The Greatest Show on Earth stars Charlton Heston as Brad Braden, the manager of a struggling circus. To ensure success for the coming season he has engaged The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), despite the fact that this will displace his own girlfriend, Holly (Betty Hutton), from the centre ring. The two acrobats begin a deadly game of chicken high up in the air while the circus presses on from town to town. Meanwhile, Buttons the clown (Jimmy Stewart) hides a dangerous secret, mobsters fleece the customers and the elephant trainer has an unhealthy obsession with Angel (Gloria Grahame).
This is really Cecil B. DeMille's homage to the circus. As such, it's spectacular but, also, rather lengthy and long-winded in places. The narrative is stretched by over-long circus scenes, designed to show the skill of the real acrobats and performers drafted into the film. And, while on first viewing these were entertaining, they would put me off watching again because I like more story than stunts when I watch something.
That said, the plots are interesting but the main love triangle feels a little laboured. Brad is a dull character, though much better as a circus manager than Holly's love interest, while Cornel Wilde does a better job as the charismatic Sebastian. Hutton reins her usual boisterous performance in a little to create a sympathetic character in Holly who still gets to fly around and continue her battle with Sebastian. The culmination of that is well-played by both Wilde and Hutton. For me, though, the quiet star of this is Jimmy Stewart as Buttons. Even in full make-up, masking much of his expression, he still managed to give an excellent performance that stood out from the rest of the cast.
I liked how the plots all intersected for the explosive finale, which also stayed true to the characters. I did enjoy the film but the circus set-pieces make it doubtful I'll be interested enough to watch it a second time.