As many of you have probably heard by now, Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus will be ending their 146-year run and heading for the history books.
A very few folks have been presumptuously gloating, but I won’t name names here. More often than not, though, a lot of people feel rather melancholy over the Greatest Show On Earth closing. It has been a rite of passage for American children to go to the circus, and Ringling Bros. has always been the Ziegfeld Follies of the circus world. Traveling shows of any kind are rare anymore, and rarer still in very rural areas. Those who live in bigger markets have no idea how huge it is to have a show of any kind come through when a town is hours from a major city, and Ringling Brothers always made a point to go wherever they could.
I saw their show in 1983 at the Cow Palace in Daly City. I remember every kid in the audience had a special flashlight that looked like a cross between a torch and lighthouse, and during the show kids waved them around, making funny patterns all over the arena. My flashlight was blue, and I kept it for years and years until it finally broke or got lost, I’m not sure which. I remember seeing the motorcyclists riding around and around inside a Globe of Death. There was also a acrobatic act called Satin, in which two elegant ladies in blue did tricks using a star-shaped apparatus hung high in the air. Of course, there were clowns everywhere, including the legendary Lou Jacobs with his tiny car. Ringling Brothers was (and still is) a whirl of sparkles and excitement and music and novelty which I’ve never forgotten, and to think that it’s all ending pretty much stinks.
With that in mind, I pulled out my copy of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 epic, The Greatest Show On Earth a few days ago, not really sure what I was going for except that I wanted to get lost in that world again. The movie is a generous taste of what the Ringling Brothers show was like in the early fifties, with a sprawling backstage story woven through it. The major plot line revolves around Brad (Charlton Heston), the circus manager, Holly (Betty Hutton), his trapeze artist girlfriend, and Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), the star performer who comes between them, but in true DeMille and Ringling Bros. fashion, there’s much more happening.
The movie opens in Florida, where the circus spends the winter. The whole group is excited about getting back on the road, but risk not playing a full season if they get in the red. Fortunately, Brad has brought in a ringer: The Great Sebastian, who is as notorious for his tricks with the ladies as he is for his aerial stunts. Only problem is, to keep him, Brad has to bump Holly from the center ring, and suffice it to say, she doesn’t take it well. Sebastian, like a gentleman, offers it to her, but Brad doesn’t go for it because Sebastian is the star and therefore entitled to the center ring. Holly resolves to become the star herself, and everything Sebastian does, she’ll do better. (Being that it was Betty Hutton saying this, I could almost hear a certain song from one of her other films playing in the background.)
Holly makes good on her promise, but Sebastian gives it right back to her. Their one-upmanship packs the crowds in at every show and makes the rest of the performers bite their nails. Unfortunately, Holly and Sebastian both get too cocky for their own good. Holly tries to set a record for doing the most flips while holding onto her rising rope, only to have Brad put the kibosh on it because the rope was fraying. Sebastian isn’t so fortunate. He attempts to fly through a paper hoop with no net, only to miss and plummet to the big-top floor. Spoiler alert: His injuries ground him, and Holly blames herself, since she goaded him into doing the stunt without a net.
On the ground, Holly swings back and forth between Brad and Sebastian. She complains Brad cares more about the show than about her, and is attracted to Sebastian because of their having the trapeze in common. Plus, he’s a bad boy, which all us girls seem to go for at one time or another. Who does Holly end up with? Hmmm, who can tell…?
Like the three-ring circus, Show has other subplots revolving around Brad, Holly, and Sebastian. There’s Angel, one of the ladies in the elephant troupe, who has to fend off the elephant master, possessive and hot-tempered Klaus. She finally rebuffs him and heads for Brad. Klaus, in a rage takes up with some sinister fellows who are trying to sabotage the circus. Yeah, sabotage. In addition to all the backstage intrigue, Brad has to deal with hustlers. The course of true love never did run smooth, and neither do traveling shows, except that most of the time, sabotage isn’t the problem.
My favorite subplot had to do with a character named Buttons, played by one of my favorite actors, Jimmy Stewart. Clowning is such a departure from Stewart’s folky elegance, and he does the schtick superbly, selling it and giving out with the sight gags like a pro. Buttons is friends with everyone, especially Brad and Holly, but he’s hush-hush about his background, and, mysteriously enough, is never seen without clown makeup. Even more mysteriously, Buttons wraps rigging and takes care of injuries very skillfully for a clown, and when asked, says he was a pharmacist’s mate. The real topper is when Holly finds a newspaper story about a doctor who murdered his wife and then mysteriously vanished, which Buttons shrugs away. One may easily suspect there’s more going on behind the clown makeup than meets the eye.
One of the biggest treats of Greatest Show is the abundance of real Ringling Brothers performers throughout, as well as excerpts of the actual show as it was at that time. DeMille managed to smoothly blend the circus people with the actors, who trained extensively for their roles, and it gives the movie an almost documentary-like authenticity. While it does break up the narrative a bit, I appreciate that it allows audiences a backstage glimpse of nineteen-fifties circus tech, as well as circus culture in general. Traveling shows are funny creatures. Even if things seem to be going swimmingly on the surface, it takes a lot of activity underneath to keep a show moving, and people’s lives don’t stop just because they’re on the road. Some days, it’s the hardest thing in the world to put on a smile and blithely entertain. On other days it’s a cinch. On still other days, it’s a toss-up. Talk about more going on than meets the eye.
A lot of the recent reviews I’ve read of this movie have plenty of complaints, and I sort of see their point. The movie isn’t perfect by any means. The acting seems a bit pre-talkie at times. The music isn’t exactly on the level of George Gershwin and has definitely not been heard outside the context of the fifties. The length could be shorter. Some of the elements are a bit melodramatic or just plain implausible. The most frequent gripe is that the film is dated, which it is, but to hope for otherwise seems a wee bit unrealistic. Expecting a movie like Greatest Show not to be dated is like being disappointed because the Benny Goodman Orchestra never played U2 songs.
After the intrigue and pageantry are spent, how does it all end? Well, when Cecil B. DeMille and Ringling Brothers come together, we know the finale will be spectacular, leaving us to walk away with smiles on our faces. While it makes a few tiny blunders, The Greatest Show On Earth does a fine job of capturing the unique world of the traveling performer, and of what has made Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey such an important part of American cultural history. What’s nice is that the performances of many of its legends are captured within this movie, ready to be revisited anytime, even if Ringling Brothers no longer exists. As Irving Berlin once said, “The song has ended, but the melody lingers on.”
Thank you, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. You will be missed.