The circus traveled by rail as demonstrated in Cecil B. DeMille’s Technicolor masterpiece of 1952. Winning the Oscar for Best Picture, this is the film that made Charlton Heston a star.
For this review, I concentrated on circus scenes that had trains in the background. Some highlights include an Atlantic Coast Line (ACL) steam locomotive and caboose, a Pennsy GG-1 electric and a elaborately-detailed scale model of the two circus trains.
Our review begins 19 minutes into the movie as the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus (RBandB&B) prepares to leave its Winter Quarters in Sarasota, Florida.
It took hundreds, if not thousands of people to operate the circus. As wagons of equipment are loaded piggyback-style on the left, performers and support staff prepare to board the passenger train on the right.
Circus Manager Brad Braden (played by Charlton Heston) is a jack-of-all-trades seen here coordinating with the Ring Master from his red Jeep, pulling a wagon with a tractor and then loading said wagon onto a railroad flat car.
Making his grand entrance with a police “escort” (he’s wanted for unpaid debts) comes “The Great Sebastian” (played by Cornel Wilde). Due to his popularity (he draws lots of customers to see his trapeze act), he is brought in to join the tour. As he drives along we get some great views of both the equipment wagons on flatcars and the passenger train.
Isn’t that a sweet, little 1950 Jaguar 120 he’s piloting? (Thanks for the ID, Mark!)
As the train starts off on its long journey, a little blessing from the priest wouldn’t hurt. You can just make out 426 on the cab of this ACL P-3 class 4-6-2 Pacific steam locomotive. Built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1914, ACL #426 was scrapped shortly after filming wrapped. Courtesy of Classic Trains magazine, I have included a black and white picture of sister P-3 locomotive #429 for comparison.
As the train pulls out, we can briefly see most of the principal actors crammed into the vestibules. Starting clockwise on car 58, I can see Dorothy Lamour, Cordel Wilde, Charlton Heston, Gloria Grahame and Betty Hutton.
Finally, we get our best glimpse of ACL M-3 class caboose #0447 built in 1926 at ACL’s Waycross, GA shops. I love those sun shades on the windows! Thanks to rrpicturearchives.net, I was able to find a black and white image of #0447.
Atlantic Coast Line referred to their cabooses as “cabs”.
A Pennsylvania Railroad GG-1 pulls the circus train under catenary as an elephant waves a farewell from his own ventilated boxcar.
Still in electrified territory (IMDb Trivia states these scenes were filmed in what is now the Meadowlands stadium parking lot in New Jersey), we see the unloading of enormous tent poles as well as a classic walking the elephants nose-to-tail towards the venue.
There were many “cameos” of circus audience members watching the show. Mostly these were just ordinary folks, but watching Dorothy Lamour’s act, we find none other than Bob Hope and Bing Crosby munching popcorn and taking it all in.
Hope and Crosby coincidentally starred with Lamour in several of their “Road” pictures including 1952’s “Road to Bali”.
After a show, performers take a break alongside their train. Many of the cars were named after states as well as given numbers.
Here’s a close up of the model steam locomotive used for filming the night train scenes. Notice the green classification lights which indicated a section following.
Movie-makers built an elaborate layout and models for filming. In the case of RBandB&B, two trains were used. The first section was the “freight” (animals and equipment). The second section was the passenger train carrying the performers.
Which leads us into the climactic train wreck scene. You KNEW a train wreck was inevitable with Cecil B. DeMille directing, right?
Anyway, these two characters plan to rob the pay car which is near the end of the first section. So, there’s old Klaus (played with wonderfully eeeee-vil malice by Lyle Bettger) planting a red fusee to stop the first section, then drive with his confederate down to the caboose which is close to the pay car.
I like how the miscreants cower as the locomotive passes, then stops at the red signal.
Good views of the pay car wagon and caboose (love all those lanterns!).
Bastard Klaus brutally bashes the brakeman (who was going back to flag the second section as prescribed by rules). The loot is handed down from the wagon and the thieves begin to make their escape in a 1948-1950 Chrysler convertible (Thanks again, Mark!).
Meanwhile, the passenger train is coming up fast, unaware of the danger ahead (apparently this line has no block signals).
We get some good interior shots of the “pie car” (the diner) and also Charlton Heston having a chat with James Stewart. There’s a back story as to why Jimmy is wearing clown makeup throughout the picture, but we won’t get into that.
Sebastian has invaded the girls-only sleeping car! I like the homey touches like nicer curtains in this section sleeper and of course the feminine pulchritude stacked two deep. ;p
Klaus didn’t think his cunning plan all the way through. Too late, he realizes his unrequited-love girlfriend is on the second section. Madly, he dispatches his partner, then drives the Chrysler down the tracks making a great face in a vain attempt to stop them.
Good view of the engine crew in the cab as Klaus makes a final, splendid gesture. The locomotive sends the Chrysler flying up in the air, end-over-end.
I’m guessing it would have actually pushed the car down the track or off to one side, but this is Hollywood.
Crunch! Sparks flying, the model train continues on and smashes into the caboose of the first section.
(DeMille shouting): I want wreckage! Twisted metal!
Uh-oh, Mister Tiger is loose and boy is he MAD!
Oh no, Charlton Heston is trapped! In a flash of inspiration, Gloria Grahame fetches her elephant to lift the heavy metal off our hero.
As they say, “the show must go on”. Gamely, the performers somehow make it to the next town and stage a parade down main street.
Nice balloons, Dorothy! I’m loving all the detail and signs in the background (DeSoto Hotel, Railway Express Agency, Western Union, Palmer First National Bank, etc.). I’m thinking this scene was filmed in Sarasota, Florida (Palmer FNB was headquartered near there).
Whew, what a spectacular movie! Coming in at over two and a half hours, I left off a great deal of the film (particularly the performances under the big top). Sadly, RBandB&B no longer operates (ceasing train operations about 2017). However, you can still visit the circus museum in Sarasota.
Here’s what IMDb has to say about The Greatest Show on Earth:
If you have ANY information about this movie you’d like to share, please contact me at: Lindsay.Korst@gmail.com, or leave a comment. Thanks and enjoy the blog!
Ohhhhh, Tiger!!!!!!!! I know, I know, it’s a train blog – thanks hunny. xoxo
Isn’t he the cutest thing? 🐅🐯