Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) & The Ten Commandments (1956)

I watched The Ten Commandments at Easter and then Charlton Heston died, so I wanted to see the movie that launched him as a star and won Cecil B. DeMille his only Best Director Oscar, 1952's The Greatest Show on Earth.

First, The Ten Commandments, which is a movie that everybody knows even if it's just to check out the parting of the Red Sea on the Sunday night of Easter weekend. Watched from beginning to end it really holds up well, once you get past DeMille's basic hokeyness and the clenched dialogue. Don't try to think of it as a movie attempting to replicate life in Egypt three thousand years ago, but merely as a show, a popcorn movie that just happens to be about awe-inspiring special effects and great men of the past and you're on the right track.

The two elements that really make the movie what it is are Heston's performance, controlled and authoritative; and the score from Elmer Bernstein, fresh off of writing a jazz score for The Man with the Golden Arm, a work about as far as you can get from the bombast of a Bible epic. But Bernstein's music gives the movie a huge amount of power and emotion and helps provide a sense of movement to DeMille's blocky, stiff compositions.

Oddly, one of the weakest aspects of the movie is one of the elements most central, the transformation of Moses from regal Prince of Egypt into just another Hebrew slave when he finds out that he was adopted. From the perspective of character, this should be a charged section of inner growth and development, but in this 3 1/2 hour movie we only get one scene where Heston helps out in the mud for five minutes and from that point on is utterly dedicated to the cause of Hebrew liberation. But then, DeMille was never known for being a psychological filmmaker.

The Greatest Show on Earth is a much sillier piece of work, and I'm sure if the Academy had been able to see into the future they would have waited to give DeMille his Oscars for a couple more years until the more respectable Ten Commandments came along. DeMille's religious epics were always motivated by a desire to give the audience a moral lesson along with the spectacle, but Greatest Show on Earth is all spectacle, all the time, from the rivalry between a pair of trapeze artists who seek to outdo each other with increasingly insane stunts to the climactic train crash that sends lions and clown white makeup flying everywhere. You can also tell from watching this movie that there's a direct line from it to the disaster movies of the '70s, in which a big crowded cast of people have their personal melodramas interrupted by special effects set pieces, all the way up to the likes of The Day After Tomorrow. Heston's character, the circus manager, is exactly the same guy he would play in Airport '75 or Earthquake - the no-nonsense man of action, always on top of things, always barking orders. Here the orders are things like 'trim that elephant's toenails' and 'get that cheating carny out of here' but it's the same persona.

The thing is, even though this movie is overstuffed and underdeveloped and has lines of dialogue like "You're not a man, you've got sawdust in your veins!" and a pretty bad, nervous performance from Betty Hutton as the female lead and the ridiculous appearance of a paralyzed nerve-damaged claw hand after one performer takes a nasty fall, it all still works. Heston holds the movie together, subplots involving Jimmy Stewart (a clown on the run from the law) and the amazing Gloria Grahame (riding elephants in a sassy manner) are entertaining, and the damn tigers and clowns and sea lions keep your attention. So even though DeMille's movies can't be called high art, they work on that basic what-happens-next level of storytelling, and that's nothing to sneeze at. And even though High Noon should have won Best Picture that year, this is a less awful Oscar winner than Crash.

The Ten Commandments: 8/10
The Greatest Show on Earth: 6/10

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