Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
When I think of Cecil B. DeMille, I think of the Bible (and, in fact, the other way around). I think of gigantic Technicolor religious epics with enormous sets, overcooked melodrama, over-the-top performances and, of course, a cast of thousands. Given that, it confounds me as to why DeMille’s only Best Picture win came from an overblown chunk of flapdoodle about the behind-the-scenes antics of a traveling circus.
There is no discernible reason why this film won the Oscar for Best Picture other than the fact that the enormous cast features one or a dozen people that each of the Academy’s 600 voters knew personally – and most everyone had great respect for DeMille as a director even if they didn’t like the man himself.
There isn’t much to say about the movie. It takes the Grand Hotel approach at simply being about a group of people – both workers and performers – who work to put on a good show. There’s drama behind the scenes: Betty Hutton and Cornelle Wilde play acrobats who are wrestling each other for the spotlight; and Charlton Heston is the ringmaster trying to hold the show together. The only character of note is Buttons the Clown, played by Jimmy Stewart, who never takes his makeup off because, it turns out, he is a wanted man.
Knowing the full girth of DeMille’s work – the pageantry, the showmanship, the grand spectacle – The Greatest Show on Earth comes off like a grand day out. It feels like a movie that DeMille might have wanted to make between bigger and more ambitious projects. In fact, this is the film that he directed right after Samson and Delilah and right before The Ten Commandments (his last film). Why single this one out? Out of all the grand works that this director was known for, why give this the Oscar for Best Picture? It just doesn’t make sense.