The Greatest Show On Earth (Best Picture, 1952)
I’ve been warned about this film. I was warned that it seems interminable, and that it is beyond boring. And yes, it is long, extremely hammy, and there are scenes that could use editing. But really, it’s a 2.5-hour Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza about the Barnum & Bailey and Ringling Brothers joint circus starring Charlton Heston. What else should the audience expect but an extravaganza?
This is a real ensemble piece, even though there are two decidedly primary characters. Charleton Heston and Betty Hutton star as Brad and Holly. Brad manages the circus, and Holly is one of the star trapeze artists. In order to draw greater audiences, Brad brings in another trapeze artist, a skirt-chaser named Sebastian. The inevitable result is that Holly first resents Sebastian, then they compete, and then she falls for him. In the end, of course, Holly realizes that she actually has always loved Brad. It’s kind of predictable. The underlying story that is far more compelling than the schlocky melodramatic love-triangle concerns a mystery surrounding a beloved clown known as Buttons, played by the incomparable James Stewart. Buttons never removes his makeup, but his position as a clown allows him (in grand Shakespearean tradition) the license to speak the truth, point out flaws and inconsistencies, and immediately gain the trust of everyone. Children in the audience adore him, his jokes are funny without being either stupid or mean, and the other circus folk love him.
The presence of a mystery in Buttons’ past is clear early on when Holly remarks on his skill in wrapping a gauze strip around her trapeze pole. She says it reminds her of when she had a sprained ankle some years before – and Buttons looks suddenly stricken. At a later performance, he greets an older woman in the audience and in a whisper refers to her as “mother.” It’s evident that he’s hiding from something or someone – Buttons avoids discussing his past and he never removes his clown makeup. His mask comes off when a series of events force him to demonstrate his medical skills, and the FBI agent who has traced him as far as the circus is forced – albeit reluctantly – to arrest Buttons for the mercy-killing of his (Buttons’) dying wife some years ago.
Beneath the melodrama and incredibly hammy delivery (really, though, it’s a movie about performance people… melodrama is apparently inevitable), there is an interesting comment on euthanasia. While Buttons, who helped his dying wife to end her life, is arrested at the end and thus has to pay for what society deems a crime, the movie makes clear that he is a good person. He is saddened by references to his previous life, and has taken on the Buttons persona so completely that there is never another name offered and his face is never seen without makeup. The one time Stewart’s image appears without the makeup happens when the FBI agent produces a photo of the man he seeks. The law says that Buttons committed murder by helping his dying wife to die. But the movie shows that he is a good man. He could escape towards the end, but he comes back and saves a life. Whenever a performer is injured or upset, he helps them. The film makes no statement as to whether euthanasia is right or wrong, but shows that someone can, under certain circumstances, demonstrate great love for a person by helping them to die.
All in all, not a bad film. A bit long, and a bit heavy on the melodrama, but not a bad film at all. It does not rank highly among Best Picture winners, apparently, but it seems to have won for a number of reasons to do with politics and a recognition of the long service to motion pictures by Cecil B. DeMille. I’d also like to point out that this was the first color film since GONE WITH THE WIND, and it took me about an hour after I finished watching the movie to realize that.
From Here to Eternity (Best Picture, 1953)
FROM HERE TO ETERNITY is famous for a kiss. Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr kiss passionately on the beach as waves crash over them. Romantic imagery? Sure. In reality, probably the Most Uncomfortable Kiss Ever. Sand getting everywhere, repeated dashes of literal cold water… not really mood-setting, in my opinion.
Like ALL ABOUT EVE, this film has an incredible lineup of Hollywood big names. Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster are joined by Montgomery Clift, Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra, and Ernest Borgnine in a story about a military base on Hawaii in the weeks leading up to the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s a mildly interesting picture of pre-WWII US Army life in which the biggest concern appears to be winning the divisional boxing championship. Honestly, though, the main draw is the cast. I wouldn’t personally say that any one of them turns in an especially deep or nuanced performance, but as an ensemble they work well. Friendships and complicated relationships seem realistic without the audience suffering from a sense of being beaten over the head, and in particular the ephemeral nature of wartime romance (I say wartime, even though war wasn’t officially declared, because from some comments in the film it seems as though the entry into the war was expected at any time). Kerr’s character is married to the captain of the unit at the focus of the film, and she has an affair with the sergeant (Lancaster), and the complex, tortured nature of that relationship delicately pervades the story as a whole.
FROM HERE TO ETERNITY is one of those films that is hard to describe, plot-wise. Also, it is not a film that provoked a strong reaction in me. It was interesting, and I was not bored, but I did not feel especially invested in any character. I was sorry when certain characters died, and I felt sorry for the women who were so clearly unhappy, but at the end of the movie I didn’t find myself spending much time thinking about it.
Up Next: On the Waterfront (Best Picture, 1954) and Marty (Best Picture, 1955)