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 its
supposed to be in its annual tour, but that the show they put on is, indeed,
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 troupes route.
Heston is always a terrific actor and screen presence and so he is here. And
hes 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).
Its really something to see these Hollywood stars as circus performers
and, though of course they werent 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 theres 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 thats 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 TVs will have to stretch and/or zoom
the picture to fill their screens lest they risk burn-in (unless youre
using an LCD TV).
That said, the overall picture quality is excellent. Its 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, youd think it were shot yesterday.
Audio is weaker, not surprisingly. Its Dolby Digital mono, and the overall
sound quality is fine, all things considered.
Alas, there are no extras and thats 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. Wheres the commentary, the film historian stuff,
the behind the scenes component? Such extras would have been fascinating!
Oh well. As we often say its the movie thats the most important
and in this regard at least Paramount has done an excellent job.
For all those whove 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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