• James Kunovski

1952 + 1956 Best Picture: Put On A Show

Every Oscar fan has remarked upon a Best Picture winner with a frustrated shrug. Traditionally, the nearly century-old Academy had favoured rambunctious commercial hits. They are the films that generously fill a bloated weekend afternoon with bygone appetite and high-soaring technicality. Of course, not all commercial hits have to be bad, right? But when a flashy spectacle, as hollow as the day is long, combines with a dated appeal, the result ranges from lukewarm to bewildering. In 1952 and 1956, the Academy, in a flight of mediocrity, respectively bestowed Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth and Michael Anderson’s Around the World in 80 Days their highest honour. Both prioritise spectacle and consequently leave modern audiences in the dust. So, why are two big, brassy spectacles often considered the worst Oscar has to offer?

Cecil B. DeMille’s inflated circus melodrama often finds itself qualifying as one of the worst Best Picture winners. Funnily enough, these indictments are hardly far from the truth. The Greatest Show on Earth mixes the fictional life of a circus troupe managed by Brad (Charlton Heston) while offering a newsreel spotlight on the real Ringling Bros. If that doesn’t sound like much of a movie, that’s because Greatest Show manifests a jarring mismatch of entertainment — even the final end-card for “A Paramount Picture” sent me into a spiral of confusion. In retrospect, DeMille’s irreligious epic felt like a terrible dream. Nothing but pure Technicolor indulgence with an offensively lengthy run-time that hilariously doesn’t achieve much. The vision of James Stewart as a clown that I can’t shake plus a cameo by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby feels like an omen.

If you look past the painful love triangles, questionable animal practice, and family entertainment that borders on the tasteless, DeMille’s picture offers some, and I’m generous here, saving graces. We may have seen better stunts, especially when Cirque du Soleil have flawlessly branded their art-form with storytelling, but who doesn’t love to see some acrobatics. DeMille wants you to admire the display with childlike wonder. Luckily, for the professionals at the centre of his pageantry, that mindset is not a stretch. Gloria Grahame is an ensemble highlight. She would win the Oscar for supporting actress that same year for her nine-minute turn in The Bad and the Beautiful. Grahame plays Angel, one-half of the elephant act opposite the jealous and creepy Klaus. Against the backdrop of the chaotic circus and dealt, like every other character, little substance, she still manages to mix her effortless glamour with matter-of-fact detail.

Sadly these positives are short-lived, and just when you think that the bitter reception piled against The Greatest Show on Earth is too harsh, the cons come rolling into town. Younger audiences won’t have the sentimental connection of Ringling Bros. setting up in town. When you have a contemporary disconnect and minuscule stakes, you’re in trouble. On the other hand, amidst the grey plot lines, the cheesy behind-the-scenes drama of performers who’d kill for the spotlight might mildly boost your interest. Just don’t watch it next to 1952’s superior show-biz on show-biz movies, The Bad and the Beautiful and Singin’ in the Rain.

The Greatest Show on Earth is a picture that can loosely pass as a film. A piece of work assembled in truly random and tangled order. Its Best Picture win over High Noon and the non-nominated Singin’ in the Rain sits uncomfortably in film history. Had Singin’ in the Rain won, it would’ve bared a striking similarity to the previous Best Picture winner, An American in Paris. The Academy rarely hands out back-to-back thematic Pictures. Cast your mind to the late ’70s — Apocalypse Now losing to Kramer vs. Kramer, the year after Vietnam War-drama The Deer Hunter won. The Academy of 1952 favoured The Greatest Show on Earth not only because it was a marvellous spectacle. During the height of McCarthyism, favouritism for the staunch Republican DeMille’s picture would “re-align” Academy morals, especially when High Noon’s producer and Ivanhoe’s screenwriter were blacklisted. Justifying their choice by suggesting that DeMille was overdue is frustrating because sympathy Oscars always get in someone else’s way. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments would premiere four years later to Academy adoration. Though it would lose to Around the World in 80 Days, things might’ve gone differently had 1952 swayed another way. The Greatest Show on Earth’s most significant selling point is its time-capsule snapshot of a misguidedly innocent period in entertainment, both on the road and in Hollywood. That’s also its biggest detractor.

Dealt one of the most unremarkable Best Picture lineups in Academy history, members of 1956 settled on Michael Anderson’s globe-trotting, star-studded epic, Around the World in 80 Days. This Best Picture upset stars David Niven as Phileas Fogg and famed Mexican comedian Cantinflas as his sidekick servant Passepartout. If you want my simple review — it’s an outrageously overlong bore.

Anderson’s film opens with a prologue about the sheer size of planet Earth (we know) and some spliced footage of A Trip to the Moon. A film so long it houses another film inside it — how cute. The rest of the three-hour run-time boasts the uptight Fogg and Chaplin-like Passepartout’s eighty-day voyage. In the opening moments, when Fogg makes a wager with his fellow private club “gentlemen,” on the odds of his success, the audience gets a glimpse at how Fogg will maintain humour and our attention. It’s not pretty — that posh humour has the incredible quality of traversing from endearing to irritating to insipid. Cantinflas has the right amount of charisma for a supporting star. Given his best but still relatively benevolent efforts, he strengthens the weak string that holds the film afloat between cameos and completely arbitrary plot devices. Those plot points are making me laugh as I type them out. They range from the saving of an Indian widow from the pyre (don’t worry, Shirley MacLaine is okay) to a train-bound duel that seemingly comes out of nowhere.

Let’s be honest. While I can’t speak to the original novel, there isn’t much plot to be found in Around the World in 80 Days. But let’s be honest, once again. The plot is not the picture’s main draw. That falls on its sheer amount of stars and the bountiful location shots that mimic the framing of most postcards. Nevertheless, Around the World would have been a sizeable reason for 1956 audiences to leave their glorious television sets and bask in the wide-screen glory of the cinema. And through the great snapshots of cultural scenery (if you’re wondering if they’re corny, you’d be right), one does sort of feel like they’re on a bit of a compressed world trip — or maybe that’s my “I haven’t left the state in over a year” talking. It was nice to enjoy those tidbits of scenery while they lasted because when the film starts to feel like a drag, it well and truly *drags.* Seconds after I anticipated the film would start to wrap up its laughably light plot, the intermission hit. I might have aged a year at that moment.

The Best Picture nominees from 1956 are nothing special. Might it be one of the worst all-around Picture lineups in Academy history? The company in that coveted category included Friendly Persuasion, Giant, The King and I and DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Around the World would win four other Oscars for its writing (!), cinematography, editing and score. The King and I, a theatrical adaptation that feels like it never left the stage, would also win five Oscars. Perhaps it was a close second, but Giant’s Best Director win for George Stevens might indicate a push in that direction. From the pool, I’m partial to William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion, a sweet take on a Quaker family’s life during the American Civil War. The Academy had their fair choice of showy epics. Preference for The Ten Commandments would have likely depended on a completely different winner in 1952. It feels like the type of film that would sweep any other year — it would win only one Oscar.

Amongst the muddy fanfare, which like The Greatest Show on Earth resembles more an identity crisis and less an actual film, there are slight glimpses of merit. Compared to that DeMille picture, Around the World is only slightly better constructed and certainly less of a headache to eyeball. The distinction comes from the star cameos. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the film is star-studded, à la It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, there’s still a satisfying who’s who to have. Marlene Dietrich, to no surprise, has the best cameo. Though only granted a moment, she carries that trademark mysterious magnetism and is by far the best dressed amongst a sea of Pith helmets and top hats. Unfortunately, Around the World never strictly surpasses the brouhaha of its starry cast. Like the fleeting appearances from the ineffable cameos, your cheery rush is merely temporary. Rest assured, their legacy and especially their long-term appeal sits squarely and confidently in the last century.