Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will shut down in May, The Associated Press reported. Its demise recalls the kind of movie you don’t see in the 21st century: The Greatest Show on Earth (1952).
Greatest Show won the Best Picture Oscar, beating out High Noon, Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge and The Quiet Man. It’s hard to imagine Cecil B. DeMille’s mix of spectacle, soap opera, comedy and other elements even being made today, much less nominated.
Gruff circus boss Charlton Heston tries to keep the circus rolling while circus acts Betty Hutton and Gloria Grahame are in love with him and new star attraction Cornel Wilde causes a lot of trouble. And there’s James Stewart’s mysterious clown who never takes his makeup off. DeMille himself is a presence, narrating the film.
The movie was also an early example of product placement. It was produced in cooperation with Ringling Bros, with circus executive John Ringling North playing himself. It also has cameos from the likes of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby watching a circus performance and Edmond O’Brien as a midway barker at the end.
In real life, the circus already was facing changing times when Greatest Show was released. One of the plot points is how some circus management want to end circus big tops and keep to major cities. The circus ceased staging performances in tents in 1956.
The demise of the circus was also due to changing times, according to the AP story.
The iconic American spectacle was felled by a variety of factors, company executives say. Declining attendance combined with high operating costs, along with changing public tastes and prolonged battles with animal rights groups all contributed to its demise.
Nothing lasts forever. Ringling Bros had a good run at 146 years.
For those who haven’t seen the 1952 movie, this extended trailer gives you a sense of what the film was like.