The Greatest Show on Earth

Movie review by
Tracy Moore, Common Sense Media
The Greatest Show on Earth Movie Poster Image
Sprawling circus tale is a visual feast with heavy themes.
  • NR
  • 1952
  • 152 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The Greatest Show on Earth espouses positive messages about circus life, loyalty, commitment to the performance above all else, and putting personal issues aside to do good work.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Characters are generally well-intentioned but portrayed as a unique strain of people who are committed to the peripatetic life of the circus. They are often more concerned with "stardust" or the validation of performance than personal relationships. Overall, the people are portrayed as kind but lost, escaping from problems, self-obsessed with fame, or more driven by making a buck than cultivating relationships.

Violence

There's a perilous overtone to the movie, particularly with regard to the high-wire acrobatics and risk. A man falls from a high distance and is left partially paralyzed; blood is shown trickling from his mouth. A woman sticks a piece of hot iron on a man's hand. A woman's act involves an elephant's foot hovered just above her face, ever at risk of crushing her. A man hits a man over the head with a stick. A train full of circus people and animals crashes into a car placed purposely on the track, destroying it and leaving many people wounded, with some blood shown. A transfusion is performed.

Sex

A man and woman kiss. Very minor jokey innuendo about girls who "get around." A man romances a woman by embracing her and whispering sweet nothings.

Language

Very minor references to dated or era-specific ideas, such as blackface.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Brief, era-specific smoking of pipes, cigars, and the occasional cigarette.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Greatest Show on Earth is a sprawling, lavish, over-two-hour look at the life of the circus from 1952. It's a visual feast of costumes, performances, and the glamour of a show in an era when it was still a respectable way of life, not to mention still a major draw in any city. However, it runs long and is rather gritty with some adult themes, such as unrequited love, escaped criminals, dangerous high-wire acts, cutthroat competition, and the despair of dashed dreams. There also is quite a bit of peril and violence: A man falls from a high distance and is left partially paralyzed; blood is shown trickling from his mouth. A train full of circus people and animals crashes into a car placed purposely on the track, destroying it and leaving many people wounded, with some blood shown. A transfusion is performed.

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What's the story?

The show must go on and must stay in the black. That's why circus manager Brad (Charlton Heston) will do anything to turn a profit, even if it means bringing in an expensive trapeze artist Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) to lead the show and moving his girlfriend Holly (Betty Hutton) to second ring. Meanwhile, Buttons the Clown (James Stewart) is wanted for murder, and an elephant trainer's jealous love for his girlfriend must be reined in.

Is it any good?

This rare combination of directorial dazzle and P.T. Barnum's involvement (there's even a parade featuring decades-old Disney characters) make for a unique look at life under the big top. THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH offers lavish costumes, dangerous high-wire acts, cutthroat competition, and petty rivalries to tell the story of an epic production kids today are likely to see once a year or even once a lifetime. That is in part because of changing attitudes toward circuses and the animals they've long mistreated -- and for good reason. This film is fairly innocuous, but there are some heavy themes here -- wanted murderers, unrequited love, damaged people trying to make art under tenuous circumstances at best -- that are likely too heavy for younger kids. But for kids old enough, and with long-enough attention spans (152 minutes!), this is a visual spectacle from a bygone era.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the circus. Have you ever been to the circus? How is this movie's depiction of circus life different from the way the circus is portrayed now?

  • What are some of the reasons the tide has turned against circuses during the years since this film?

  • What does the movie say about fame and the potential of the circus life?

Movie details

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