THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ (1952)

In 1953, the 25th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1952 and December 31, 1952 the awards were held on March 19. After years of attempting to ignore its rise to prominence, the Academy finally recognising the popularity of television, and allowed the ceremony to be broadcast on NBC. This was mostly due to the Academy being desperate for funding for their lavish and expensive ceremony. NBC’s $100,000 offer for TV and radio broadcasting rights was simply too good to refuse.

To improve the content of the television broadcast, a companion ceremony also took place in New York City at the NBC International Theatre, so as to accommodate those presenters and winners who could not attend the west coast ceremony. The broadcast simply switched between each location throughout the program. It was a resounding success, with NBC receiving its largest single audience since they began broadcasting five years earlier.

For the first time ever, Best Picture, Director, and all four acting categories went to six different films. Since then, this has only occurred another three times – 1956, 2005 and 2012. John Ford won his fourth Academy Award for Best Director, for his work on The Quiet Man, handing him the record for the most wins in this category. This record still stands to this day. The night’s big winner was The Bad and the Beautiful, taking home five awards from six nominations. This remains the most wins ever for a film not nominated for Best Picture, and the second time a film not nominated for Best Picture won the most awards. This has never occurred again.

But, once again, the biggest surprise was Best Picture, with many assuming it would go to the critically-acclaimed western High Noon. In one of the biggest (and most baffling) Oscar upsets in history, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth took home the major prize, despite only winning one other category (Best Story) that evening. A film winning Best Picture and only one additional category became an unusual occurrence that would not be repeated again until Spotlight in 2016, which also only won an award for its writing, in addition to Best Picture.

The nominees:
The Greatest Show on Earth
High Noon
Ivanhoe
Moulin Rouge
The Quiet Man

The winner:
The Greatest Show on Earth

Taking inspiration from and set in the hugely-popular Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth is a glimpse behind-the-scenes of the dazzling spectacle that is a travelling circus. Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) is the gruff general manager of the circus, and it’s his job to keep it up and running. In a difficult economic time, that’s proving to be rather difficult. In a bold move, he hires The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), a world-class trapeze artist with a reputation as a wild-card ladies man. Brad’s decision means the coveted center ring now belongs to Sebastian, even though it was originally promised to Brad’s trapeze-artist girlfriend Holly (Betty Hutton). But, despite her devastation, Brad must put the success of the circus first, and his personal life a distant second. When Sebastian makes a move for Holly, a dramatic love triangle begins. Watching the trio’s jealousy and passions fly is Buttons the Clown (James Stewart), a mysterious character who strangely never removes his clown make-up. But is there perhaps a dark secret behind this quirky trait? Let the show begin!

Why did it win?
Before we get into the politics and dirty business that may explain this baffling Best Picture winner, let’s look at how the film was received, at the time. Despite people’s deep dislike of this film today (many call it the worst Best Picture winner ever, and I’m starting to see why), the film was a box-office sensation in 1952. Taking in $12 million at the US box-office alone, it was the highest-grossing film of the year. It was also the highest-grossing film in Britain, France, and Canada. With a total gross of $36 million worldwide, it was one of Paramount’s biggest and most successful films to date. The days of the grand travelling circus were winding down by 1952, so the film’s nostalgic look at what was once an American institution clearly made a connection with audiences.

The film was also a huge hit with critics, with The New York Times calling it “piece of entertainment that will delight movie audiences for years,” and Variety writing it “effectively serves the purpose of a framework for all the atmosphere and excitement of the circus on both sides of the big canvas.” After three decades in the film industry, many called this DeMille’s finest achievement to date, and the desire to reward his entire body of work likely contributed to the film’s Best Picture surprise winner.

But, much like the previous year’s winner An American in Paris, it seems the Academy were convinced The Greatest Show on Earth would not take home Best Picture. Following in the footsteps of Arthur Freed the year before, DeMille was awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, for his immense contribution to the film industry. Again, it seems this may have been somewhat of a consolation prize, working under the assumption his film would not win Best Picture. And, once again, they were wrong.

When we dig a little deeper, the shameful truth behind this shock Best Picture win becomes painfully obvious. At this moment in history, we’re looking at the height of the witch-hunt for Communists in America by Senator Joseph McCarthy. One of those targets was screenwriter Carl Foreman, who was responsible for the screenplay for assumed-frontrunner High Noon. Foreman, a former member of the American Communist Party, was summoned before the House Committee of Un-American Activities.

While maintaining he had renounced all connection to the Party, Foreman still refused to provide the names of fellow Party members. He was subsequently labelled as an “uncooperative witness,” and became one of several artists to be blacklisted by all major Hollywood studios. This is widely believed to be the reason for the film’s ultimate failure to take Best Picture, with many fearful they’d be labelled a Communist sympathiser if they rewarded High Noon with the Academy’s top prize. It stands as a shameful moment in Oscars history where politics won over artistic achievement.

So, how did this contribute to The Greatest Show on Earth taking home Best Picture instead? Well there’s two trains of thought here. Given he was 71 at the time, many viewed this as their potential last chance to award Cecil B. DeMille with Hollywood’s top honour, while also using the award to acknowledge his entire body of work. DeMille was considered one of the pioneers of the film industry, yet had never seen one of his films win Best Picture, so the chance had finally arrived. Little did they realise DeMille’s greatest achievement, The Ten Commandments, was still to come.

Also contributing to the film’s Best Picture win was the fact DeMille was a staunch anti-Communist activist. He stood on the board of the National Committee for a Free Europe, and fought to quell the rise of Communism in Europe. Thus, awarding his film could also be seen as a stand of defiance against Carl Foreman and others who had been blacklisted, and to broadcast a strong signal that Hollywood was decidedly anti-Communist.

Did it deserve to win?
Well, when you examine the potential truth behind its victory, it’s fairly obvious this film had no business winning Best Picture and stands as one of the worst decisions the Academy has ever made. Yes, the film has some redeeming qualities. Yes, it’s touching an important figure in the birth of cinema like Cecil B. DeMille was finally able to see one of his films awarded Best Picture, even if he had another chance seven years later with a far better film that ultimately lost. But it’s utterly ludicrous to call The Greatest Show on Earth the best film of 1952.

When you get down to it, the film is really just a two-and-a-half-hour circus, with a sappy love story thrown in, for good measure. If you’re not a particular fan of going to the circus (or if you have a clown phobia, like me), the film is a tedious slog to sit through. There are large portions of this film that are literally just circus acts, including several ridiculously long parade segments, which serve absolutely no purpose to the narrative. And James Stewart’s subplot, involving the “shocking” truth behind his clown persona, is perhaps the most idiotic narrative I’ve witnessed on this Best Picture journey, so far. It’s elevated slightly by Stewart trying his utmost with the character, but he’s far better than this, and he knows it.

There is one saving grace – an epic and spectacular train crash in the film’s climax, which is still rather horrific and enthralling to view today. Steven Spielberg has credited this sequence as having a huge influence on him as a child, and sparked his desire to start crafting home movies. Spielberg even paid homage to the sequence in 2011’s Super 8, which he co-produced with director J.J. Abrams. Perhaps that’s the best thing The Greatest Show on Earth manages to achieve. It gave us a lifetime of Spielberg classics we may never had seen without this film.

It’s far from the worst film of all time. It’s glitzy and showy, like everything we expect from DeMille, and the circus acts are performed and filmed with great precision. But for all its style, there’s very little substance here. It stands as a loving tribute to the great spectacle that was the travelling circus, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But to call it a Best Picture winner seems entirely wrong for so many reasons. When its compared to almost every other Best Picture victor, it comes up well short, and remains one of the worst decisions the Academy has ever made.