I have only been to the circus once. I was two, I think. The only thing I remember about the circus is the elephants coming in to the ring; that’s all. Because I have so little circus-watching experience, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this movie. I was glad I didn’t have high expectations, because I was able to enjoy it, even though it has its ups and downs.
So what’s the story? The Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey Circus is not doing well. People just don’t want to come to the circus anymore. The backers don’t want to do a full season. Brad, the circus manager, gets them to promise that the circus will stay out as long as they stay in the black. To do this, he hires Sebastian, a famous trapeze artist. This makes unknown, but excellent, trapeze artist Holly angry, because she wanted to be in the center ring. She decides to prove to Brad and Sebastian that she is the best.
The Good: The circus is amazing. I kind of wish Cecil B. DeMille had just made a documentary about the circus and the real circus performers, because the story wasn’t all that interesting. I would have loved to know how people got involved in the circus, how they learned to do some of the incredible things they do, if they would ever consider leaving the circus. The circus was truly the best part of the movie.
The cinematography was well done. It had to be in order to capture the feeling of the circus, the size and the noise and the color and the bustle and the amount of work it is to put a circus on.
Gloria Grahame is fantastic as Angel, a “sadder but wiser” circus performer who loves Brad, but isn’t sure that he will love her back because of her past. Charlton Heston (whom I did not recognize in normal clothes and a hat) is very good as Brad, the manager who will do anything to keep the circus going. Cornel Wilde is charming as the playboy performer Sebastian. It’s always nice to see Jimmy Stewart, even though his role as the clown with a mysterious past isn’t very large. His little dog is adorable, too. Lyle Bettger was good as the Angel-obsessed Klaus. And it is fun to see famous circus people like John Ringling North and Emmett Kelly doing their thing.
The Bad: I did not like Betty Hutton, who played Holly. She was more annoying than anything. Apparently, she was a famous singer at the time, but her acting skills could have used some work.
Since I grew up watching The Ten Commandments, I’m used to Cecil B. DeMille narrating with great weight about serious subjects. It was really odd to hear him narrating about the circus. It wasn’t necessarily bad, per se, but it was really weird for me. It probably wouldn’t bother someone who isn’t familiar with DeMille’s voice.
The Ugly: The story is really weak and not particularly interesting. How the writers managed to win an Oscar for best story is beyond me. It must have been a weak year for that award.
The train wreck at the end was probably good for its day, but it doesn’t hold up well. Klaus is obviously sitting in front of screen when he’s supposedly on the tracks. I try not to let that kind of stuff get to me, but sometimes it does. This is one of those times.
Oscars Won: Best picture; best writing, motion picture story.
Other Oscar Nominations: Best director; best costume design, color; best film editing.