Monday, September 9, 2013


In surveying the options in my mental vending machine for an appropriate beginning to this post, nothing in particular stood out to me other than to simply say I enjoyed this film. I didn’t love it. However, there is something about it that I can’t quite put my finger on, kind of like Olivia Williams’ allure in Rushmore. But despite not feeling over the moon for From Here to Eternity, it still managed to pull me in just enough to be entertained, which I know by saying that makes it seem as though the lyric in Smells like Teen Spirit is directly referencing me. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t settle down to watch this film like some jaded, entitled teenager waiting to be entertained now. But to me, From Here to Eternity seemed like a product intended to be consumed primarily for its entertaining qualities. It’s a fairly soapy portrait of life in the army that plants seeds into some complex terrain, without waiting around for them to bloom. While the script certainly puts the spotlight on many grave and thorny subjects; but with a script stuffed full of multiple mini-narratives each demanding their own dramatic structure, the film simply doesn’t have the luxury of time to plunge too deeply into any one plot with memorable satisfaction. The irony in saying this is that I’m sure for its time, audiences considered From Here to Eternity’s treatment of topics like adultery, prostitution, corruption and murder to be edgy and fearlessly examined. To be of the opinion that the film doesn’t feel complete and thorough is perhaps a product of being raised on modern-day cinema where just about anything goes. Ultimately, I think what lifts the tide of From Here to Eternity are the all-around strong performances by everyone from the lead to the periphery players. Given their task of acting against such divided screen time, the cast felt like a band of overachievers, making the most of the moments they do have, even if it’s just a fleeting kiss on the beach. 

Directed by Fred Zinnemann, who also helmed other noteworthy films such as High Noon and A Man for All Seasons, From Here to Eternity caused an instant sensation with audiences and critics alike. Even the Academy caught the fever, honoring the film with an amazing 13 nominations, eventually awarding it eight statuettes, including the one for Best Picture in 1953. As further evidence of the film’s roster of solid performances, From Here to Eternity compiled five acting nominations for its leads Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed, with the latter two taking home the Golden Boys in the Supporting Actor categories. To date, the only other films to boast the achievement of garnering five acting nominations among its overall tally are Mrs. Miniver, All About Eve, On the Waterfront, Peyton Place, Tom Jones, Bonnie and Clyde, Network and The Godfather, Part II. 

From Here to Eternity is a busy and ambitious plot of ground simultaneously fertilizing several crisscrossing storylines. The chief plot of ground in question is the Schofield Barracks nestled in Hawaii during the months and weeks leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The audience is introduced to the setting of Schofield Barracks by the arrival of Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift), a new transfer from Fort Shafter. Prewitt soon encounters trouble from his commanding officer Captain Dana Holmes, who is adamant that Prewitt employ his boxing talents to help the regimental boxing team win the title. When Prewitt refuses Holmes’ offer, the latter makes army life miserable for the former with a carousel of trumped up punishments. Eventually, Prewitt finds escape in the arms of Lorene (Donna Reed), a nighttime princess working in a popular gentleman’s club.

Meanwhile, First Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster) initiates a clandestine and tense love affair with Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr), the wife of his boss Captain Holmes. The passion travels deep, but Warden also harbors a deep suspicion of Karen, upon hearing rumors of her past promiscuities. Confronting Karen on these rumors, Warden learns that Karen’s drive to cheat is fueled by bitterness toward her husband and his drunken actions that caused her to miscarriage years earlier, leaving her unable to have children. Wounded souls in their own way, both Warden and Karen struggle throughout the film to develop sincere trust and assurance in the stability of their relationship, ultimately picking it apart at the seams. 

Finally, in a somewhat less central plotline, Private Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra) becomes Prewitt’s scrappy pal, a move born out of his disgust toward the mistreatment directed at Prewitt over his refusal to box. Unpredictable and hot-headed, Maggio becomes entangled with James Judson, the Sergeant of the Guard at the stockade, one night at a local watering hole over Judson’s piano playing. Their escalating conflict culminates with Judson basically beating Maggio to death during his stint in the stockade. In an act of revenge, Prewitt confronts Judson in an alleyway, fatally stabbing him. 

As evinced from this plot summation, there is a lot going in From Here to Eternity. While I would say there is ranking of interest level amongst the various characters and plotlines, I wouldn’t go so far as to say none of them were compelling. When the film bounds from conflict to conflict, they each confidently grab the baton and sustain the film’s overall momentum. However, as mentioned earlier, to me each of these adventures never feel fully realized. For example, the affair between Karen and Warden could have sustained an entire film by itself. It’s an interesting situation fraught with competing emotions of anger, confusion and love, spiked with suspense generated by the danger that Karen is the wife of Warden’s vindictive and corrupt boss. Further heightening this risk to Warden is the fact that Karen is completely open with her husband, Captain Holmes, of the fact that she is having an affair, which serves to ignite the cuckold Captain’s demands to discover the identity of the mystery man. 

However, due to the film’s obligation to spread the wealth of time and attention to the other characters and their conflicts, Karen and Warden’s affair only hints at its potential for dramatic fireworks. It basically assembles the explosives, sets up the fuse and retreats from ever sparking it. Captain Holmes’ jealousy and wounded pride never voyage beyond the shallow, ultimately blunting the situation of its natural edge. Even the ultimate resolution to the whole affair felt unbelievable and contrived for the sake of narrative convenience. After much discussion, Karen and Warden decide the only way they can be together is for Warden to become an officer so that he can return to the mainland, paving the way for the two of them to marry. But Warden can’t bring himself to apply for officer status, given his dislike for officers and intense anxiety at the potential for becoming what he disdains, a move that effectively cleaves the two apart. I couldn’t buy into this line of reasoning because if Warden really disliked officers that much, then how is he able to serve them in an administrative capacity without any hesitation? Furthermore, the impression given is that Warden holds his contempt towards officers on moral grounds. But for someone who has no problem entering into a morally treacherous affair with his boss’ wife, it becomes overly difficult to loan moral credibility to Warden on the issue concerning his stance on becoming an officer. Given the luxury of more time, I think the film could’ve have explored and resolved Karen and Warden’s affair with a more effective alternative, as opposed to the tenuous option that played out.  

Despite these faults, I will say the iconic scene of Karen and Warden on the beach in concentrated embrace as the surf brushes up over them discharges an undeniable passion. It’s interesting that this scene should be so effective, given that it is literally only a few seconds in length. At the time, it was apparently highly controversial. Censorship officials insisted that Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster not touch each other in certain ways, and Kerr had to wear a short skirt over her bathing suit. In the final iteration of the scene, the censorship office found objection with the element of water rushing up over them during their embrace, citing that it was too erotic. Obviously these objections didn’t prove to be too intense, as the surf remained intact in the finished product. However, I have no idea how Burt Lancaster's haircut made it past any censorship boards. It looks like they cut his hair with a weed eater and then combed it with a chicken bone before letting him go on set.

Anyway, I think the most surprising aspect of this scene, and really the entire film, is Deborah Kerr’s performance. Up until this point in her career, Kerr had put polish on a succession of roles calling for refinement and manners. Even after playing Karen Holmes, Kerr turned in other high-profile performances that tapped into her talents of exuding goodness and grace in such iconic films as The King and I and An Affair to Remember. But From Here to Eternity is a textbook move of casting against type to great effect, much like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. It afforded Kerr the opportunity to cultivate a different nature onscreen, of being cold and hostile, while still bringing out a smoldering sensuality. As Karen, Kerr is entirely convincing in her tragic brittleness and simmering abandonment, maybe a little too convincing. It’s as though her string of previously buttoned-up roles had the effect of suppressing an artistically untamed sexy side that had been anxiously searching to find an outlet. I’ve always known Kerr best for The King and I and An Affair to Remember, and I find it difficult to wrap my mind around the fact that it’s the same actress in From Here to Eternity. On that note alone, From Here to Eternity is ultimately a trip worth taking.
Favorite Line: During one of their tense conversations, Karen and Warden have a brief exchange that, although somewhat cheesy, is the finest of the film.

Warden: I’ve never been so miserable in my life as I have since I met you.
Karen: Neither have I.
Warden: I wouldn’t trade a minute of it.
Karen: Neither would I.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Since its release, The Greatest Show on Earth has become a staple on critics’ personal lists citing the worst films to have won the Oscar for Best Picture. Not that one should always bend to the winds of the general society of film critics, but in the case I’m inclined to tip my hat in acquiescence to the professionals in this case. It’s not without a modicum of irony that The Greatest Show on Earth has become tethered to this dubious distinction because it retains many of the standard qualities befitting a Best Picture caliber film: It’s full of pageantry and spectacle, tension and romance, suspense and action, and all of the highest order. So where exactly did things go wrong? Unfortunately, it felt as though it placed a little too much concentration on all of those elements, and not enough on the ones that truly matter, such as plot and character development. The end product is a paradox, being an overstuffed epic that is generally hollow and empty. 

Directed by the always ambitious and visionary Cecile B. DeMille, The Greatest Show on Earth secured five Academy Award nominations, adding to its troupe two Oscars, including the prize for Best Picture in 1952. The film marked DeMille’s only competitive victory at the Oscars, leading many to theorize that Academy voters considered this to perhaps be their last chance to honor DeMille, thus accounting for the film’s ability to take home the grand prize over fellow nominated classics such as The Quiet Man, High Noon and Singin’ in the Rain. But whatever the reason propelling it to victory, I think The Greatest Show on Earth stands as an example of a Best Picture winning film that is a reflection of its moment in time, like Going My Way or You Can’t Take it with You. For that reason, its Oscar glory has subsequently withered on the vine. 

As its title suggests, The Greatest Show on Earth is set in the world of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. The center ring of the film’s plot focuses on Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde as competing trapeze artists who push each other to the edge in their bids to garner the most oohs, awes and applause. On the ground, they form two points of an obtuse love triangle, completed by the circus’ no-nonsense manager, played with steely resolve by Charlton Heston. Several other supplementary subplots occur in the peripheral rings with various members of the circus gang, most notably one involving the circus’ beloved clown Buttons, played by Jimmy Stewart. 

In terms of visuals, there can be no argument that The Greatest Show on Earth is a shower of sequins, dazzling the viewer with a kaleidoscope of costumes, curiosities and conviviality. The film features several actual circus performers, who are all seemingly given their moment in the spotlight, whether it is the grand elephant ballet or the woman spinning an oversized ball on the soles of her feet. Not only are these moments entertaining to watch, but they also impart a certain sense of fascination in terms of seeing a somewhat old-fashioned form of entertainment near the height of its popularity. In fact, for considerable stretches of the film, The Greatest Show on Earth takes on an almost documentary-like tone, as several scenes present various performances in a single, unedited take. Further enhancing this mood is the insider, observatory view the film captures regarding such aspects as the life of a circus performer and the sheer logistics of packing up and moving the Big Top from city to city. 

It’s clear that The Greatest Show on Earth is DeMille’s valentine to the circus. His intent with this film seems to be channeling his love and respect for the old past time by preserving the artistry and spectacle of it on celluloid for generations to enjoy. In a way, it’s endearing and compelling to watch what could arguably be called a really, really big passion project. But I think in trying to craft this film, DeMille is juggling too many plot lines, characters and other elements that it became inevitable that something would be left by the wayside. Unfortunately, in this case it’s the narrative and the characters that become the victims, as they never really achieve a level of depth and complication that even begins to approach significant and meaningful. The problem with the story is that DeMille ultimately sacrifices form over content. As I mentioned earlier, the film takes frequent and prolonged detours away from the story in order to put the circus on full display. It felt similar to The Great Ziegfeld when that film took endless amounts of time to showcase the Ziegfeld Follies in all of their feathered splendor. The resulting problem in The Great Ziegfeld is the same one experienced by The Greatest Show on Earth: The devotion of too much screen time in showcasing the circus creates a serious imbalance, killing any attempt at plot momentum, which ultimately prevents it from being able to gain any real traction.

One of the sour fruits of this situation is that the actors are left with a script that leaves them little material to work with, causing many of the performances to feel overly melodramatic and superficial. This negative effect is on full display, especially in the forms of the two sparring trapeze artists played by Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde. The tone of their acting is exaggerated and overly expressive; a style that feels more appropriate for the theater or a silent film. Hutton in particular felt overly cartoonish and almost childish to me in several scenes, specifically when she is engaged in her soapy internal tug-of-war in deciding whom it is she truly loves, which, unfortunately, is for a large swath of the film. It’s a shame that the script didn’t offer Hutton, Wilde and the rest of the principals a broader landscape on which to roam because it could have afforded a fascinating look into the emotional, mental and physical pressures rooted in touring with a circus. In the case of Hutton’s character, the interest factor is heightened and full of complex potential, stemming from the fact that she is a woman struggling for equality in a male dominated arena. More attention and exploration into that dynamic could have yielded a more multi-dimensional study into the endeavor of jamming social molds.

A footnote complaint for me about this film is the character of Buttons the clown. I just could never get on board with the plight of this pitiful clown and take him seriously. Maybe this is due to watching a film version of Stephen King’s “It” at young age and forever being freaked out by clowns. But nevertheless, I grew up in a time where clowns have generally been associated with perverts or predators. It seems like every representation of a clown in modern popular culture is negative, from the Joker in The Dark Knight to the drunken birthday clown in Uncle Buck. As I was watching The Greatest Show on Earth, it made me realize how deeply this view of clowns has taken root in my psyche, because not even the lovable Jimmy Stewart could alter my feeling towards clowns with his heroic and redemptive turn as poor Buttons.

In the end, while the circus may actually be the greatest show on earth, The Greatest Show on Earth is not the greatest film on earth. It is far from it, a fact made all the more obvious given that some of its fellow nominees in the Best Picture category have proven themselves victorious opponents of time. Perhaps the fate of The Greatest Show on Earth was resigned to be an unremarkable one, given the decline of the circus’ popularity since the film’s release. It’s a difficult task for a film to retain classic status when its subject matter feels dated and slow, particularly in comparison with more evolved versions of the circus, like Cirque de Soleil. This serves to only enhance the core mistake made by The Greatest Show on Earth, which was to make its characters and plot secondary and underdeveloped. If a film has characters and a story that people care about, it won’t have to work so hard to keep its membership in the classic film club. 

Favorite Line: During the film’s establishing shots, Cecile B. DeMille delivers stirring and thundering narration of the circus, making it a thrilling and captivating speech that sets up the film with an appropriate flare and style.
"We bring you the circus — that Pied Piper whose magic tunes lead children of all ages, from 6 to 60, into a tinseled and spun-candied world of reckless beauty and mounting laughter; whirling thrills; of rhythm, excitement and grace; of daring, enflaring and dance; of high-stepping horses and high-flying stars.

"But behind all this, the circus is a massive machine whose very life depends on discipline, motion and speed . . . a mechanized army on wheels that rolls over any obstacle in its path . . . that meets calamity again and again, but always comes up smiling . . . a place where disaster and tragedy stalk the Big Top, haunt the backyards, and ride the circus rails . . . where Death is constantly watching for one frayed rope, one weak link, or one trace of fear.

"A fierce, primitive fighting force that smashes relentlessly forward against impossible odds: That is the circus. And this is the story of the biggest of the Big Tops . . . and of the men and women who fight to make it — The Greatest Show on Earth! "