Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

18 July 2008

The Greatest Show on Earth?

Cecil B. DeMille's 1952 movie The Greatest Show on Earth may be one of the strangest movies I've ever seen in my life. Stranger still, it kinda works. The Greatest Show on Earth is your standard melodramatic plot structure: girl (Betty Hutton) loves boy (Charlton Heston); boy loves work more than girl; girl finds new boy (Cornel Wilde); boy pretends he doesn't care; boy learns to love girl more than work; girl gets boy. This plot, which is totally ridiculous, but somehow totally intriguing, is interspersed with extremely long performance sequences featuring various circus acts. The movie is filled with elephants and horses, acrobats, tight-rope walkers, clowns, lions, you name it. The majority of these sequences has nothing to do at all with the romantic plot. There is also an intrigue plot, featuring a scheming guy in a suit. I never figured out what any of the guy-in-the-suit's machinations were about. It was totally incomprehensible as far as I am concerned. Making the whole combination even more strange, the movie is filled with documentary-style sequences where the audience learns about the circus and all that goes into producing this show. These documentary sequences are narrated by DeMille himself and are basically a commercial for the circus. The film even ends with a huge musical number exhorting everyone to come out and see the circus when it comes through town.

There is a little more to it: there's a huge train wreck near the end of the movie, that looks like it was done with model trains, and there is some good acting... by Gloria Grahame. (Funny, I just finished hating on her for her work in Oklahoma! and here I am loving her again.) The actor who plays Charlton Heston's rival (Cornel Wilde) is gorgeous. I'm not normally into really muscular guys, but for him I'd make an exception. Oh, and Dorothy Lamour is in this movie too for no reason at all. The film totally forgets about her after awhile and she is given no plot at all. And I forgot: Jimmy Stewart is in the movie too. He is a clown with a secret past. His plot is boring.

I'm telling you though, the movie is not half-bad. It's a weird patchwork of a movie and it's too long, but I rather enjoyed its histrionics.

And speaking of clichéd plots. Walter Lang's With a Song in My Heart is the true-life story of Jane Froman, played in the movie by Susan Hayward. Zzzzzz. Oh my lord it's boring. The worst part of it is that it's a musical, and Jane Froman's real voice is used for all the sequences (much like the producers of The Jolson Story did with their movie) but Jane Froman's music is boring. She'd take an interesting song and make it slow and flavorless, I swear. The plot is hideous, too. There's a husband who can't get a break and he spends the whole movie moping about it. Skip this one for sure.

I saw three more movies the last couple of days. Luis Buñuel's Robinson Crusoe is some of the most racist shit I've seen in a long while. Do not see this unless you feel like getting pissed off.

And I saw two gay movies: André Téchiné's Les Témoins (The Witnesses) is a story of Paris in 1984 during the free-love period right before the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. Les Témoins is the story of a very young man and his platonic relationship with an older man and the older man's married friends. It's a very interesting, movie with an intelligent, queer sensibility, and the married couple (Sami Bouajila and Emmanuelle Béart) are both wonderful in it. I loved them both. The movie sort of loses speed near its end, but it's still worth catching. It's not on the heartbreaking level of Longtime Companion, but it's intriguing to see the Paris side of the war on AIDS anyway.

I also watched the 1919 silent film Different from the Others (§ 175) which is a pro-gay propaganda film from Germany directed by Richard Oswald, and engineered by Magnus Hirschfeld. It's interesting, but I didn't watch it to enjoy myself; I watched it to see what they were up to in 1919. It's a fairly standard thing: blackmail plot, gay suicide, etc. And there are (of course) long sequences where we hear about how gay people can't help it (they're born that way!) and how Paragraph 175 ought to be repealed. It's a pretty cool thing, all told. It's 1919 for heaven's sake!