This is most certainly not the greatest show on earth, as the critics nowadays will surprisingly tell you. Overly nostalgiac critics have deemed most everything by everyone and, especially, their grandmother from '70s and back a masterpiece, so you know that this film has to be a mess, and yet, it still won Best Picture. No wonder a lot of the filmmakers and marketers were more lenient, almost to the point of thinking that we're stupid, because we must have actually been stupid. Either that, or the Oscars really were never credible; it's just that they didn't have enough critics back in the 1950s to tell them what to like and what not to. Maybe people were just so disappointed that they fooled themselves into thinking that this was bad, because when they here that Charlton Heston is in an epic (Wow, really, he is?) that has "The Greatest" in the title, they were expecting much more, because this wasn't the last Charlton Heston epic to flaunt "The Greatest" in its title, only to fall quite decidedly flat on those promises with the critics. Of course, this is not quite as underrated as "The Greatest Story Ever Told", though it is still not quite as bad as some would make it sound. Still, make no mistake, the critics aren't entirely wrong in their, well, criticisms.
At 152 minutes, this production wears the disguise of being an epic, when in actuality, it is merely yet another awesome testament to the common flaw of padding within classic storytelling, with hardly enough sweep to drown out the excess. Tremendous over focus on the circus and other rather superfluously overused aspects riddled the film and becomes fairly repetition fairly quickly, though not quite as much as the plot, such as it is. The film's story structure is limited in material, leaving repetition so quickly set in and plague the storyline to no end, leaving it on a loop underwhelming happenings and redundance, with the aforementioned superfluous material breaking up the plot points so frequently to where it exacerbates the emotional rift. Still, what is just as problematic about the story, if not more so, is the fact that it is just so startlingly and laughably melodramatic, plagued with cliched histrionics and cheesiness to further damage substance value, while it, by its own right, goes further tainted by poor dialogue and a small of remarkably terrible performances that really can't afford to be terrible, whether it be the overbearing Betty Hutton or, well, the once again dated and hammy Charlton Heston. So, to summarize, the film is padded out, uneven, repetitious, often poorly acted, laughably melodramatic and with limited plot, and yet, it still won Best Picture. Still, while the film is certainly not Best Picture material, as many will tell you now, it remains a likable effort. True, the effort misses quite a bit, to where it can never fully recover to the state of genuinely good, yet what the film lacks in substance, it all but makes up with entertainment value, or if nothing else, style.
The film heavily revolved around the production, and if it's going to do that, and hardly anything else, it better be a good show. Well, sure enough, while this is certainly not as good of a show as it says it is in the title, the art direction remains pretty sharp, with lively and elaborate designs of dazzling style to both capture the spectacle of the circus and the audience's attention. This fine style captures the audience's aesthetic side, yet what is most likely to really win an enjoying viewer over has got to be the atmosphere spawned by an emotional dissatisfying, yet effectively charming direction by Cecil B. DeMille. The innocence of the picture is piercing, providing a comfortable tone of pure entertainment, something that this film is, if nothing else. The film's ambition is palpable, and there in lays the film's saving grace of winning charm, when it could have gone saved by mere sympathy. The film is genuinely entertaining, with nifty concepts and livliness that stands to be immensely better groomed for substance's sake, yet still go kept alive by the inspiration behind the film's themes. Don't get me wrong, mediocrity looms over this film through and through, yet never lands that strike, with competence in style and atmospheric charm fighting back and ultimately pulling this picture from the mud to the admirable state of, not camp, but bonafide fun.
As the show shuts down, it's hard to forget the familiar, or rather, the cliches, as well as notable poor dialogue and lead performances that haunt this overly melodramatic plot of limited prevalence, creating an emotional distance pushed further back by repetition, unevenness and unrelenting excess material, yet with a handsome style winning over the aesethic side of the audeince, as well as a commendably inspired atmosphere of charm winning over the entertainment hungry, "The Greatest Show on Earth" survives its falls to stand as a heavily flawed, yet undeniably enjoyable and dazzling example of classic cinematic entertainment.
2.5/5 - Fair