“The Greatest Show on Earth”

We watched “The Greatest Show on Earth” last night–I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid. It’s fashionable to pick on this DeMille epic, and there are indeed things to laugh at, notably DeMille’s narration as Charlton Heston prepares the circus to leave its winter grounds in Sarasota–it’s too easy to parallel it with his narration as Charlton Heston prepared the Israelites to leave Egypt. But it’s a fun movie, part hokey romance and part documentary, showing the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus as it was in its hey-day, under the big top. There are premonitions of its future, as John Ringling North (playing himself) discusses with his executives whether the circus should abandon the big top and play only in large city auditoriums–a decision he finally made just four years after this movie aired. Here’s a chance to see Emmett Kelly (Sr., with and without makeup), and the process of putting up and taking down the circus, and the train journey from city to city, the carnival (crooks and all) and the sideshow.

Circuses are fast disappearing; no longer can you get the whole experience of circus, menagerie, carnival and sideshow that I still remember as a kid going to the Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers Circus. There are still circuses under the big top (including Cole Brothers, Carson & Barnes, and Roberts Brothers), but they are few, and can’t go to all areas of the country. Here’s a chance to remember them as they were.