Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

Tivo's description of this movie says "Action Adventure (1952) Betty Hutton, Charlton Heston, Cornel Wilde, Dorothy Lamour. A high-wire artist, the girlfriend of a circus manager, falls for a French aerialist." How it failed to mention Jimmy Stewart as a bad clown named Buttons who just happens to have learned enough about medicine in the Navy to save the circus manager's life at a key moment in the film is beyond me!
Let me repeat this slowly:
Jimmy Stewart.
In clown costume for the entire movie.
Playing Buttons the bad clown.
Who is secretly a surgeon.

There you have it, the reason to watch the movie, right there, nothing more required...but there is quite a lot more that is offered.

Oh what else? It's a musical. It's a big schmaltzy expensive costume musical with live animals and costumes that would shame Las Vegas showgirls. And this is what TCM describes as "Action Adventure"? (I happen to know that the program information on Tivo is usually supplied by the network....)

Okay, okay, all the music is diegetic, they sing as part of the circus, sing to cheer themselves up or to advertise the show - no-one sings a story or a monologue or a line that could have been spoken - but still - a coordinated number with dancing girls swinging from pineapple-bedecked ropes is quite, quite good.

By the way, that number would be, according to the ringmaster: 'The luscious Phyllis dances and sings to the sultry strains of Lovely Luawana Lady!" (Dorothy Lamour plays Phyllis)

Because Hawaii was only recently made a state we had to humiliate it, right? Like some kind of national hazing ritual?

On the more modern tip, the lyric "they don't pack that wicky whack" could easily be sampled for a hip-hop track - Diddy is probably all over it already.

WHAT is not to love about a circus movie? It allows people to say lines like
"You've got sawdust in your veins" and
"The only thing about you I'm interested in is your elephants" and
"When I kiss you, I need to have my feet planted firmly on the ground"
and while we're quoting favorite lines:
"I've never run from a fight" "and I've never lost one"
"What does a girl have to say to make a blind man see"
"Be careful of that halo, sister, it's phony, it'll slip and you'll be wearing it around your neck"
"Don't believe everything you hear, it's only half of what you see."
"Is that a professional opinion?" "That's a clown's opinion!"

The plot is thick - there's a rival circus named the Columbia, a crooked carnival games mobster, a jealous showgirl rival of the "high=wire artist" (who also does trapeze, by the way, so I'm not sure why she's a "high-wire artist" in the description). There is a german elephant-trainer who is in love with the showgirl rival, there is the crazy french aerialist who is completely obnoxious and deserves to fall and break his stupid arm.

Then of course there is a clown with a dark secret and a cute little dog (possibly named Squeaker?).

The aerialist tries a trick without a net to show off for the high-wire artist and ends up falling. The high-wire artist falls in love with his derring-do and leaves the poor hard-working sullen Charlton Heston - I've never liked him in anything but the aerialist is so arrogant and obnoxious it really makes it easy to love him. After this the movie goes on for another hour - the plot twists and twists again - the rival goes for the dumped circus manager, the high-wire artists chases the aerialist, a detective comes looking for the clown - and on and on...ending with a train crash in which a leopard escapes making me decide that this movie is the other side of the "Bringing Up Baby" story - remember the escaped leopard? It's dangerous? It escapes from a train that is crashed? This could be that leopard! I choose to see it that way.

They must have shot a lot of the crowd scenes in a hangar on the lot because the crowd has some stars in it (I spotted Bob Hope at one point) and I'm sure some executives if I knew who to look for. They must've hired some circus people to do the acts and filmed those, but they also used a LOT of green screen. A LOT. It's pretty entertaining to speculate on why - I mean the effects shots are obvious - but in one scene there are just a bunch of people packing stuff up in the background - they couldn't shoot that? Or they just forgot and had to pick it up as an insert shot?

Once in a great while a movie comes along that is so bad it becomes good again - one might even call it a Great Bad Movie. This is might just be the Greatest Bad Movie on Earth...maybe.
Three stars, would positively watch again. Probably going to do so right now.


mismo said...

Surely this is one of the greatest schlock films.

Jessica said...

Hi Dad!
Movie too bizarre to put much thought into. Having only seen the highlights you showed me Amy, I'm not sure I'm up for seeing the whole movie. But maybe someday... Oh Jimmy Stewart as a clown, how I do love you.

Ms. Q said...

Jessica gasped out loud when the claw/hand appeared - it was great and greatly schlocky. I really can't imagine what could top it!