Paramount Presents ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ Blu-Ray Review – DeMille’s Best Picture Winning Circus Epic Gets Restoration

When reflecting on the long history of the Academy Awards, critics tend to target recent films such as Crash or Green Book as the least deserving Best Picture winners of all time. If you happen to be a student of cinema history, you will know that controversy surrounding which picture actually wins the big prize is nothing new. Prior to some of these recent titles, a picture that was largely considered to be one of the weaker titles is the 1953 winner The Greatest Show On Earth. The film likely won as the result of a combination of political events at the time and recognition for director Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments), but the film itself is not a bad film – even if it is a fair assessment that it was one of the weaker titles in contention. The film offered spectacle in only the way that DeMille could deliver as it took the audience behind the scenes of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus wrapped in a story anchored by some talented performers. Even if it is not the most respected film in hindsight, it delighted audiences around the world as the highest grossing film of 1952. There’s definitely something worth exploring here. 

If there is one thing you should give credit to this film for, it is putting the great Charlton Heston (The Planet of the Apes) on our radar. In just his second feature, DeMille plucked this relative unknown out of obscurity and put him on a path to stardom. Heston plays Brad Braden, the passionate general manager of the world’s largest railroad circus. There are many things vying for Braden’s attention, but nothing can hold a candle to his love for the circus. This is somewhat of an issue for his girlfriend, Holly (Betty Hutton, Annie Get Your Gun), a trapeze artist in the circus who is trying to get him to care about her as much as he does the circus – that is, when she is not competing to be the star of the show in the center ring. Braden is trying to ensure that they keep the show running nationally while operating in the black. In order to accomplish this, he has to take on a world-class trapeze artist named the Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde, A Song To Remember). Sebastian is a whirlwind that the show is not ready to withstand as his womanizing ways stir passions in many of the members of the circus, including his playful rival, Holly.

If we are being honest, the story is not the strong point of this feature. At most, it is a light shawl in which to wrap the elements that DeMille wants featured on screen. When viewed as a time capsule that captures the ins and outs of the circus in this period of time, The Greatest Show on Earth works pretty well. This is a mammoth film at 152 minutes long, and a good chunk of that is dedicated to what is basically documentary footage of these large crews putting on a circus. There are so many acts and parades shown throughout this runtime that you will feel as if you have spent a night at the circus. DeMille has numerous real-life circus performers in this film to give a real sense of authenticity. With the controversies regarding how humane these performances were, your enjoyment of these elements will vary. The aerial acts performed by Hutton and Wilde are some of the most thrilling moments in the film, especially since the actors trained to do these stunts themselves. Narratively, the performances can be a bit drawn out, but as a stunt spectacle it keeps your attention glued to the screen. 

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While DeMille surely had faith that audiences would appreciate seeing the circus on the big screen enough to propel its success, he left nothing to chance as he added an truly impressive train car crash that remains visceral despite its obvious technical limitations – CGI lacks the punch of models. The basic plot is already scant as it is, so you do appreciate that DeMille tapped into his inner showman here. He needs a way to wrap up this love square. Pentagon? Who can even keep up with all of the different romantic overtures that are being made between these characters. That is not even taking into account a mysterious clown named Buttons (Jimmy Stewart, It’s A Wonderful Life) who never takes off his makeup. He’s not a part of any romantic dynamic, and his story is objectively the most interesting when you get down to it. The Greatest Show on Earth is not a great story, but it is a pretty grand example of cinematic spectacle that paved the way to the modern blockbusters. The actors are all doing a fine job in these surface level roles. The circus is the star, and the movie knows how to make it shine bright. 

Video Quality

Paramount Home Entertainment presents The Greatest Show on Earth with a lovely new 1080p master transfer sourced from a 4K scan of the original Technicolor negative. This Paramount Presents line has been a great resource for film fans with one release after another offering a stunning upgrade. The Greatest Show On Earth may not rank among the strongest presentations from the line, but it is still quite a sight to behold. The film features some miraculous colors within the costumes and settings that pop off the screen with a vibrant intensity. The black levels are quite deep with a pleasing stability throughout. The level of detail and clarity is stunning with the appropriate amount of natural film grain intact. The main issues arise when it comes to the optical effects within the film. The obvious blending of the actors in a foreground shot in front of stock footage results in some anomalies, most blatantly a buzzing around Betty Hutton’s hair early in the runtime. The film has been cleaned up immensely, but some damage lines and specks appear to foul up the otherwise pristine nature of the production. The team at Paramount has done a really nice job of bringing this production to disc considering the base source elements. 

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Audio Quality

Paramount has delivered a top notch presentation featuring a DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track that is quite pleasing. While singing is a key component in numerous parts of the film, the normal dialogue comes through clearly from beginning to end. When it does come to the music, the track is in rare form with its handling of the different core elements. The track balances vocals with the environmental sounds with magnificent clarity. The track makes you feel like you are right in the thick of the circus setting. There are a few odd moments where the track appears a bit crunchy, but it is not a consistent issue. A very mild underlying hiss is also noticeable for those who listen close enough. Despite this, Paramount has provided a stellar audio presentation that presents the film quite capably. The disc also comes with optional English (SDH) subtitles.

Special Features

  • Filmmaker Focus – Leonard Maltin on The Greatest Show on Earth: An eight-minute newly-produced featurette in which film critic Leonard Maltin discusses De Mille’s legacy, the blending of documentary-like footage, the performers, the stunts in the film and more.  


Final Thoughts

The Greatest Show On Earth will not go down in history as the greatest Best Picture winner of all time, but it provides some big spectacle entertainment in the way that only Cecil B. DeMille could deliver. The story is a bit slight for how long the film is, but the performances from Charlton Heston, Jimmy Stewart, Betty Hutton and others help keep the energy up. Paramount has offered up a pleasing Blu-Ray release for this latest in their Paramount Presents series featuring a solid A/V presentation and one slight supplemental feature. Those who love an old school DeMille picture or any of these performers should find this picture to be a pleasing use of your time. Recommended 

Paramount Presents The Greatest Show On Earth is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray. 

Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.

Disclaimer: Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.

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