Jewish World Review May 3, 2000 / 28 Nissan, 5760
The ringmaster who
looks back from your
SARASOTA, Fla. "They said Barnum was in
trouble when he lost Tom Thumb! When Jumbo
Those are some of the lines I can repeat by heart --
lines from a favorite movie of mine: "The Greatest
Show on Earth," the winner of the Academy Award
for Best Picture of 1952. Directed by Cecil B.
DeMille, starring Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton and
Cornel Wilde, "The Greatest Show on Earth" is
something that would never be produced today: a
big-budget film about circus life.
It was broadcast on a classic-movies cable channel
one recent night while I was here in Sarasota.
Sarasota is the traditional home of the circus; the
Ringling family was one of the city's most prominent,
and the circus made its winter home here. So there
was something dementedly satisfying about talking
along with the movie's circus dialogue as it came out
of the TV set here in Circusland.
The angry advocate of a long circus tour, having just
been told that there will be a short season, hitting
only major cities: "Pass up the small cities and
His adversary: "The world's changed."
The circus traditionalist: "Kids haven't!"
All right, all right . . . perhaps I had a little too much
time on my hands on this particular night. Still, "The
Greatest Show on Earth" is more than 2 hours long,
and I stuck with every minute of it, often speaking
along with the narrator's riveting voice (the voice of
DeMille himself), following the complex relationships
between circus foreman Brad Braden (Heston),
trapeze artist Holly (Hutton), her high-flying rival the
Great Sebastian (Wilde), Buttons, the clown with the
terrible secret he knows he must hide behind his
greasepaint smile (Jimmy Stewart). . . .
"The Greatest Show on Earth" was produced just as
television was beginning to dominate American life;
the reason it is so fascinating to watch today is that
we know now that everything was about to change.
The big top -- the huge canvas tent that was hauled
from town to town -- was about to go away for
good; the greatest show on Earth, the world was
about to learn, no longer needed to be carried to a
field outside your city by a circus train. The greatest
show on Earth was about to be delivered onto a
And now we have moved even beyond that -- from
a television screen to a different kind of screen.
Cecil DeMille -- who seemed truly enamored of the
circus -- never could have conceived of the
circusmasters who have replaced the Ringling
brothers, Barnum and Bailey. Bill Gates of
Microsoft, Steve Case of AOL -- if they so desired,
they could today lay claim to being proprietors of the
greatest show on Earth.
Why? You can find it in a snatch of dialogue from
the old movie. The Betty Hutton character,
dismayed that the Cornel Wilde trapeze-artist
character is being hired to spice up the circus box
office, says: "He's strictly center ring, isn't he?"
Meaning: Once the Great Sebastian joins the
traveling circus, the Hutton character will be moved
to a side ring.
But there is no center ring in the life of the
American culture today. When the big top would
come to town, the circus bosses would determine
who would be the recipient of the audience's stares.
If the Great Sebastian was given the center ring,
then the audience's eyes would be his.
That control -- and all that it stood for -- is gone.
The three-ring circus of the pre-television days was
replaced by the three major networks -- but then
they lost their dominance of the nation's eyes as the
number of cable channels multiplied. And now, on
the worldwide computer network, the idea of the
center ring has been obliterated once and for all.
The greatest show on Earth is available with the tap
of a key -- all the world is out there (in
one-dimensional form), and each man, woman and
child is his or her own ringmaster. The world can
come to your town 24 hours a day, no tent poles
required -- you can choose the attractions.
The big top used to arrive once a year -- the
traveling circus represented horizons almost
intoxicating in their lure. Circuses are still out there
today -- the biggest ones play not in tents, but in
basketball arenas -- and a new trend is to mount
much smaller, European-style circuses, under the
little top: under scaled-down luxury tents. But
however entertaining today's circuses may be, they
are not the greatest show on Earth -- they can't,
with a straight face, pretend to be.
Will any fan of old movies, 50 years from now,
speak along with the dialogue from a movie about
the new big top, the new make-your-own center
Well . . . there was that movie called "You've Got
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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