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.

A Movie A Day #355: F.I.S.T. (1978, directed by Norman Jewison)


Sylvester Stallone is Jimmy Hoffa!

Actually, Stallone plays Johnny Kovak, a laborer who becomes a union organizer in 1939.  Working with him is his best friend, Abe Belkin (David Huffman).  In the fight for the working man, Abe refuses to compromise to either the bosses or the gangsters who want a piece of union.  Johnny is more pragmatic and willing to make deals with ruthless mobsters like Vince Doyle (Kevin Conway) and Babe Milano (Tony Lo Bianco).  Over thirty years, both Johnny and Abe marry and start families.  Both become powerful in the union.  When Johnny discovers that union official Max Graham (Peter Boyle) is embezzling funds, Johnny challenges him for the presidency.  When a powerful U.S. senator (Rod Steiger) launches an investigation into F.I.S.T. corruption, both Johnny and Abe end up marked for death.

Obviously based on the life and mysterious disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, F.I.S.T. was one of two films that Stallone made immediately after the surprise success of Rocky.  (The other was Paradise Alley.)  F.I.S.T. features Stallone in one of his most serious roles and the results are mixed.  In the film’s quieter scenes, especially during the first half, Stallone is surprisingly convincing as the idealistic and morally conflicted Kovak.  Stallone is less convincing when Kovak has to give speeches.  If F.I.S.T. were made today, Stallone could probably pull off the scenes of the aged, compromised Johnny but in 1978, he was not yet strong enough as an actor.  Far better is the rest of the cast, especially Conway, Lo Bianco, and Boyle.  If you do see F.I.S.T., keep an eye on the actor playing Johnny’s son.  Though he was credited as Cole Dammett, he grew up to be Anthony Keidis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The box office failures of both F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley led Stallone back to his most famous role with Rocky II.  And the rest is history.

 

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


cracked rear viewer

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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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Lisa Watches An Oscar Winner: Mrs. Miniver (dir by William Wyler)


Mrs_Miniver_poster

Mrs. Miniver, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1942, is often treated somewhat dismissively by film historians.  The film tells the story of the Minivers, an upper middle class British family whose peaceful lives are changed forever by the start of World War II.  When the film initially went into production, the U.S. was still a neutral country.  As shooting commenced, the U.S. edged closer and closer to entering the war and, as a result, the script was continually rewritten to make Mrs. Miniver even more pro-British and anti-German than before.  The finished film was released four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, by which point Mrs. Miniver had gone from being domestic drama to being both a celebration of British resilience and the Allied war effort.  “If the Minivers can do it,” the film told audiences, “why can’t you?”  As a result, Mrs. Miniver is often described as being merely effective propaganda.

Well, Mrs. Miniver may indeed be propaganda but it’s amazingly effective propaganda.  I recently DVRed it off of TCM and I have to admit that, as a result of those previously mentioned film historians, I wasn’t expecting much.  But I was in tears by the end of the film.  Yes, World War II has long since ended.  And yes, I could watch the movie and see all of the tricks and the heavy-handed manipulations that were employed to get the desired emotional response from the audience but it didn’t matter.  The film is so effective and so well-acted that you’re willing to be manipulated.

(Of course, it helps that there’s not much nuance to World War II.  As far as wars go, WWII was as close to a fight between good and evil as you can get.  If you can’t celebrate propaganda that was designed to defeat the Nazis, then what can you celebrate?)

As for the film itself, Greer Garson plays Kay Miniver, matriarch of the Miniver Family.  Her husband, Clem (Walter Pidgeon) is a successful architect.  When we first meet Kay and Clem, the only thing that they have to worry about is the annual village rose show.  (Henry Travers — who everyone should love because he played Clarence in It’s A Wonderful Life — plays the eccentric stationmaster who is determined to win with his rose.)  However, that all changes when they go to church and the vicar (Henry Wilcoxin) announces that Great Britain has declared war on Germany.

Life changes.  Soon, Kay must hold her family together while bombs are falling from the sky.  When Clem is away, helping out with the Dunkirk evacuation, Kay comes across a wounded German flyer (Helmut Dantine) in her garden.  The flyer demands that Kay give him food and when she does, he snarls that the Third Reich will be victorious.  He then passes out from his injuries, allowing Kay to take his gun and call the police.  (Reportedly, this scene was rewritten and reshot several times, with the German becoming progressively more hateful with each new version.)

Kay’s son, Vincent (Richard Ney), joins the Royal Air Force.  He also falls in love with Carol Beldon (Theresa Wright), the daughter of the aristocratic Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty).  Over the concerns of Lady Beldon, Carol marries Vincent and she becomes the second Mrs. Miniver.  They do so, despite knowing that Vincent will probably be killed before the war ends.

Of course, there is tragedy.  People who we have come to love are lost, victims of the German onslaught.  Throughout it all, the Minivers (and, by extension, the rest of Great Britain) refuse to give into despair or to lose hope.  The film ends with them singing a hymn in a church that no longer has a roof and listening as the vicar tells them why they will continue to fight.

And yes, it’s all very manipulative but it’s also very effective.  I did cry and the film earned those tears.  In many ways, Mrs. Miniver is perhaps most valuable as a time capsule.  It’s a film about World War II that was actually made during the war and, as such, it provides a window into the attitudes and culture of the time.  But, if the film is valuable as history, it’s also just as valuable as a well-made melodrama.

I’m not sure if I would say that Mrs. Miniver deserved to defeat Kings Row for best picture of 1942.  But it’s still an undeniably good film.