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The Greatest Show on Earth

The Greatest Show on Earth on DVD

The great showman Cecil B. DeMille put together a great show in this wonderfully sprawling tale of life under the big top.

Charlton Heston stars as Brad, the Indiana Jones-costumed head honcho whose job is to keep the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus on track – literally and figuratively. He has to do possibly the most difficult balancing act of the entire circus, keeping the show on the road and in the black, all while stroking the egos of a broadly diverse “cast and crew of thousands” to ensure the “greatest show on earth” not only gets to where it’s supposed to be in its annual tour, but that the show they put on is, indeed, “the greatest.”

Yessirree, Brad has sawdust in his veins – as do so many of the other characters – and the backdrop of the circus is also the stage for some pretty decent drama as we get to peek under the big top and look into the lives of some pretty remarkable people.

But this movie, which won the Best Picture Oscar for 1952, is more than just a drama set against the backdrop of the circus; the script also borders on documentary at times – or at least “docu-drama” – with some fascinating insight into the circus and its people behind the scenes (assuming it's true!). We start to understand what a huge undertaking it was to mount this incredible show and take it on the road each and every year – from ensuring the animals are fed and housed to getting the whole shebang on and off the train – and even the difficult ballet of actually getting the huge tent erected at each stop along the troupe’s route.

Heston is always a terrific actor and screen presence and so he is here. And he’s joined not only by some outstanding circus performers playing themselves, but by a cast that includes Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde as wildly competitive trapeze artists, Gloria Grahame as her typically loose girl with the heart of gold, and of course James Stewart as Buttons, a clown who never appears without his face on (for reasons that become clear as the movie unfolds).

It’s really something to see these Hollywood stars as circus performers and, though of course they weren’t really doing all their own stunts (or were they?), Hutton and Wilde in particular had to be in pretty good shape and display good senses of balance in order to pull off their roles convincingly. And they did.

Then there’s the train wreck near the end, a special effects tour de force from long before digital effects made anything possible.

What a wonderful story, and what a wonderful movie!

The DVD is top notch, too. While we prefer widescreen, we also prefer a film to be displayed in its original aspect ratio and that’s the case here. The original aspect ratio is 1.33:1, the same as regular TV shows (and old movies such as this one), so owners of 16x9 TV’s will have to stretch and/or zoom the picture to fill their screens lest they risk burn-in (unless you’re using an LCD TV).

That said, the overall picture quality is excellent. It’s bright and sharp and crisp and, were it not that it looks like an old fashioned color flick and stars a number of people who are now dead, you’d think it were shot yesterday.

Audio is weaker, not surprisingly. It’s Dolby Digital mono, and the overall sound quality is fine, all things considered.

Alas, there are no extras and that’s a shame. An important, Oscar-winning film such as this deserves a really deluxe DVD treatment and Paramount has dropped the ball in this regard. Where’s the commentary, the film historian stuff, the behind the scenes component? Such extras would have been fascinating!

Oh well. As we often say it’s the movie that’s the most important and in this regard at least Paramount has done an excellent job.

For all those who’ve ever dreamed about running away with the circus, this is your movie!

The Greatest Show on Earth, from Paramount Home Entertainment
152 min. full frame (1.33:1, not 16x9 TV compatible), Dolby Digital mono
Starring Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame and James Stewart
Written by Fredric M. Frank, Barre Lyndon and Theodore St. John
Produced and directed by Cecil B. Demille


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