The Greatest Show on Earth
A beautiful trapeze artist is torn between the circus manager and the new star who has moved her out of the center ring while a clown avoids his past.
Circus manager Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) argues with the board for a full season and says he got the Great Sebastian under contract for that period. Trapeze artist Holly (Betty Hutton) kisses Brad, who announces they have to make a profit. Holly is upset she is losing the center ring. She talks with the clown Buttons (James Stewart) about love and assumes he has a girl somewhere.
The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) drives up to the train in a sports car, and Brad has to pay $100 for his traffic tickets. Phyllis (Dorothy Lamour) and Angel (Gloria Grahame) know Sebastian, who offers Holly the center ring. Brad tells her no.
In the show Holly competes against Sebastian on the high wire without a net, and she almost falls. Brad tells them to stick to their act. Angel tells Holly that Brad is nuts about her. During the parade Buttons clowns and is warned by his mother in the stands that they are looking for him.
Spectators count as Holly tries for a record. Brad shows Angel the frayed rope. Sebastian romances Holly, but Angel has an elephant take Holly to Brad, who shows her the rope and says the rigging was not right for her record. Brad asks Holly to stop dueling Sebastian. Angel rejects Klaus (Lyle Bettger), and Harry (John Kellogg) suggests that Klaus needs money. Sebastian pursues Holly on the trapeze, and Holly tells Brad to marry her. Brad throws the crooked Harry out into a mud puddle.
Phyllis sings. Mr. Henderson (Lawrence Tierney) objects to Brad removing his games. Sebastian takes down the net. He tries a double flip and falls. Brad and Buttons carry him off as the show goes on. Buttons gives Sebastian first aid.
On a trampoline Holly and Buttons sing as they bounce. Sebastian comes back, and Holly is glad to see him. Sebastian tells Brad that he is going to work for Columbia, but Brad exposes his crippled arm. Brad offers him a job, but Sebastian leaves. Holly feels guilty and tells Brad she is going with Sebastian. Holly tries to help Sebastian and says she loves him. Angel tells Holly that she is going after Brad.
Holly shows Buttons a newspaper about a doctor who killed his love. Angel serves Brad coffee and prepares his pipe. Harry offers Klaus money. Brad rescues Angel from Klaus and an elephant and fires Klaus. Sebastian sells balloons. FBI agent Gregory (Henry Wilcoxon) shows Brad a photo of Buttons and says he is wanted for killing his ill wife. Brad warns Buttons about the cop, and Buttons says that Sebastian may recover. Brad provokes Sebastian into moving his arm.
Klaus and Harry stop the train and rob the cash. Klaus thinks of Angel and puts his car on the track to stop the train, which is wrecked. Lions escape. Brad is stuck, and Angel says he is bleeding. An elephant helps free Brad as Holly arrives. Holly asks Buttons to save bleeding Brad. Buttons draws type-AB blood from Sebastian and gives it to Brad, who passes out. Holly takes over organizing an outdoor show.
They parade in town, and Holly sings. People follow the parade to the circus. Gregory arrests Buttons, who gives his dog to a child. Brad tells Holly that he loves her. Sebastian agrees to marry Angel.
This drama portrays the life of a traveling circus that soon will no longer be able to travel in the same way. The animals and professional performers add to the entertainment value while the love stories play out, though the frenzy to put on a show hours after a major train wreck stretches credibility.