Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

In producer/director Cecil B. DeMille's undeserving, overwrought, splashy, star-filled Technicolored Best Picture winning epic - a quasi-documentary and soapy showbiz melodrama about life (involving love, jealousy, and competing one-upmanship and rivalry amongst the circus folk) behind the scenes of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus - with three interwoven plot lines:

  • the film's opening, voice-over narration (by director DeMille) was about the spectacular pageantry of the "Greatest Show on Earth" - described as a "massive machine" involving 1,400 employees: ("We bring you the circus - the Pied Piper whose magic tunes greet children of all ages from six to 60, into a tinsel and spun-candy world of reckless beauty and mounting laughter, whirling thrills; of rhythm, excitement and grace; of daring and blaring and dance; of high-stepping horses and high-flying stars. But behind all this, the circus is a massive machine whose very life depends on discipline and motion and speed. A mechanized army on wheels, that rolls over any obstacle in its path, that meets calamity again and again, but always comes up smiling. A place where disaster and tragedy stalk the big top, haunt the backyard, and ride the circus train. Where death is constantly watching for one frayed rope, one weak link, or one trace of fear. A fierce, primitive fighting force that smashes relentlessly forward against impossible odds. That is the circus. And this is the story of the biggest of the big tops, and of the men and women who fight to make it 'The Greatest Show on Earth.'")
  • to save the circus financially and preserve hundreds of jobs, the hard-working and earnest circus manager and ringmaster Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) was forced by the show's stingy board of directors to hire world-class trapeze artist The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), known as "the Debonair King of the Air"; the dashing, conceited foreign circus performer made a dramatic entrance in a speeding sports car with a police escort (and sirens blaring)
  • during the film's story, makeup-wearing Buttons the Clown (James Stewart) was slowly revealed to be hiding a dark secret about his past life as a medical doctor who had 'mercy-killed' his wife and was a wanted man; the mysterious character gave early hints to his secret past: "They say each man kills the thing he loves. A coward does it with a kiss, a brave man with a sword"; he also demonstrated unusual skill in bandage wrapping that he claimed he had learned as "a pharmacist's mate"

Brad with Buttons the Clown

Brad with Girlfriend - Trapeze Artist Holly

(l to r): Phyllis and Elephant Girl Angel
  • Buttons discussed his loss of love to blonde trapeze artist Holly (Betty Hutton): ("Clowns are funny people, Holly, they only love once"); she responded: ("All men aren't that way, even if they act like clowns")
  • a competitive romantic triangle with discord soon developed between Holly, her unaffectionate and distracted boyfriend Brad, and the womanizing, roguish ladies' man Sebastian; with the arrival of the world-class trapeze performer, Holly was ousted from being the star attraction in the center ring
  • in a dramatic scene during high-stakes competition between the aerialists, Sebastian (who had removed his safety net) experienced a high-flying fall during his circus act; although seriously injured, he asked Braden for a favor: ("Walk me off. Do not rob me of my exit"); subsequently, Holly returned as the star of the center ring (and she became Sebastian's love interest when she blamed herself for the tragic incident)
  • of the film's many cameo appearances, the most memorable one was of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby sitting in the circus audience eating popcorn - viewed during iron-jawed brunette artiste Phyllis' (Dorothy Lamour, Hope and Crosby's co-star in the Road To... series of films) extravagant performance of her South Seas hula number (the musical song "Lovely Luawana Lady")
Cameo of Hope and Crosby During Phyllis' South Seas Extravagant Show Act
  • the conflict within an on-going love triangle was also displayed when elephant girl red-head Angel (Gloria Grahame) fell for Braden, causing jealousy in her boss-trainer boyfriend Klaus (Lyle Bettger); during the show, he threatened to command a jumbo elephant to smash her face with its giant foot; he was subsequently fired by Braden from the show
The Film's Major Catastrophe - A Spectacular Circus Train Wreck
  • the film's catastrophic highlight was the scene of a spectacular circus train wreck, sending train cars off the tracks, and releasing wild animals from their smashed cages; Buttons was compelled to reveal his secret past in order to perform a life-saving blood transfusion between Sebastian and the critically-injured Brad who was profusely bleeding from a ruptured artery
  • Buttons was arrested by Special FBI Agent Gregory (Henry Wilcoxon) who had been on his trail for awhile, for killing his terminally-ill wife
  • in the triumphant and exciting ending after the loss of property in the train wreck, a circus parade was led by Holly; she had taken charge and had promoted the improvised, open-air circus (without a tent) for the town with a massive parade down the main street to the circus grounds: ("They made it! Listen to that band!"); Holly performed with the sensational singing of a chorus of "The Greatest Show on Earth", with Brad proudly looking on: ("Come to the circus! Come on along and see. Hooray for lions and the camels. You'll have fun and look at all the other mammals. Come see the clowns, who play their part. They'll wear a smile that hides a broken heart. Tremendous, stupendous, the circus show shall be. The Bengal tiger and the lion. The trapeze artist does a leap that's death-defyin'. A land of mirth, your money's worth. Come on along to the circus - the greatest show on earth!")
  • the film ended with the rousing final words of the midway barker (Edmond O'Brien), promoting the continuation of the show's tour: ("That's all, ladies and gentlemen, that's all. Come again to the greatest show on earth. Bring the children. Bring the old folks. You can shake the sawdust off your feet, but you can't shake it outta your heart. Come again, folks. 'The Greatest Show on Earth.' Come again")

"The Greatest Show on Earth" Opening Narration

Buttons with Holly

The Great Sebastian - the "Debonair King of the Air"

Sebastian's High-Flying Fall

Angel Threatened With Having Her Head Crushed Under Elephant's Foot

Ending: Parade Led by Holly to the Circus Grounds

Brad Proudly Looking On

Midway Barker: "Come Again to the Greatest Show on Earth"


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