Cecil B. DeMille

Best Picture Winners: The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

In 1936 The Great Ziegfeld, a biopic about Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. and his Follies, won the Oscar for Best Picture. Almost two decades later, in 1952, The Greatest Show on Earth, a Cecil B. DeMille brainchild won the prize. Both films claim greatness and showcase great showmen. Ziegfeld was played by William Powell (who would play the man again in a film version of the Follies in the 1940’s) and the star-studded film included cameos by Ziegfeld’s protégés and performers, including Fannie Brice and Eddie Cantor. The Greatest Show on Earth isn’t about DeMille, it’s about the Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Circus, but it has all of the markings of DeMille’s flashy epics.

Ziegfeld, best known for his Follies, musical revues renewed yearly on Broadway, was the son of a immigrant and began as a carnival barker at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, so the story goes. Determined to best his rival and best friend, Jack Billings (played by Frank Morgan, best known as the Professor/Wizard in the Wizard of Oz), he ditches the traditional strong man act in favor of a sexed-up version in which women get to feel the Great Sandow’s muscles as he flexes them in time to sexy music (Sandow was played by Nat Pendleton, a weightlifter turned gangster film heavy). Ziegfeld and Billings somehow keep running into each other as they tour shows and scout talent, and Ziegfeld is somehow always out of money. In London, Ziegfeld steals Anna Held, a French-Polish singer (Luise Rainier), right out from under Billings’ nose, and brings her to America. By publicizing Anna’s daily milk baths (which she vehemently denies taking), Ziegfeld markets her beauty to women and sex appeal to men. He makes her a star, and to keep her from signing with other producers, he marries her.

One star (and apparently one woman) are not enough for Ziegfeld, and he opens show after luscious show, each with more silk curtains and chorus girls than the last. His Follies began as a way to showcase the girls, “glorify” the woman. A known womanizer, his wife catches him with another star, and she divorces him. Ever a hothead, Anna hopes that divorce will bring “Flo,” back to her. The plan backfires when Flo meets Billie Burke (An established actress at the time, Burke would go on to her most famous role as Glinda the Good Witch in the Wizard of Oz, which co-starred Frank Morgan, here playing Billings… Here Burke is played by Myrna Loy, but since Burke was still alive and working, Loy played Burke as Loy. Head-spinning.), falls in love, and marries her. Flo and Burke retire to his home upstate and live an extravagant life. Flo continues to be the Great Ziegfeld, producing show after show, but loses everything in the stock market crash of 1929.Billings also loses everything and is unable to bail out the aging and ever-broke “Ziggy.” The film closes with Ziegfeld’s quiet death at home, in view of his Ziegfeld Theatre, after a trip down memory lane with his old friend Billings.

William Powell didn’t look a whole lot like Ziegfeld and didn’t try to adopt the man’s mannerisms. Like Loy, he played Ziegfeld as himself, not as an imitation of a (very recently) deceased icon. Powell’s performance was applauded, because it brought sympathy to such a notorious womanizer in a more proper time. Scandalous stories of producers and stars in old Hollywoodabound now, but stories like that were hushed up and those girls were not good girls, in the early 1920’s. Ziegfeld discovered Brice in a burlesque show. But, the show is classed up in the film, as is Ziegfeld. His desire to glorify the chorus girl seems to come less out of lust but, as he puts it, more like an admiration of beautiful paintings. In a scene in Chicago, when Ziegfeld is preparing to leave his father, one of his father’s piano students, a young girl no more than six, declares that she will marry him someday. Ziegfeld takes her on his knee and explains, in a fatherly voice, that he can’t possibly marry her because he loves all women, like he loves beautiful paintings or beautiful flowers. The little girl feigns jealousy (at her age), and they all laugh. Twenty years later, that little girl shows up in Ziegfeld’s office and flings herself onto his lap again, asking for a part in one of his shows. She clumsily tries to seduce him, but he detaches himself, reminding her that he is married (still to Held). This episode, and the affair with the alcoholic Audrey are glossed over, and Ziegfeld still comes out the hero, the greatest showman to ever live.

Cecil B. DeMille was a great showman of Hollywood, producing sweeping epics like Cleopatra and The Ten Commandments, and for Paramount, he made The Greatest Show on Earth. It bears all of his trademarks: he traveled with the actual circus and drew huge crowds while studying them, the scenes are luscious and mostly fake, and he demanded his actors do all of their own stunts. Gloria Grahame lay in the dust with an elephant’s foot half an inch from her face. Cornel Wilde, terrified of heights, performed death-defying stunts on a trapeze. DeMille used real footage from his travels with the circus for most of the background action, but in close-ups, he inserted the real actors, Betty Hutton, Grahame, and Wilde. Hutton’s role, that of the trapeze star in love with two men, was intended for Lucille Ball, but when Ball became pregnant, Hutton sent DeMille a thousand-dollar bouquet and got the role. Charlton Heston won his leading role of circus manager Brad by waving at DeMille from across the lot. DeMille was a diva producer if there ever was one. He made outrageous demands of his actors (and crew), waved his hand, and did what he wanted. He was, in a sense, very similar to Ziegfeld.

The Greatest Show on Earth is mostly spectacle; in fact, it showcases nearly a full circus, with a little bit of a love story thrown in. Brad is a circus manager fighting to keep his circus in the black for a full season, and to do so, he hires the Great Sebastian, a trapeze artist who always demands the center ring. Unfortunately, Brad had just promised the center ring to his girlfriend Holly (Hutton), and she and Sebastian (Wilde) start competing during their act to draw the crowd’s attention. Sebastian is a notorious womanizer, and one of his former conquests, Angel an elephant-rider (Grahame), is none too happy to see him. She is also being stalked by her trainer, Klaus, who is in love with her. Soon Holly falls for Sebastian, leaving Brad high and dry, but Angel has fallen for him. Holly and Sebastian’s competition goes too far when she pushes him to get rid of his net on the night when he is attempting a new, difficult trick. He falls, but survives. One of his hands is paralyzed and twisted, and the only job Sebastian can find at the circus is selling balloons. A jealous Klaus accidentally derails the circus train when trying to steal the day’s take, in a grisly wreck. Brad is pinned under some metal and badly bleeding. Both women rush to his side. Holly calls for Buttons, an enigmatic clown, who she suspects is a doctor on the run for accidentally killing his wife. Buttons (played by Jimmy Stewart in full clown make-up through the entire picture) saves Brad’s life, but at the cost of being discovered as the fugitive doctor by the convenient FBI agent who has just caught up with him. Of course, Sebastian is the only one who has the same blood type as Brad, and the two jokingly bury the hatchet as Sebastian gives Brad a transfusion. Holly manages to put on the circus with half of the cast and crew wounded and the tent in shreds, and she confesses her undying love for Brad. “Left out in the cold” Angel and Sebastian warm themselves up with a marriage certificate as well.

DeMille’s vision of a circus and its scandals and love stories were similar to Ziegfeld’s own vision (and real-life). The Great Ziegfeld won the award for Best Picture against Anthony Adverse, Dodsworth, Libeled Lady (another Powell/Loy picture), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Romeo and Juliet, San Francisco, The Story of Louis Pasteur (another biopic), A Tale of Two Cities, and Three Smart Girls. It cost $2 million to make and featured seven production numbers and twenty-three songs. Critic Tim Dirks (AMC) says, “It is now considered outrageous that The Great Ziegfeld defeated such superior films as DodsworthLibeled Lady, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” The Greatest Show on Earth paid $250 million for the rights to use Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey’s name and trademark slogan and to use their performers in the film. It beat out High Noon, Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge, and The Quiet Man. Sources say voters were afraid to chose the far better High Noon because of its “anti-American” leanings. Carl Foreman, the screenwriter who worked on High Noon was blacklisted shortly before voting and was “exiled” to London. Dirks writes, “The Best Picture Award was another surprise and is forever considered one of the Academy’s worst choices for the top prize. 1952 has been considered one of the years in which the Academy blundered the greatest in its choice of Best Picture. The bloated, lumbering, melodramatic epic The Greatest Show on Earth was one of the Academy’s biggest gaffes.” He also calls The Greatest Show on Earth a “gaudy epic spectacular.” Both films were NYT Critics’ Picks, and the Times called The Greatest Show on Earth a “lusty triumph of circus showmanship.” Similarly, the Times praised The Great Ziegfeld: “For the picture has the opulence, the lavishness, the expansiveness and the color of the old Follies…with which, we suspect, Mr. Ziegfeld might have handled his own life story.” Critics agree, both films are extravagant vanity show pieces, they just can’t agree whether that’s a good thing or not!