The Greatest Show on Earth

Critics Consensus

The Greatest Show on Earth is melodramatic, short on plot, excessively lengthy and bogged down with clichés, but not without a certain innocent charm.



Total Count: 29


Audience Score

User Ratings: 6,173
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Movie Info

Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth is a lavish tribute to circuses, featuring three intertwining plotlines concerning romance and rivalry beneath the big top. DeMille's film includes spectacular action sequences, including a show-stopping train wreck. The Greatest Show on Earth won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Story. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

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Cornel Wilde
as Sebastian
Henry Wilcoxon
as Detective
John Ridgely
as Jack Steelman, Assistant Manager
Frank Wilcox
as Circus Doctor
Bob Carson
as Ringmaster
Lillian Albertson
as Buttons' Mother
Julia Faye
as Birdie
John Parrish
as Jack Lawson
Brad Johnson
as Reporter
Howard Negley
as Truck boss
Syd Saylor
as Circus Barker
Lester Dorr
as Circus Barker
Milton Kibbee
as Townsman
Edmond O'Brien
as Midway Barker
Jimmie Dundee
as Utility man
Dale Van Sickel
as Man in train wreck
William Boyd
as Hopalong Cassidy
Bing Crosby
as People in Grandstand
Bob Hope
as People in Grandstand
Mona Freeman
as People in Grandstand
Brad Hatton
as Osborne
Lydia Clarke
as Circus Girl
Norman Field
as Truesdale
Everett Glass
as Board member
Nancy Gates
as Spectator
Ken Christy
as Spectator
Clarence Nash
as Spectator
Bess Flowers
as Spectator
Lou Jacobs
as Circus Act
Felix Adler
as Circus Act
Paul Jung
as Circus Act
Dolores Hall
as Circus Girl
Davison Clark
as Farmer Sam
Dorothy Adams
as Sam's Wife
Ottola Nesmith
as Spectator
David Newell
as Spectator
as Himself
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Critic Reviews for The Greatest Show on Earth

All Critics (29) | Top Critics (8)

Audience Reviews for The Greatest Show on Earth

  • Oct 03, 2013
    Likely the least memorable best picture of all time. It doesn't get steady airplay for good reason. The train wreck is of course the highlight and it doesn't stand the test of time in terms of leaving an impression on the viewer.
    John B Super Reviewer
  • Jan 12, 2013
    "The Greatest Show on Earth" has been called the worst of the Best Picture Oscar winners, and for pretty good reason, too. What starts as a promising drama about circus life (as dumb as that sounds) ends as a bloated, motionless mess. The two and a half hour running time certainly hinders its capabilities as a drama; there's so much time wasted on pointless musical numbers and circus acts that we stop caring about what happens next. Besides a spectacular train crash sequence, Charlton Heston's sturdy performance and James Stewart in clown garb, "The Greatest Show on Earth" isn't all that great. It's ambitious, yes, but a small failure nonetheless.
    Stephen E Super Reviewer
  • Jun 03, 2012
    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
    Cameron J Super Reviewer
  • Nov 14, 2011
    Directed by the legendary helmer of epics Mr. Cecil B. DeMille, this star-studded spectacle which takes a look at the cicrcus world during the golden age of rail-traveling circuses has garnered a reputation over the years for being a big stinkbomb, and one of the worst films to win the Oscar for Best Picture. I will admit that the film really isn't all that great ,and that it didn't really deserve the top honors, but ya know what? It really isn't quite that bad, and it's reputation over the years is rather unfair. Oh sure, it is junk, but at least it's watchable junk. The subject matter is fine, and this film isn't without its redeeming qualities, but it has plenty of issues as well. The main focus is on three interconnected storylines, all of which involve circus performers, love triangles, and various struggles to keep everything running smoothly despite all the drama. The film is overlong, and defintiely in need of some serious trimming and tigtening up. It's also rather silly, cheeky, and somewhat dated. A fair amount of the acting is rather over the top, and at the times the film really descends into being a soap operish melodrama, but it is quite fun, and actually finds a way to not be boring. Where the film really shines is in the great stuntwork, circus act perforances, and some great setpieces. There's even a train crash, which, while coming off as pretty phony now, is still decently done and entertaining. De Mille was rather insistent on making the actors do much of their own stunt work, and he employed real members of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circuses to serve as extras, consultants, and to help the actors be more authentic. It's mostly works. I mentioned some of the acting could have been better, but it's not all bad. Charleton Heston stars as the big boss Brad BRaden, a no-nonsense guy who has a lot of things to deal with in order to ensure that things run smoothly and that the show goes on. The great Lawrence Tierney has a small role as a shadowy underworld figure named Henderson who has his sights set on taking control of Brad's operations. In probably the film's best role though, we get Jimmy Stewart as an enigmatic clown named Buttons. All in all, this film is a mess, but it's not quite as bad as it gets made out to be. I am somewhat inflating my grade, but that's mostly because the film does have a lot of good stuff going on. I wouldn't have minded if there would have been a lot more depth and subtext, as well as some darker moments, but unfortunately Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan weren't directing here. It'd be cool if either of them did something like this though, cuz you can bet the results would be quite awesome. So yeah, it is flawed and it's more hollow fluff and spectacle than anything else, but I wasn't ever bored, and, it didn't deserve Best Picture, but there's plenty other wnners of the top prize that are far worse than this.
    Chris W Super Reviewer

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