Cornel Wilde the Great Sebastian

The Good, the Bad, and the (so) Ugly (it’s GREAT)

You know those pictures that are so good in places it’s like sex and so bad in places it’s irresistible? The best example I can think of is Titanic. There are moments in Titanic that are so damn good and moments that are so damn bad. Those match dissolves from underwater wreck Titanic to 1912 Titanic and back again are spellbinding. Almost every scene with Gloria Stuart pops because she makes the stereotypical doddering old-woman canny and unpredictable. These things are on the one hand. On the other is Billy Zane, an otherwise fine actor who stumbles through Titanic trying to figure out how to play rich-boy Cal. He’s so bad he’s mesmerizing! David Warner as Cal’s sadistic butler is right up there in awfulness as a walking, talking bad-guy stereotype. The bottom line for me is picture-making on a grand scale and the vision of one driven man—a man who sometimes bites off more than he can chew. But I admire the fact that James Cameron swung for the fences just as hard as Selznick did with Gone With the Wind. And hit a box-office home run, just like Selznick.

Billy Zane Titanic

Kate Winslet and Billy Zane in Titanic. In a moment he will grow melodramatic and sweep the table clean, ruining many dishes in an otherwise peaceful moment.

There’s another motion picture like this for me. The Greatest Show on Earth, Cecil B. DeMille’s homage to all things circus. Today, the general consensus is that clowns are creepy—why America didn’t realize this a hundred years earlier, I don’t know. But once upon a time the circus represented an alternative lifestyle and huge entertainment every time it hit town. I never had any interest in the circus. I went one time as a little kid, Cole Brothers I think, with a big top, trapeze artists, clowns, all the rest of it. The only reason I went was they had a contest for coloring the clown and I stayed inside the lines and got a free ticket. Come to think of it, I tried cotton candy for the first time at that circus and haven’t had it since. Even at age seven I knew cotton candy to be too messy for a Virgo.

Anyway, I’m no circus freak, but you can sign me up for DeMille’s bigtop anytime. There’s a terrific documentary on DeMille here—check it out sometime to see the ultimate showman/filmmaker. And here’s the incredible trailer for The Greatest Show on Earth. The hardest thing for me to believe is that C.B. ever died! This larger-than-life powerhouse human and Hollywood mastermind of not one but two versions of The Ten Commandments up and died! Ceased to be! I’m sure he’s as surprised as the rest of us at this revolting man-bites-dog turn of events because people like Cecil B. DeMille should get some sort of exemption from human decline and just go on doing brilliant things. I guess the perception of DeMille as an immortal deity is enhanced by his growling narration on his pictures, Grandfather telling us a five-million-dollar bedtime story, full of surreal spectacle filling the screen long before C.G., along curvaceous, bejeweled women and noble, or hateful, or lustful men. If you watch a DeMille picture, that gravel voice stays with you, or it does me, and suddenly C.B. is narrating my drive to work “as the brawny hills of Pittsburgh shake off their night’s peaceful slumber and a restless giant awakens into the orangish hues of dawn.” DeMille’s brilliance gets in your head, I’m telling you. Come to think of it, he made a picture about early Pittsburgh called Unconquered that, as a colonial historian, made me roll over in my grave, and I’m not even dead yet.

Demille Greatest Show on Earth

Charlton Heston’s Brad Braden may be jealous of the way the Great Sebastian is carrying on with Holly but it’s hard to tell because Heston just comes off as nuts.

So yes, C.B. was brilliant, but with qualifications. Even by 1952 standards The Greatest Show on Earth was nailed as a big-old can of corny nonsense, which audiences ate up, making Greatest Show a box-office smash, winner of the Best Picture Academy Award, and generator of imitations for a decade to come. Greatest Show proved to have legs through re-releases in 1960 and 1967, and Steven Spielberg claims it as the first picture he ever saw, age 4—a picture that changed the history of entertainment. He says as a filmmaker, and with glee, “I lost my cherry to Cecil B. DeMille!”

When I learned Greatest Show was playing on Retro the other night I knew I was a goner, and the moment the music began, a swarm of goosebumps consumed me. I’ve got ‘em again just thinking about it. C.B. had me in his grip and didn’t release me until 2.5 hours later when heroic Holly sang the title tune and survivors of the spectacular train wreck lured townspeople to “come to the circus – the greatest show on earth!” The show must go on after all. Goosebumps.

James Jimmy Stewart in The Greatest Show on Earth

James Stewart as Buttons, the only crown I never thought was a creepy killer who would murder me in my sleep.

Of particular interest at this point in my life is James Stewart’s role of a mercy-killer on the run hiding in the circus as a clown who never takes off his makeup. It only sounds ridiculous because it is, but watch the picture and tell me it doesn’t work because Stewart brings to the role quiet wisdom, quiet vulnerability that pays off when he saves the circus boss’s life in the last reel.

Charlton Heston is that circus boss, Brad Braden, and he’s spectacularly over the top; practically the blueprint for Billy Zane. Throughout the 1950s Heston went from zero to Moses in a second; didn’t matter who he was playing, whether he was fighting ants in the jungle or pharaoh in Egypt or the British at New Orleans. He played it BIG with a capital BIG, bellowing his love scenes with fragile Eleanor Parker as surely as he bellowed fire and brimstone at gold-plated Ramses II.

All the women in the circus are in love with Brad, which says a lot about circus folk. Betty Hutton headlines as aerialist Holly, but Dorothy Lamour gets a lot of screen time as Phyllis the “iron jaw” and so does Gloria Grahame as Angel the elephant girl. They’re all sexy in different ways, and why they want Brad at all is beyond me. I have to wonder if C.B. had some issues because his heroines tend to be, well, a certain type. Usually the Paulette Goddard, Hedy Lamarr, Ann Baxter, Dorothy Lamour type, mostly brunettes and some of them bad girls. Betty Hutton was something of a lightning rod as a personality and most people find her icky, but I’m sorry, in this picture, she’s hot too.

Anne Baxter in The Ten Commandments

Prototypical DeMille girl Anne Baxter in The Ten Commandments. Sign me up.

In fact I’m tempted to say that Betty Hutton steals Greatest Show, but how can I think that when James Stewart’s already stolen it? But wait, no he hasn’t. Cornel Wilde steals the show as the flamboyant French trapeze artist the Great Sebastian, swashbuckling his way through the picture just as he did in his other title that year, Sons of the Musketeers. Wilde owns the screen every minute he’s on it; a performance that’s wild all right. The whole picture is wild—we don’t believe any of it as something that could ever really happen, but who cares? These are irresistible people intensely interested in what they’re doing, both the characters on screen and the people playing them.

Because of the Stewart connection, I spent half a day going through DeMille’s personal Greatest Show production files at BYU (thank you, Jim D’Arc, for making me aware of them). What a giant undertaking C.B.’s circus epic was. DeMille was intimately involved in every detail, every act coming out of the woodwork begging to appear, every old character actor lobbying to play the ringmaster. DeMille’s right-hand man was associate producer Henry Wilcoxon, C.B.’s most dependable actor for decades and one helluva behind-the-scenes presence judging from the letters and memos. Some tidbits from the papers:

Betty Hutton spent weeks learning trapeze work and did many of her own stunts in the picture. It’s a tribute to her athleticism that not once does she look uncoordinated up there. In fact, she goes out of her way to make sure we see her—yes that’s her—over and over so audiences knew it was Hutton and not a stunt woman hanging upside down 40 feet off the ground.

Cornel Wilde was thrilled to play Sebastian and after the run of the picture kept sending C.B. letters thanking him for the opportunity. He signed them not Cornel but Sebastian. Wilde’s biceps and abs are ripped like crazy in this picture but, unlike Betty Hutton, he’s doubled extensively in the aerial sequences and there are zero shots where Wilde hangs upside down way up there so we know, “Look, it’s me and not a stuntman!” He left the dangerous stuff to the professionals.

Lucille Ball was set to play Angel the elephant girl but withdrew. To me this is a lucky break because Gloria Grahame is about as sexy as the 1950s got and perfect to play a girl who calls every guy “sugar.”

Dorothy Lamour was on the career skids by now and signed for only $2,000 a week when peers like Ball were signed for $3,500.

The mysterious, on-the-lam clown played by Stewart was originally named Koko, but there must have been a real Koko the Clown who put up a stink, so they had to rename Koko and what a pre-pro firestorm this produced! About 40 names were pitched, and there’s no documentation on how they arrived at the final name of “Buttons.”

James Jimmy Stewart Betty Hutton in The Greatest Show on Earth

“So Buttons, look at this story about a doctor who mercy-kills the girl he loves. Isn’t it a funny coincidence how you go around all morose talking about killing the thing you love? Why, they even talk about killing the thing you love in this article, by sheer coincidence. And, by the way, how come you never take off your clown makeup?”

Stewart didn’t audition for the role of Buttons. He just cabled DeMille and said if you’re looking for a clown on the run, how about if I play him? And C.B. gave him the part on the spot. It’s another of those offbeat, unresolved-issues characters that Stewart went after in the 1950s in the wake of his experiences in the war. In many of his pictures of this period his character had a streak of unspeakable pain or unspeakable violence in him—even good-guy George Bailey who let loose, ripped his living room and terrorized his family in It’s a Wonderful Life. There’s some evidence that Stewart cracked up on one of his missions in the Eighth Air Force, but that’s a story for a major book and feature motion picture down the line.

Stewart also had a “pregnancy clause” built into his contract because his wife was expecting (twins, as it turned out), and he stated he would not report for work until after the delivery.

I can’t imagine any of you under 40 would ever take the time to sit through The Greatest Show on Earth with all the computer-generated thrill shows out there today, Furious 7 and Avengers and all that, but when you run out of titles on your Netflix list and if you settle on Greatest Show, please, I’m begging you, let me know if it gave you goosebumps like it did, and still does—always does—give them to me.

James Jimmy Stewart in The Greatest Show on Earth

After the circus train crashes in spectacular fashion (move over, The Fugitive), Buttons reveals himself to be the doctor who has killed the thing he loves so he can save Brad so Brad can live happily ever with Holly. In the meantime, being free of Holly allows Sebastian (left) the chance to hook up with Angel (right).