents Blu-ray line with the familiar trade dress of previous releases. The only special feature is a concise featurette with film critic Leonard Maltin discussing the film’s strengths and how it inspired a young Steven Spielberg to take up filmmaking.

The included digital copy redeems in HDX quality on one of three different streaming services: iTunes or Vudu or FandangoNow. The quality fold-out slipcover contains the original movie poster art.

Filmmaker Focus: Leonard Maltin on The Greatest Show on Earth (07:42 in HD) – The esteemed film critic touches upon Cecil B. DeMille’s directorial career and how a chance run-in with Charlton Heston made the young actor a screen icon. It’s a nice capsule summary of the movie that succinctly captures what made the movie a runaway success.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

The Greatest Show on Earth
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Cecil B. DeMille creates a vivid portrait of circus life during its glory days with an epic re-creation of a real show.

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