Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: The Greatest Show on Earth (dir by Cecil B. DeMille)


Jimmy Stewart is Buttons the Clown!

Listen, there’s a lot of things that can be said about the 1952 Best Picture winner, The Greatest Show on Earth.  Not only was it one of three Cecil B, DeMille films to be nominated for best picture (along with 1934’s Cleopatra and 1956’s The Ten Commandments) but it was also the only one to win.  It brought Cecil B. DeMille his first and only nomination for best director.  (DeMille lost that directing Oscar to John Ford but he still took home an award, as the producer of The Greatest Show On Earth.)  The Greatest Show on Earth not only featured Charlton Heston in his first starring role but, with a finale that featured everyone involved in the same spectacular train crash, it also set the standard for the countless disaster movies that would follow.

But, with all of that in mind, the main thing that you’ll remember about this movie is that Jimmy Stewart was Buttons the Clown.

Buttons is a beloved member of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus.  He travels with the circus across the country, entertaining children and generally helping out wherever he can.  Everyone loves Buttons, despite the fact that no one has ever seen him without his makeup.  (That said, you only have to hear him speak to immediately recognize him as being played by Jimmy Stewart.)  Not even the circus’s no-nonsense manager, Brad Braden (Charlton Heston, naturally), knows what Buttons actually looks like.  Everyone assumes that Buttons is just a dedicated performer, a method clown.

However, it turns out that Buttons has a secret.  Of course, nearly everyone at the circus has a secret but Buttons’s secret is a little bit more serious than just a love triangle or a case of professional jealousy.  There’s a reason why Buttons is surprisingly good at providing first aid to the members of the circus.  Before he was a clown, Buttons was a doctor.  And, while he was a doctor, he killed his wife.

NO!  NOT JIMMY STEWART!

In Buttons’s defense, it was a mercy killing and he feels really bad about it.  That, of course, doesn’t matter to the FBI agent (Henry WIlcoxon) who suspects that the doctor may be hiding among the circus performers.  At first, Buttons views that train crash as the perfect opportunity to escape but then he finds out that many of his fellow performers have been seriously injured.  A doctor is needed.  Perhaps even a doctor in clown makeup….

Even under all that makeup, Jimmy Stewart does a great job of bringing Buttons to life.  Sometimes, we associate Stewart so much with his famous way of speaking that we overlook just what a good actor Jimmy Stewart actually was.  Even before you discover why Buttons is running from the cops, Stewart does a good job of capturing the sadness and the regret that lies at the heart of Button.  He’s truly a tragic clown.

Buttons’s status as a fugitive is just one of the many subplots to be found in The Greatest Show On Earth.  There’s a lot of drama (not to mention parades and performances) to get through before that train crashes.  Brad, for instance, is struggling to keep the circus from going bankrupt.  Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Holly (Betty Hutton), is torn between him and the arrogant but charming Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde).  In fact, every woman in the circus — including Gloria Grahame and Dorothy Lamour — is in love with the Great Sebastian.  Sebastian is a bit self-centered but he’s famous enough to ensure that the circus won’t have to be closed.  Or, at least, he is until he’s injured in a trapeze accident.  Will Sebastian ever perform again?  Meanwhile, there’s a jealous elephant trainer named Klaus (Lyle Bettinger) and a crooked concessionaire named Harry (John Kellog).  A local gangster, Mr. Henderson (Lawrence Tierney), is trying to muscle his way into the circus’s business.  Is it any surprise that Brad always seems to be in something of a bad mood?  He’s got a lot to deal with!

And yes, it’s all a bit overblown and a bit silly.  And yes, the film really does feel like it was meant to be a commercial for Ringling Bros.  And yet, in its way, the film definitely works.  There’s a sincerity at the heart of the film, one that’s epitomized by Cecil B. DeMille’s opening narration.  “”A fierce, primitive fighting force that smashes relentlessly forward against impossible odds: That is the circus — and this is the story of the biggest of the Big Tops — and of the men and women who fight to make it — The Greatest Show On Earth!”  DeMille was 71 years old when he made The Greatest Show On Earth and he was coming to the end of a legendary filmmaking career.  DeMille was one of the founders of the American film industry and you can argue that, if not for some of his silent spectacles, Hollywood would have always remained just a neglected suburb of Los Angeles.  If anyone understood that importance of that old saying, “The show must go on!,” it was Cecil B. DeMille.  And really, that’s what The Greatest Show On Earth is all about.  It’s a tribute to the performers who refuse to give up.  Love triangles?  Fugitive clowns?  Injured acrobats?  Lawrence Tierney?  No matter what, the show must go on!

The Greatest Show On Earth is often described as being one of the worst films to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  That has more to do with the quality of the films that it beat — High Noon, The Quiet Man, Moulin Rouge, and Ivanhoe — than the film itself.  The Greatest Show On Earth is old-fashioned and a bit silly but it’s still entertaining.  Should it have beaten High Noon?  That would be a definite no.  But it’s still better than Crash.

Cecil B. DeMented: MADAM SATAN (MGM 1930)


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It’s wild! It’s weird! It’s Cecil B. DeMille’s  MADAM SATAN, a movie I’ve heard about for decades, but never had the chance to catch, until now. It’s got a little something for everybody, from drama to comedy to musical numbers to half-naked women to jazz baby Lillian Roth! Was it worth the wait, Dear Readers? Well… read on!

Better hold on to your seats though, as MADAM SATAN shifts abruptly in tone throughout it’s running time. It’s slow going the first few minutes, starting out as a stiff drawing-room drama. Angela Brooks (Kay Johnson) is worried about her dissipating  marriage to Bob, who neglects her and stays out all night. Now here comes comedy, with Bob (Reginald Denny ) and his pal Jimmy (Roland Young) trying to sneak in at dawn, two wasted wastrels drunk as the proverbial skunks. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the maid (Elsa Peterson) breaks out…

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The Horror Stars of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (Paramount 1956)


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Last night, as I usually do during the Easter/Passover season, I watched Cecil B. DeMille’s Biblical epic THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. It’s a movie buffs delight, an All-Star spectacle featuring three Oscar winners ( Charlton Heston ,Yul Brynner , Anne Baxter ), one who should’ve been (Edward G. Robinson ), and a literal cast of thousands! Something that’s always stood out to me is the number of horror movie stars that appear in various parts, a plethora of Hollywood practitioners from my favorite genre:

John Carradine as Aaron

Carradine’s  credentials in horror films are well documented, and he deserves his spot in the pantheon of Monster Movie Greats. As Moses’s brother Aaron, Carradine has his best “straight” role since THE GRAPES OF WRATH.

Vincent Price as Baka

Our Man Vinnie plays the evil slave master Baka, who gets his just rewards at the hands of John Derek’s Joshua. Price was…

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4 Shots From 4 Films: Special Cleopatra Edition


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films is all about letting the visuals do the talking.

Let’s celebrate the Ides of March with four shots from four films about Caesar’s one true love, Cleopatra!

4 Shots From 4 Films

Cleopatra (1917, dir by J. Gordon Edwards)

Cleopatra (1934, dir by Cecil B. DeMille)

Cleopatra (1963, dir by Joseph L. Mankiewicz )

Cleopatra (1970, dir by Osamu Tezuka and Eiichi Yamamoto)

Pre Code Confidential #10: Cecil B. DeMille’s CLEOPATRA (Paramount 1934)


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When I hear the words ‘Hollywood Epic’, the name Cecil B. DeMille immediately springs to mind. From his first film, 1914’s THE SQUAW MAN to his last, 1956’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, DeMille was synonymous with big, sprawling productions. The producer/director, who’s credited with almost singlehandedly inventing the language of film, made a smooth transition from silents to talkies, and his 1934 CLEOPATRA is a lavish Pre-Code spectacular featuring sex, violence, and a commanding performance by Claudette Colbert as the Queen of the Nile.

1934: Claudette Colbert in title role of Cecil B. DeMille's film Cleopatra.

While the film’s opulent sets (by Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier) and gorgeous B&W cinematography (by Victor Milner) are stunning, all eyes will be on the beautiful, half-naked Colbert. She gives a bravura performance as Cleopatra, the ambitious, scheming Egyptian queen. She’s sensuous and seductive, wrapping both Caesar and Marc Antony around her little finger, and devious in her political machinations. If I were compare her to Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 Joseph…

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4 Shots From 4 Films: An Epic Birthday Salute


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films is all about letting the visuals do the talking. When it came to directing epics movies, there was Cecil B. DeMille, and there was everyone else. The quintessential Hollywood director was born on this date in 1881. Here are four shots from some of DeMille’s greatest films:

King of Kings (1927)

                                                          King of Kings (1927)

Cleopatra (1934)

                                                              Cleopatra (1934)

Samson and Delilah (1949)

                                                      Samson and Delilah (1949)

The Ten Commandments (1956)

                                         The Ten Commandments (1956)

The Fourth Annual Academy Awards: 1917


Lisa and I continue to reimagine the Oscar history, one year at a time. Today, we look at 1917. The U.S. enters World War I, the Pickfords take over Hollywood, and, for the first time, the entire membership of the Academy gets to vote.

Through the Shattered Lens Presents The Oscars

The host of the 4th Annual Academy Awards, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle The host of the 4th Annual Academy Awards, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

On March 4th, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson took the oath of office and began his second term of President.  Just a few months earlier, he had run for reelection on a platform of maintaining American neutrality in the war that was ravaging Europe.  His slogan was “He Kept Us Out Of War,” and it was enough to allow him to survive one of the closest elections in U.S. History.

One month later, the U.S. declared war on Germany and entered into what would come to be called World War I.

Whereas the previous year had been dominated by films, like the Award-winning Civilization, that promoted neutrality and world peace, 1917 saw the release of several films that were designed to support the American war effort.  The pacifism of Civilization was forgotten as the box office embraced…

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