Each week this column will highlight one winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, progressing chronologically until all winners have been discussed. There will be a brief discussion of the film itself followed by a mention of what we wish won from the nominees in the given year (though in many cases there were films that were superior in terms of quality and/or impact that were not nominated). This week’s entry is The Greatest Show on Earth (1952).
The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus may have just closed recently but it was already having financial troubles that forced changes in how it was run seventy years ago. The Greatest Show on Earth tells the story of a circus trying to keep driving a profit while abandoning the small towns it once appeared in and recruiting flashier talent for the center ring. As the circus performers and owners try to navigate their futures, they become embroiled in love triangles, serious accidents, and murder investigations. Unfortunately, most of the plot is quickly serviced so the film can spend the bulk of its runtime showing various acts being performed, usually with no bearing on anything else that is happening. There is a certain amount of amazement to be had watching the beautiful costumes paraded around as immense feats of physicality are performed, but seeing it happen is only half of the wonder of watching a circus act. With the constant cycles of dread and relief experienced during a live performance where anything could go wrong removed due to the nature of it having already been filmed, much of the excitement is gone and it only remains a shadow of what the circus once was. The Greatest Show on Earth has enough talent on display to keep it from being a slog but its length is felt with the underbaked storytelling and it ends up being an homage to a bygone pastime that only serves to remind of what is no longer but doesn’t capture a fraction of its power.
The Real Best Picture:
I’ve heard it described as the worst Best Picture winner and while that’s far from the truth, I don’t think it was the best nominee of its year either. High Noon should’ve been the 1952 Best Picture winner.