P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Showman: Razzle Dazzle and Not Much Else

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu. 

“There’s a sucker born every minute.” –   P.T. Barnum

     All of those people who saw the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus over the years, deliriously happy kids holding their hands, may not have been suckers, but there sure were a lot of them – millions of them – and they would all cringe at the mangling of the P.T. Barnum story presented in the new film about him, The Great Showman, starring Hugh Jackman.

     The Greatest Showman, produced by Chernin Entertainment, TSG Entertainment and Twentieth Century Fox, that opened in theaters Wednesday, is something, but it isn’t the charismatic story of the mercurial and controversial Barnum, the circus genius, a show in himself, a man who became an American icon, a household word and known throughout the world, and perhaps the universe, too (they’ve got to have big elephants, clown cars and trapeze daredevils on Venus, don’t they?).

    The movie about nineteenth century entertainment is a lot of razzle dazzle and not much else.

      The over-sized Barnum, the KIng of the Circus and the King of Publicity, too, led an amazing life. He was a newspaper editor, started his own museum in New York in the middle of the eighteenth century, ran a state wide lottery business, created the “freak show,” began the American circus, “the greatest show on earth,” produced the coast to coast tour of “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind in 1850, gave the world Tom Thumb, a dwarf, the Siamese Twins, the Feegee Mermaid and discovered the Cardiff giant. Not enough to get you to buy a ticket to his shows? OK, he even introduced an African-American woman he found somewhere and convinced people that she was George Washington’s 161-year-old nurse. He wrote his autobiography that sold so many copies that it was said to be the number two selling-book in North America in the latter quarter of the 19th century. The Bible was number one.

   Have I left anything out? Oh, yes, he was also a politician and served two terms as a state legislator in Connecticut and one as Mayor of Bridgeport (he ran for Congress once but lost). He lived in not one, not two, not three, but four spectacular mansions in Bridgeport.

    That was his story. The movie story is quite different.

     The Great Showman is directed by first timer Michael Gracey and written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon. The music is by the pair that wrote the songs for La La Land, so you’ve got to expect a lot of La La Land boy and girl romances in the film and thousands of people dancing in the streets, but they all really go overboard with pizazz and lots of noise and miss the controversial story of Barnum in this movie. The result is a very boring and artificial movie, a show biz fantasy with lots of songs that could have been about Irving Berlin, Sergeant York or Davey Crockett. In fact, Crockett in his coonskin cap and rifle Old Betsy might have looked good in some of the dance numbers.

    The movie is grand larceny of history.

    Here is Barnum’s story, according to the film: he was the son of a tailor (dad was really a storeowner and just a part time tailor), had two little girls (he had four), had a romantic fling with Jenny Lind (he did not), created the circus with Philip Carlyle (it was James Bailey), went broke on the Lind tour (he made $15 million in today’s money in profit on the tour), and met his first elephant in the middle 1850s (it was after the Civil War). New York Herald critic James Gordon Bennett constantly harassed Barnum (Bennett was the paper’s editor and did not write reviews).

      On the music side, The Greatest Showman has, the best I can figure it, one song that has a whole lot of different lyrics (oh well, so did La La Land). You walk out of the theater and ask yourself how they filled up two hours with one song played 457 different ways, none of them memorable. There is always somebody singing something and it gets annoying.

     The real trouble with the movie is that it totally distorted the life of Barnum, who was at the same time a good guy and bad guy (I worked for the RIngling Bros., Barnum & Bailey circus for a few months, part-time, in 1990 and researched Barnum thoroughly) and in doing so misrepresents America in the middle of the 1800s and poisons our view of history. There is also little history in the film about New York in the middle of the 1800s, a wild time. Oh, there are hundreds of period costumes and old looking sets, but no real information about the era.

    A scene I would like to have seen was the fame and money hungry Barnum’s last days. He was so afraid of what people might think of him that he when he was about to die he convinced a newspaper to publish his obituary early so that he could read it. In one of his final acts, just hours before his death, he called the circus box office to see how many tickets were sold to the show that day.

    The acting in the movie is quite good, thankfully. Jackman, the star of numerous films and stage plays, is terrific as Barnum as is Zac Efron as his made-up business partner Carlyle, Michelle Williams as his wife and Rebecca Ferguson as Jenny Lind.  They sing, they dance, they argue, they fail and they succeed.

     What the movie director and screenwriter never discovered was how Barnum became so successful in a country that was just busting open in the middle of the nineteenth century. How did he succeed with his freaks, frauds and bellowing elephants?

   Simple – he gave the American people what they wanted. It worked in ancient Rome and it works today. They wanted a tiny Tom Thumb to ooh and aah over; he found them one. He even gave him a title, a General, put him on a horse and stuck a sword in his hand. You wanted a bearded lady, ten-foot-tall giants; he found them. People bought tickets to see all of them, and to watch his circus and his colorful clowns later. If the people did not want to do that he would not have succeeded.

     He also succeeded because his customers in 1860 were far different than today. His heralded sideshows of freaks worked in the 1880s, but so aggravated people that by the 1960s they had pretty much ended. Protestors who decried his treatment of various animals, particularly elephants, eventually forced his circus to close last spring. In history, things change and the big top is no more.

   Was there a sucker born every minute in the nineteenth century, though? Of course there was, and they are today, too. 

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