The result of the 1952 Best Picture race was among the first that shocked me when I first learned of it so many years ago. It was 1990, and I had recently seen High Noon at my grandfather's recommendation. I was 18 or 19 and quite taken with High Noon's themes of courage and duty. I was especially impressed with Gary Cooper's performance. His very screen presence captivated me. Thankfully, he won (his second) Best Actor Oscar that year, his second, though Leonard Maltin claimed it was "Cooper's only Oscar" in the old VHS edition of High Noon. I must’ve watched the movie a dozen times or so in an embarrassingly short amount of time and even more so when I became all the more enamored with old cinema in 1997; it remains a favorite today. One day around the time I had discovered the movie, I was leafing through my Inside Oscar book (the edition with the red cover), I was flabbergasted and in denial when I saw the winner’s asterisk next to the empty entertainment “spectacle”, The Greatest Show on Earth. I was further surprised to discover that a Western had only won Best Picture one time, when Cimarron pulled off the feat in 1930. Anyway, I had seen The Greatest Show on Earth as a child and while it was chock full of notable stars, it was a less-than-memorable two hours. In fact, it’s only memorable if you carry the youthful trauma of having been savagely beaten by angry clowns.
By the way, I happen to like the circus; went to one as a kid.
The Greatest Show on Earth is by no means an awful film; it’s nice, well-made entertainment, like the circus. It’s definitely not Best Picture material and it’s not a work of art, but Demille was due, so the Academy lavished his circus drama with the top prize. It’s just a shame that the more deserving High Noon was denied Best Picture. I’d have an easier time accepting any other nominee winning instead of The Greatest Show on Earth. The other contestants that year were Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge, and The Quiet Man. It's a travesty in itself that for fifty-nine years, the Western never won Best Picture. Only 1931's Cimarron pulled that feat; it wouldn't be until 1990 when Dances With Wolves finally earned Oscar's greatest prize. It pains me deeply to think of all the Western films that didn't win, or even worse, never even nominated.
The accepted reason why this won Best Picture is because it was the industry’s tribute to director Cecil B. Demille. I understand that, but why not just give him the Best Director Oscar—it went to John Ford for The Quiet Man—or why not just be content with the Thalberg Award, which is what they also gave him? Did the Academy have to derail Fred Zinneman’s masterwork? They sure did!
Greatest is never remembered as one of the finest motion pictures of all time and it sure isn’t; whereas High Noon, despite the subsequent over emphasis on the political allegory it’s supposed to be (I don’t buy it), is still one of the finest Westerns ever made. The cinematography, direction, music, Cooper, and the entire supporting cast are tremendous. High Noon has achieved immortality among great movies while Greatest is largely forgotten. You’d have to remind yourself that James Stewart was in this and it doesn’t figure prominently in the careers of anyone involved except for them to say they worked with Demille.
High Noon's director, Fred Zinneman, would get a measure of redemption the next year, when From Here to Eternity crushed all opposition, but High Noon losing Best Picture still hurts.