After pioneering sex and spectacle in Hollywood's silent era, director-producer Cecil B. DeMille spent a couple of decades plodding through marginally distinguished Westerns, romances, and period adventures. At the dawn of the '50s, DeMille was coasting on his reputation as Hollywood's premier showman ambassador (and host of the Lux Radio Theater). Then he scored a surprise Best Picture win at the Academy Awards for the 1952 melodrama The Greatest Show On Earth, which he followed in 1956 with his final film, the Passover perennial The Ten Commandments, which wrapped his directorial career with a flourish.
Going out on top didn't do much for DeMille's critical reputation, however. The Greatest Show On Earth, now on DVD in a bare-bones edition, is often considered the worst Best Picture Oscar-winner, with its bloated two-and-a-half-hour length, hammy acting, and overheated tale of love and lies under the big top. There's not much juice to the movie's central romantic triangle between money-minded boss Charlton Heston and his two star attractions, dueling trapeze artists Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde. Still, Jimmy Stewart does some appealingly subtle work as a clown on the run from the law, and DeMille's narration has a charming, corny, true-life-adventure quality, as he hypes the circus as a life-and-death proposition. The movie is mostly parades and circus acts (including turns by real-life legends like Emmett Kelly and The Flying Artonys), peppered with lingo like "kinkers," "roustabouts," and "You've got sawdust in your veins." For all DeMille's obsession with authenticity, though, the film's most documentary-like aspect comes from all the close-ups of kids decked out in '50s finery, eating ice cream, and looking much more real than the spectacle they're watching.
The Greatest Show On Earth's well-photographed pageantry—like Leni Riefenstahl's work, but with clowns instead of Aryans—is, at its worst, merely hokum. Its primary value was in giving DeMille the momentum to tackle his most enduring film, The Ten Commandments. By 1956, DeMille was fully aware of how event movies played for decades past their premières, so he picked an important story (the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, led by Charlton Heston's Moses) and packed it with meticulous historical detail, from the conveniently diaphanous women's clothes to the specifics of how slaves moved pyramid stones. Even given The Ten Commandments' stiff, broad acting, the film remains stunning in its visual grandeur and sense of gravitas. It just feels Biblical.
The new double-disc DVD edition contains a bland behind-the-scenes documentary and a lively commentary track by DeMille historian Katherine Orrison, who's thoroughly enamored of the sets and costumes, but irreverent enough to point out continuity errors. Her mania for minutiae rivals DeMille's, which frees viewers to contemplate where The Ten Commandments' glorification of freedom fits in Eisenhower's America. It could be argued that DeMille's glamorization of Egyptian design is his way of suggesting that the corrupt, decadent Egyptians might have been okay, had they just treated their slaves better. But it's unlikely that DeMille gave the matter much thought at all, given how he preferred, with The Greatest Show On Earth, just to appropriate the exotic and make it seem quintessentially American.