Tag Archives: Bing Crosby

25. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille


Alex – 6.5   Elliot – 6.3   IMDB 6.7    Rotten Tomatoes 5.3

Alex’s Commentary

The Greatest Show on Earth won the 1952 Academy Award for Best Picture and  Cecil B. DeMille won for Best Director. Given the number of excellent films being produced by Hollywood in the 1950s, I found it unusual that this film would be considered the best picture. greatest3The movie felt more like a documentary of circus life than the engaging drama which it tried to be. The color cinematography and costuming were well done but the cast of established actors could not salvage the weak storyline.

Charlton Heston plays Brad Braden, the circus manager, as an unconvincing and unrelatable character. Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde are trapeze artists attempting to upstage each other for the center ring. Again, the characters did not seem believable and the development of their character was lacking. Another character lacking development was ‘Buttons” A. Clown, which wasted the talents of James Stewart. Buttons was apparently a former physician who somehow killed his wife (I assume for benevolent reasons) and then joins the circus to escape from the police. There are a few other weak subplots that are not worth describing.

So how did this film win the best picture? I have two theories. First, DeMille was presented with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award at the 1953 Academy Awards and perhaps the Academy thought in addition to this award, Best Picture and Best Director awards would make his evening complete. 25887598905_a67d4bd7f9_bMy second theory is that a very strong group of competing films split the voting enabling a lesser film to emerge victorious. This list of films includes four motion pictures that are considered classics and I believe are far superior to The Greatest Show on Earth. They include Moulin Rouge and  The Quiet Man (the great John Ford film with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara). Even more memorable are Singin’ in the Rain and one of my personal favorite films, High Noon starring  Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly.

If you are interested in the circus life of the 1950’s perhaps you would enjoy this film; however, with a running time of what seems like a very long 2 ½ hours, I’d suggest watching one of the other four films mentioned above instead.

Elliot’s Commentary:

The name of our film’s director was burned into the annals of Hollywood history with Billy Wilder’s 1950 masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard as the main character, Norma Desmond, delivers the closing line, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”.  With a 40+ year career as a director spanning from his first silent film in 1914 and culminating with two Charlton Heston-led technicolor spectacles (The Greatest Show on Earth and The Ten Commandments), it’s no wonder that the name Cecil B. DeMille is one of the most revered from the Golden Age of Hollywood history.    While the grandeur of Cecil B. DeMille is not necessarily in line with my preferred aesthetics, the impressive scale and visionary nature of his filmmaking had the power to bring to life the biblical and whimsical to entertain the masses.  It’s no wonder that the Golden Globes (The second best award show 😉 ) named their lifetime achievement award after our film’s director with the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award.  MV5BODY4NDBmODctNjlmYy00M2U3LTkyYTYtZmZiMGQxMzFkZWI4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzI0MTk0OTQ@._V1_Similar to the lifetime achievement award, it is possible that the Academy Awarded Cecil B. DeMille his first and only best picture win for our current picture as recognition for his storied career and contributions to film as a whole. Although I do prefer the Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly film, High Noon from our nominee pool to this feature, DeMille’s ability to bring the spectacle of the circus to the silver screen is certainly a sight to behold.   .

While Charlton Heston does shine in this film, eschewing his brand of masculinity that reminds me of a somewhat gruffer Humphrey Bogart in Gone With the Wind, he lacks the likability that we have seen in other leading men in Best Picture Winners.   This rough around the edges character, Brad Braden (Charlton Heston), with “sawdust in his veins” is a much more complex character than a surface viewing would initially lead you to believe.  His tough exterior doesn’t break often, although there are moments when his humanity and compassion do peak through. greatest-show-on-earth10-827x1030The foil to Heston’s character is Holly (Betty Hutton), a “flyer” whose abilities on the trapeze and bars have catapulted her to center ring.   As she enters the film, she is established as Charlton Heston’s love interest although that storyline is not fully developed.   Betty Hutton is a passable actress and her performance in this film lands very hollow based on her over-acting. Her love triangle with Brad and The Great Sebastian (Cornell Wilde) provides some intrigue, although like the rest of the plot of the film, it ultimately is underdeveloped.   The saving grace to the film is Jimmy Stewart, whose character Buttons is a likable clown with a dark past.   It’s hard for me to think of a role in which James Stewart diminishes the overall quality of a film.  In this particular instance, his natural acting ability shines a light on the deficiencies of his fellow cast.  Even though James performs in clown makeup throughout the entire production, he is still able to bring his humble, everyman charm to the role.   It’s not often the case that one would consider a Best Picture winner as a minor role, but for the incomparable Mr. Stewart this performance is and should be forgotten when considering his body of work.   003a1ec7_mediumHe only had so much to work with given how cheesy the script and storyline were. Also appearing in minor roles were Dorothy Lamour as Phyllis and Gloria Grahame as Angel.

The characters that really steal the show however are not our leading characters, but rather the actual circus folk depicted in this film.  The film splices plot between elaborate circus scenes that play almost like a documentary of a spectacular performance of the actual Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus troops.  This is a fascinating new territory for film as the footage not only serves as a dramatic ensemble character study, but also as a commercial for the circus.  Through using real acts currently performing during the 1951 circus season, it provides real incentives for fans of the film to go out and view their favorite performers in real life.  Personally, I loved seeing the spectacle of dogs riding horses. Additionally, there is a great cameo from Bing Crosby and Bob Hope that adds additional intrigue.  25792668261_e1a100a090_bThe film also provides behind-the-scenes coverage of moments that the average circus-goer would never get to see such as the circus train, the rigging and set-up of the iconic circus tent, and the practice routines for the various acts as they prepare for the night’s performance.  Even moments where Charlton Heston is going through a line-up of elephants and prescribing remedies for elephant-illness such as gin and ginger, are intriguing glimpses of a different world not often glimpsed by the public. As I watched some of the more harrowing trapeze stunts, I found myself on the edge of my seat hoping that we wouldn’t see an accident.  When it comes to world building Cecil B. Demille excels at bringing the grandeur of the circus to life, and depicting the magical place of wonderment and danger that delights adults and children alike.

The film has certainly dated itself with certain special effects including an epic train crash clearly filmed with models. According to IMDB, this film was “the first movie that Steven Spielberg ever saw. His father took him to the theater, promising him a trip to the circus. He was six years old at the time. In Spielberg’s 2005 movie War of the Worlds a brief clip of the train crash scene is seen when one of the characters is channel-surfing.” Besides the low-grade special effects there are a few instances show2of blackface and jokes at the expense of the obese and dwarves that are not endearing in a modern context.   While I don’t have moral qualms with the concept of the circus in general, there have always been questions about the treatment of animals in the production of these spectacles. Even the the 2017 Hugh Jackman feature, The Greatest Showman, loosely based on the life of PT Barnum, incurred the ire of PETA due to Barnum’s abysmal track record of animal abuse.     

Overall, I think this film was a step in the wrong direction from some of our other recent films.   While some of the films we’ve viewed in our journey haven’t aged well or are a little melodramatic, this film borders on the edge of bad.   The acting, special effects, script, and plot just couldn’t be redeemed by the wonderful circus footage. The film was also 2.5 hours long, which is quite a lot of viewing time that the film does not justify based on its content/plot.  Webphoto 2002Not all of the best picture winners deserve to be remembered in perpetuity, and this film in particular is deserving of its place near the bottom of all best picture winners. Due to the time period, this film was produced during the heyday of the Hollywood Blacklist and McCarthyism and thus we are left with the result of what happens when Hollywood plays it safe.   This commercial for the circus was successful in making me want to see a Cirque du Soleil show in the near future, but not much else. See it if you want to laugh at some bad acting, or if you really like dated portrayals of trapeze acts.


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17. Going My Way (1944)

Director:   Leo McCarey

Alex – 7.4   Elliot – 7.6    IMDB 7.3   Rotten Tomatoes 6.8

Alex’s Commentary:

Going My Way is a film the public needed in 1944. With World War II raging in Europe and the Pacific and hardships and sorrow impacting virtually every American, Going My Way was a feel good movie that depicted the generosity and caring of the American people. Throw in a number of classic renditions by superstar Bing Crosby and moviegoers could leave the theater a little happier and optimistic.

The film focuses on a young priest, Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby), assigned to a New York parish that was experiencing financial difficulty. For the past 44 years, the church had been run by Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) who was nearing retirement and was clearly set in his ways. 284d828c202b7ac4f04c38567ecccf56The dialogues between the two priests as they express their differing approaches and philosophies to both the church’s and parishioners’ problems create some of the film’s most memorable moments.

The film is entertaining but certainly dated – was American life really ever as like this? The portrayal of Irish Americans is so stereotypical that by today’s mores it is amusing – not a condescending portrayal but complete with Irish brogue, Irish whiskey, Irish priests and Irish policemen. The role in women in society, that of wife and mother and not “working girl”, is also evident; an interesting view given the number of women in the workforce in 1944 doing their part for the war effort.

It seemed a bit of a stretch that Father O’Malley could reform a group of neighborhood delinquents into a choir after a single discussion. It did provide a great vehicle for Bing Crosby to deliver some wonderful songs. I had forgotten what a beautiful voice Crosby possessed. It may have been the remastered DVD we watched but I couldn’t believe the clarity and warm tone of Bing’s voice. Although “Swinging on a Star” won the Oscar for Best Song, I actually preferred some of the traditional Irish and Church hymns.

I would be surprised if applications to the priesthood didn’t skyrocket based on the popularity of Going My Way. It is obvious the respect the whole community had for Fathers O’Malley and Fitzgibbon. going-my-way-movie-bing-crosby-choir-st-louis-browns-uniform-reviewIn addition to being the neighborhood spiritual leaders, they also served the roles of community organizer, family therapist, youth counselor, financial advisor and musical director. Oh the good old days!

An interesting Oscar trivia question – who was nominated for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the same movie role? – Answer: Barry Fitzgerald. He won for Best Supporting Actor losing at to Bing Crosby for Best Actor. The Academy changed the rules after the 1944 Oscars so Barry Fitzgerald was the first and last double nominee.   Leo McCarey was a double winner capturing both Best Director and Best Screenwriting honors.

Going My Way is an entertaining film that embodies the classic 1940’s Hollywood genre. The final scene of the unexpected visit of Father Fitzgibbon’s mother after a 44 year absence is a clever heartwarming surprise. Going My Way won’t make my favorite film list but was a worthwhile screening.

Elliot’s Commentary:

1944’s Going My Way can be summed up in two words, Bing. Crosby.  He was one of the most famous actor’s in the history of Hollywood, and Going My Way can be considered the pinnacle of his acting achievements because it resulted in his Best Actor award.  Not to diminish his role in Irving Berlin’s wildly successful White Christmas, but Going My Way was a better showcase of his acting talents.  Going My Way was also one of the first times that a successful A-List movie spawned a sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s.  In both films, Bing plays Father O’Malley, the likable, scrupulous priest sent on a mission to help revitalize a struggling New York parish.  Bing was also nominated for best actor for The Bells of St. Mary’s, but lost to Ray Milland for his portrayal of Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend.  For more information on The Lost Weekend, read our next blog post on 1945’s Best Picture winner.

Released just a month prior to the D-Day Invasion, Going My Way was different than the last few best picture winners because it had much less to do with the concurrent war.  However, with the tolls of war mounting on the home front, Going My Way provided escapism at its finest.  Bing Crosby’s voice, cut through the tension of the time, to remind America what it was even fighting for.  80ae42e7560ce8656aa6970f056c5fef---film-bing-crosbyThe onscreen chemistry of Crosby and Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) was palpable, as the duo’s relationship evolved from terse to familial.  Father Fitzgibbon has become an old curmudgeon in his 44 years of service to St. Dominic’s church, and is originally put off by Father O’Malley’s antics like playing golf and tennis.  It is later discovered in the film that Father O’Malley was actually sent to revitalize the troubled parish, and help prevent an impending foreclosure at the hands of the mortgage company run by Ted Haines Sr. (Gene Lockhart).

One of the best developed plots in the movie comes from Father O’Malley’s relationship with a group of neighborhood children (not in that way!!!! Get your mind out of the gutter.)  He takes a group of troubled mischievous hoodlums who were more interested in shenanigans than actually being productive members of society, and turns them into an angelic singing boy’s choir.  The choir is put to the test as it performs signature songs of the film like “Swinging on a Star” and “Going My Way” in order to attempt to save the financially impoverished church from foreclosure.

Finally, I can’t review this film without mentioning the most moving scene of the film.  Father Fitzgibbon disappears on a rainy night, and Father O’Malley and his police contacts go out looking for the missing priest.  After he is found, he returns to the parish very weak and sickly.  Bing sings the song an Irish Lullaby (Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra) to Father Fitzgibbon to help ease his pain and longing for his homeland of Ireland.  Overall this film is a great and heart-warming family classic that uses morality and beautiful song to tell its story.  I can definitely see the impact this film had on a country at war that needed a distraction from its strained day-to-day life.  It’s worth viewing, for Bing Crosby’s voice alone not to mention his fantastic acting.

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