Filming of The Greatest Show on Earth
“When the most colossal Hollywood minds merge with the most monumental minds of the circus, nothing short of a modern miracle could be anticipated as the progeny of such a union.”
Winning the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1952, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth debuted to packed houses around the country and nowhere were people more anxious for this insider look at the great American circus than in Sarasota. Just over a year earlier, the director, his cast of stars and the film crew had come to the home of the circus --Sarasota!
It began small enough, just a short piece, placed inconspicuously on page one of the January 10th Sarasota Herald-Tribune: “DeMille Due to Film Movie.” But less than three weeks later, with the announcement that “Hollywood Invades Big Top! Lights, Camera!” all of Sarasota was wrapped up in movie and circus fever. Extras were hired from around the city to be present for the main street parade and the outdoor scenes of the circus performance. And no local group was more important to DeMille than the performers of the 1951 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
From the beginning of the project, “DeMille and the circus were made for each other.” The director had worked long and hard developing a script that reflected the “tinsel and spun candy world” of the circus and there was no better place to capture this life than with the Ringling circus. Filming began in the Sarasota Winter Quarters at the end of January. Later, as the circus traveled through its season, DeMille and his crew met up with the Ringling train in Philadelphia and Washington D.C. to film scenes. Betty Hutton, Charlton Heston, Gloria Grahame, Lyle Bettger and Dorothy Lamour all came to shoot scenes in Sarasota. Only Jimmy Stewart, who played Buttons the Clown, did not travel to Florida. Training was provided for all the actors; Stewart was advised on the art of clowning by Lou Jacobs, Hutton trained with Antoinette Concello on the trapeze and both Gloria Grahame and Dorothy Lamour experienced their characters’ acts first hand.
DeMille’s great respect for the circus, its performers and its managers was seen in his even treatment of the show and in its importance to the movie. His goal was to “capture” the circus’ “universal soul.” And he certainly succeeded in recording the soul of the 1951 Ringling Show. “Most of the marvelous acts that John [Ringling North] booked that year are preserved forever on film.” With the number of performers featured and the time devoted to on-site shooting, it is clear that the circus is the star of the film.