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.


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.

Shattered Politics #13: The Fearmakers (dir by Jacques Tourneur)


Did you know that 75% of people are sick of hearing the results of polls about what people think about other polls?  It’s true!

Me, I first got sick of polls back in 2012.  That was when, every day, everyone on twitter would be talking about the result of another political poll.  A poll would come out showing that Obama was ahead of Romney in the presidential election and all of my Republican friends would immediately start tweeting about why the poll could not be taken seriously.  Then 2014 came along and polls started to show that the majority of American citizens did not approve of the job Obama was doing.  And all of my Democrat friends would immediately start tweeting about why those polls could not be trusted.

As for me, I was always more concerned with what the polls said over on Rotten Tomatoes.  Really?I would think.  Only 35% of critics gave California Scheming a good review?  67% of moviegoers want to see the new Transformers film?

Oh my God, I thought, those numbers have to be so fake…

Because, let’s face it.  The only time that we believe a poll is when we agree with it.  Otherwise, we assume that they’re either the result of subtle manipulation, selective interpretation, or just completely and totally untrue.

Believe it or not, this suspicion is not a new phenomena.  I’ve always felt that you can learn a lot about history by watching the movies.  That doesn’t mean that movies are historically accurate.  One need only read my review of Magnificent Doll to see that.  However, movies do reflect the culture and concerns of the time in which they were made.

For instance, The Fearmakers was made in 1958 and it shows that not only has polling been around for a while but so has the fear of being manipulated by a fraudulent poll.

In The Fearmakers, Dana Andrews plays Alan Eaton.  Before the start of the Korean War, Alan owned one of the best and most respected polling firms in Washington D.C.  However, while serving in the army during the war, Alan was captured and held prisoner by the Chinese.  After years of being tortured and perhaps brainwashed, Alan is finally released.

He returns to an America that is far different from the country that he left.  For instance, while on a flight to Washington, D.C., he finds himself sitting next to a shifty scientist (Oliver Blake) who tries to convince Alan to support a group that believes in nuclear disarmament.  Even worse, once the plane lands, Alan discovers that he’s been forced out of his polling firm and that his partner has died under mysterious circumstances.

The firm’s new owner, the outwardly friendly, inwardly cold-hearted Jim McGinnis (Dick Foran), offers to hire Alan as a special consultant.  Alan is at first resistant but then he has a meeting with his old friend, Senator Walder (Roy Gordon).  Walder explains that he suspects that Alan’s old polling firm has been infiltrated by outside forces and that it might be using its polling to try to push communist propaganda on the American people.  Alan agrees to work for Jim and to help track down any and all subversives….

The Fearmakers is better than it sounds.  Beyond the fact that the story remains relevant in our poll-driven times, it was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who directed several atmospheric and intelligent horror films in the 30s and 40s.  He brings a similar atmosphere of doom to The Fearmakers.  Perhaps the film’s best scenes are the ones where Tourneur just focuses his camera on Andrews’s face while Alan struggles to understand the country to which he has returned.  As played by Andrews, Alan is troubled and hardly your typical hero.  You’re never quite sure how much of the film’s danger is real and how much of it is just the result of Alan’s own paranoia.

I first saw The Fearmakers on Netflix.  The next time you’ve got 84 minutes to kill, check it out.