“The Manner of a Schoolgirl and the Eyes of Sorceress”

grahame1Cecil B. DeMille’s spectacle-style cinema with its clear-cut morality does not seem to mesh with Gloria Grahame’s image as the sympathetic tart who tends to bring out the violence in men. She was best suited to the smoky atmosphere and hazy morality of film noir where her characters took their hits and rolled with the punches. Yet, Grahame acquitted herself nicely in DeMille’s circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth, playing the trampy-around-the-edges elephant girl called Angel. Greatest Show was released in 1952, which marked the beginning of Grahame’s most successful period as an actress, but this sentimental circus tale is often overlooked in favor of Macao (1952), The Bad and Beautiful (1952), and The Big Heat (1953) when scholars write of this period.

In the early 1950s, Grahame called herself “the Replacement,” because she often got parts that other, more well-known stars turned down. This proved true for Greatest Show. Suicide Blonde, the biography of Grahame by Vincent Curcio, claimed that Lucille Ball had been offered the role of Angel, but she was pregnant at the time and turned it down. Something about the timing of that doesn’t ring true to me. In 1950, Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz were trying to launch a television version of Lucy’s radio show My Favorite Husband, which eventually became I Love Lucy. Ball was trying to persuade CBS to allow Arnaz to play her husband and to prove their chemistry together, the couple made some club and stage appearances during that time. The first episode of their legendary sitcom aired in October 1951. Shooting for Greatest Show began in January 1951, which means that parts were cast in 1950. Aside from the misfit between Ball’s image and the part of Angel, I can’t imagine that she would seriously consider the role — pregnancy aside– given her dedication to launching the TV series. I could not verify or denounce this tidbit in the only Ball biography that I have, so it may or may not be true. (This was one of many fishy tales or errors that I found in Curcio’s book. Among others: he attributed Nosferatu to Fritz Lang instead of the great F.W. Murnau. Yikes!)

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According to Cecil B. DeMille by Charles Higham, Paulette Goddard was up for the role of Angel, but C.B. rejected her because she had been afraid of the balls of fire hurled during a battle scene in the veteran director’s Unconquered, a historical epic set during the tail end of the French and Indian War.** This sounds more likely to me, because apparently, DeMille did not respect actors who exhibited fear on the set. During the production of Greatest Show, he lauded Dorothy Lamour, Betty Hutton, and Grahame for gamely doing their own circus stunts but needled Cornel Wilde because his fear of heights hampered him from doing some of his stunt work.

Wilde was playing an aerialist known as the Great Sebastian who falls and permanently injures his arm, but the actor’s acrophobia kicked in when he had to stand on the aerialist’s platform. DeMille lost respect for the actor and made sarcastic comments about his phobia during production. On the other hand, Hutton, who played trapeze artist Holly, took to the air like a natural and learned several basic moves from real-life aerialist Antoinette Concello. Likewise, Lamour, who played Phyllis, was nearly 40 at the time, but she gamely gripped a bite ring with her mouth as she was hoisted high above the crowd, where she spun and dangled by her teeth. Grahame’s character, Angel, worked with elephants, and the actress had to learn how to handle a massive female named Minyak. Despite the claims of the circus industry, elephants generally don’t like circus work and can be difficult and temperamental. Minyak did not like being handled by anyone but her trainer Arky Scott, and Grahame had to keep her wits about her during training sessions and performances.

DeMille shot some scenes with the actual Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus while they were on the road. In Philadelphia, the stars of the film performed their stunts for the circus audience, some of which were shot by DeMille’s cameras. Grahame was filmed riding Minyak into the ring, where she dismounted the huge elephant and then performed a couple of fairly dangerous stunts. The actress lay down in the sawdust while Minyak raised her front leg over Grahame’s face and touched her nose with her huge foot. Then Grahame hooked her leg over the elephant’s mouth and arched backward while Minyak carried the outstretched actress for a few feet around the ring. Finally, Grahame was to hoist herself back up on Minyak’s back, but she missed the strap and fell under the elephant’s feet. She managed to roll away just in time.  She remounted Minyak, who was confused about which trick she was supposed to do, and she reared up on her back legs unexpectedly. Fortunately, Grahame held on and the audience was none the wiser, though her husband at the time, Nicholas Ray, was on the sidelines mopping sweat from his brow.

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DEMILLE PRAISED GRAHAME FOR BRAVELY DOING HER OWN STUNTS WITH MINYAK THE ELEPHANT.

However, Grahame was not finished with her elephant stunts. A big-top circus pageant was shot in Washington D.C., and while the other stars rode on floats or horses, Grahame rode around the ring sitting inside a giant hoop carried in Minyak’s mouth; early in the film, she sits in the elephant’s trunk, which is wrapped around her upper thighs. The elephant finally got her revenge on Grahame while shooting the climactic sequence of the film, when circus manager Brad Braden (played by Charleton Heston) is trapped under some wreckage  after a train derailment. Under Angel’s handling, Minyak is supposed to remove the obstacle from Brad’s torso. During the scene, Minyak pushed Grahame sideways against some of the wreckage on the set, scraping the skin from the actress’s hand. Grahame let out a shriek of profanity, which was forbidden on DeMille’s set. The rest of the cast and crew waited for C.B. to admonish her, but instead he complimented her bravery.  Fortunately for Grahame, the close-up of the stunt with the elephant’s foot was done in a Hollywood studio with a fake leg manufactured by Paramount’s crack mechanical effects department, and she did not have to repeat the real trick. Later, when asked about Grahame, DeMille summed up her appeal with a colorful quip: “She has the manner of a schoolgirl and the eyes of a sorceress.”

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THE RINGLING MUSEUM'S TRIBUTE TO DEMILLE'S FILM.

DeMille wanted The Greatest Show on Earth to capture the everyday life of the circus, including its atmosphere of family and camaraderie, but the film was fueled by the director’s trademark melodramatic romance, tragic characters, and sense of spectacle. Brad and Holly are romantically involved, but Brad’s first love is the circus much to the energetic aerialist’s frustration. When an egotistical aerialist named the Great Sebastian is hired to attract new customers, he and Holly threaten to become more than just a show in the center ring. Also part of the fabric of the story is the tragic character of Buttons the Clown, played by Jimmy Stewart in full clown makeup for the entire film. Angel is tough-talking redhead whose sassy attitude and fiery beauty brings out the worst in Klaus, the animal trainer. At one point, overcome with jealousy, Klaus threatens to have the elephant crush her face during a performance. This side of Angel certainly fits Grahame’s image as the tart who drives men to violence. Angel is aware that her soiled past makes her off limits to the heroic protagonist Brad. However, that doesn’t stop her from pitching herself to the handsome boss man with some smart dialogue. Frustrated and angry with Holly, Brad finds himself with Angel, who remarks, “You are a sourpuss, aren’t you?” Brad mutters, “Yeah.” “You want to bite somebody?,” she taunts. Again, he manages, “Yeah.”  “Well, pick your spot,” she offers, turning around while Brad surveys her from behind. Later, in true DeMille fashion, Angel is redeemed of her sins when she rescues Brad with her elephant, and fate rewards her with the admiration and affection of Sebastian.

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BETTY HUTTON AND GRAHAME CLIMB INTO THEIR COSTUMES.

The Greatest Show on Earth won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1952, an honor recent critics — particularly Internet scribes who are so young, they have likely never seen a classic film on the big screen — feel is undeserved. Not surprisingly, the movie’s show-biz sentiment, sparkling spectacle, and old-fashioned morality do not mesh with contemporary tastes. But, critics and viewers new to the film should scratch beneath the surface and look at the “plumbing,” the word DeMille used for story. Like the three rings of the circus, the narrative consists of three threads skillfully interwoven into a whole — the romance of Holly and Brad, the rivalry between Sebastian and Holly, and the mystery behind Buttons the Clown. The train derailment, which is the action-packed, thrilling climax, simultaneously resolves each thread of the story coherently and organically. Having written and directed for 40 years, DeMille had long sense mastered the craft of spinning a tightly woven tale beneath the spectacle — something contemporary filmmakers, who insist upon giving us noisy, empty trash like the recent G.I. Joe and Transformers series, cannot.
** Internet sources claim that Goddard wanted Hutton’s role, but Higham writes that it was the part of Angel.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJV8_Azr3n8&NR=1]

Curcio, Vincent. Suicide Blonde: The Life of Gloria Grahame, NYC: William Morrow & Co., 1989.

Hayne, Donald, ed. The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1959.

Higham, Charles. Cecil B. DeMille. NYC: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1973.

20 Responses “The Manner of a Schoolgirl and the Eyes of Sorceress”
Posted By Al Lowe : August 10, 2009 3:10 pm

This is the way I heard the story, Suzi.

Columbia Pictures owed Lucille Ball a picture but didn’t want to honor the contract. They offered her one they figured she’d turn down, a quickie called The Magic Carpet (released in 51). But she didn’t. Columbia boss Harry Cohn could have cancelled the picture had he know of the pregnancy.
And De Mille made his offer. She was further along and lost the part.
Someone told Desi Arnaz, “You’re the only man I know who screwed Harry Cohn, Cecil B. De Mille and Lucille Ball all at the same time.”
This story has been in several books, including Desi’s autobiography called “A Book.”
According to the book The RKO Girls, this particular pregnancy was a miscarriage. Another pregnancy followed and she had her daughter Lucie in July, 51.

I still wish High Noon or Quiet Man had won the Best Picture Oscar.
I will say that The Greatest Show on Earth is a tribute to the final great days of the circus, although it might not have been intended as that.

I’ll also say I am enjoying all of these Gloria Grahame tributes. I’m learning some stuff and that is always nice.

I’ll conclude with a story about De Mille who considered Billy Wilder a friend. He was anxious to hear Wilder’s opinion and showed him the finished film which Wilder hated. Wilder agonized over what he was going to say. Being Wilder, he came up with a brilliant solution. When the film ended he turned to De Mille and said, “Cecil, you’ve done it. You made The Greatest Show on Earth.”
And he managed to stay true to his conscience and the truth.

Posted By Al Lowe : August 10, 2009 3:10 pm

This is the way I heard the story, Suzi.

Columbia Pictures owed Lucille Ball a picture but didn’t want to honor the contract. They offered her one they figured she’d turn down, a quickie called The Magic Carpet (released in 51). But she didn’t. Columbia boss Harry Cohn could have cancelled the picture had he know of the pregnancy.
And De Mille made his offer. She was further along and lost the part.
Someone told Desi Arnaz, “You’re the only man I know who screwed Harry Cohn, Cecil B. De Mille and Lucille Ball all at the same time.”
This story has been in several books, including Desi’s autobiography called “A Book.”
According to the book The RKO Girls, this particular pregnancy was a miscarriage. Another pregnancy followed and she had her daughter Lucie in July, 51.

I still wish High Noon or Quiet Man had won the Best Picture Oscar.
I will say that The Greatest Show on Earth is a tribute to the final great days of the circus, although it might not have been intended as that.

I’ll also say I am enjoying all of these Gloria Grahame tributes. I’m learning some stuff and that is always nice.

I’ll conclude with a story about De Mille who considered Billy Wilder a friend. He was anxious to hear Wilder’s opinion and showed him the finished film which Wilder hated. Wilder agonized over what he was going to say. Being Wilder, he came up with a brilliant solution. When the film ended he turned to De Mille and said, “Cecil, you’ve done it. You made The Greatest Show on Earth.”
And he managed to stay true to his conscience and the truth.

Posted By Suzi : August 10, 2009 3:19 pm

Al: Thanks for the clarification. I wondered if you would know, and you did. I wanted to tackle verification by looking in Ball biographies, but I couldn’t get to the library in time.

You’re right that GREATEST SHOW does not measure up to HIGH NOON or QUIET MAN, but it doesn’t deserve to be skewered by 20-year-old Internet reviewers who can’t see the craftsmanship beneath the tastes of another generation.

I am glad we selected Gloria Grahame for the week. I really enjoyed reading about her, and I am enjoying the posts by the other Morlocks.

Posted By Suzi : August 10, 2009 3:19 pm

Al: Thanks for the clarification. I wondered if you would know, and you did. I wanted to tackle verification by looking in Ball biographies, but I couldn’t get to the library in time.

You’re right that GREATEST SHOW does not measure up to HIGH NOON or QUIET MAN, but it doesn’t deserve to be skewered by 20-year-old Internet reviewers who can’t see the craftsmanship beneath the tastes of another generation.

I am glad we selected Gloria Grahame for the week. I really enjoyed reading about her, and I am enjoying the posts by the other Morlocks.

Posted By cinefan1 : August 10, 2009 4:00 pm

sorry suzi, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH has proven to be more important film as it represents a piece of Americana, , capturing the Big Top in its last days , as previously noted probably unintentionally. I saw this wonderful film the first time as a child of 7 or 8 and have seen it many, many times since. It has everything you could want certainly spectacle, drama, comedy, a train wreck that still holds up in todays special effects. Also gives first hand glimpse of what circus people endured in their travels and travails.Any way we,re celebrating Gloria Grahame, whose performance in this film was

Posted By cinefan1 : August 10, 2009 4:00 pm

sorry suzi, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH has proven to be more important film as it represents a piece of Americana, , capturing the Big Top in its last days , as previously noted probably unintentionally. I saw this wonderful film the first time as a child of 7 or 8 and have seen it many, many times since. It has everything you could want certainly spectacle, drama, comedy, a train wreck that still holds up in todays special effects. Also gives first hand glimpse of what circus people endured in their travels and travails.Any way we,re celebrating Gloria Grahame, whose performance in this film was

Posted By Patricia : August 10, 2009 8:48 pm

I have great affection for “The Greatest Show on Earth”. The scenes with Angel and Minyak have always carried with them a bit of uncertainty and fear, now I know why.

Posted By Patricia : August 10, 2009 8:48 pm

I have great affection for “The Greatest Show on Earth”. The scenes with Angel and Minyak have always carried with them a bit of uncertainty and fear, now I know why.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : August 10, 2009 9:03 pm

Count me in on the GREAT SHOW ON EARTH love!

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : August 10, 2009 9:03 pm

Count me in on the GREAT SHOW ON EARTH love!

Posted By Suzi Doll : August 10, 2009 9:21 pm

I am so glad there are so many other fans of this movie. Personally, I like DeMille but generally have to defend that position. Also, the knocks this movie takes on the ‘Net just burns me.

Posted By Suzi Doll : August 10, 2009 9:21 pm

I am so glad there are so many other fans of this movie. Personally, I like DeMille but generally have to defend that position. Also, the knocks this movie takes on the ‘Net just burns me.

Posted By debbe : August 10, 2009 10:21 pm

pretty fascinating Suzidoll. Like you, I liked learning more about Gloria Grahame. I remember seeing the greatest show in earth and being upset by it… but i cant remember why. very interesting discussion about lucille ball as well. Ahhh the old studio system… was it better then? Or better now?

Posted By debbe : August 10, 2009 10:21 pm

pretty fascinating Suzidoll. Like you, I liked learning more about Gloria Grahame. I remember seeing the greatest show in earth and being upset by it… but i cant remember why. very interesting discussion about lucille ball as well. Ahhh the old studio system… was it better then? Or better now?

Posted By Jenni : August 10, 2009 10:22 pm

3 Cheers for TGSOE. I also saw it first as a child,on “The Big Show” movie program afterschool. I think the tv station out of Toledo, OH showed it as a 2 parter, which made me anxious to get home from school and see how the movie would end. Since that time, I have seen it as an adult, and last year I had my kids watch it with me, and they all liked it. They even commented that the train wreck scene was pretty good considering it used special effects without computers! My kids often ask me why I tivo so many “old movies” and I tell them that the acting, plots, storylines, are so much better than much of the movies produced today. My oldest will soon be 18, and it has been gratifying when he tells his younger siblings, that mom is right, this movie she tivoed is a really good one, so watch it with her. :)

Posted By Jenni : August 10, 2009 10:22 pm

3 Cheers for TGSOE. I also saw it first as a child,on “The Big Show” movie program afterschool. I think the tv station out of Toledo, OH showed it as a 2 parter, which made me anxious to get home from school and see how the movie would end. Since that time, I have seen it as an adult, and last year I had my kids watch it with me, and they all liked it. They even commented that the train wreck scene was pretty good considering it used special effects without computers! My kids often ask me why I tivo so many “old movies” and I tell them that the acting, plots, storylines, are so much better than much of the movies produced today. My oldest will soon be 18, and it has been gratifying when he tells his younger siblings, that mom is right, this movie she tivoed is a really good one, so watch it with her. :)

Posted By medusamorlock : August 11, 2009 9:20 am

Great post on Grahame and TGSOE! I always watch it whenever it’s on — it’s big and weird and fun and of course I love the tightly-wound Heston and the whole circus milieu. I think the bad rap the movie has now is also partly a knock on people-pleasin’ DeMille, whose style is, as you say, not along contemporary lines. (Except, I would say, animated films designed for all-family viewing certainly embrace every bit of his sentimentality and all the other qualities, to much success.)

There is something amazing about Grahame in this, and of course her elephant scenes are wonderful. She comes off as a real trouper in the movie, and you wouldn’t necessarily have thought her capable of it. Betty Hutton, yes…not so much Miss Grahame. She’s also amusing and saucy in it. Quite delightful!

And I always loved the reveal of Cornel Wilde’s mangled hand…yikes! And he’s so positive and good-natured about it — delightful role for him, also!

Great post, Suzi!

Posted By medusamorlock : August 11, 2009 9:20 am

Great post on Grahame and TGSOE! I always watch it whenever it’s on — it’s big and weird and fun and of course I love the tightly-wound Heston and the whole circus milieu. I think the bad rap the movie has now is also partly a knock on people-pleasin’ DeMille, whose style is, as you say, not along contemporary lines. (Except, I would say, animated films designed for all-family viewing certainly embrace every bit of his sentimentality and all the other qualities, to much success.)

There is something amazing about Grahame in this, and of course her elephant scenes are wonderful. She comes off as a real trouper in the movie, and you wouldn’t necessarily have thought her capable of it. Betty Hutton, yes…not so much Miss Grahame. She’s also amusing and saucy in it. Quite delightful!

And I always loved the reveal of Cornel Wilde’s mangled hand…yikes! And he’s so positive and good-natured about it — delightful role for him, also!

Great post, Suzi!

Posted By myidolspencer : August 26, 2009 8:33 pm

Susie, though I of course respect *OSCAR winner: Gloria Grahame’s work, her 1952 victory for “The Bad and the Beautiful” as almost all agree was easily among the AMPAS’ biggest “SINS OF OMISSION” in regard to her winning over the marvelous Jean Hagen in “Singin’ in the Rain!” It was obviously more of it’s usual example of her turning out/appearing in a few other flix that same year that swayed voters. & also-(NOTE: Danny Peary of the book “Alternate OSCARS” personally voted her Best Actress for ’53′s “Big Heat”)
& she deserved a #2nd nom. for this 1, as well.

THANK YOU

Posted By myidolspencer : August 26, 2009 8:33 pm

Susie, though I of course respect *OSCAR winner: Gloria Grahame’s work, her 1952 victory for “The Bad and the Beautiful” as almost all agree was easily among the AMPAS’ biggest “SINS OF OMISSION” in regard to her winning over the marvelous Jean Hagen in “Singin’ in the Rain!” It was obviously more of it’s usual example of her turning out/appearing in a few other flix that same year that swayed voters. & also-(NOTE: Danny Peary of the book “Alternate OSCARS” personally voted her Best Actress for ’53′s “Big Heat”)
& she deserved a #2nd nom. for this 1, as well.

THANK YOU

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