I didn’t expect much more than a bit of diversion from the new film about P.T. Barnum, “The Greatest Showman”. A musical biopic from Hollywood is rarely a source of thoughtful history or powerful emotion. But “Greatest Showman” delivered something unexpected: a morality tale appropriate to 21st-century America.
Phineas Taylor Barnum’s real life was far more interesting than any movie could portray. He dropped out of school at 15, ran a grocery store at 17, started a weekly newspaper in Danbury, Connecticut, at age 19, and sold lottery tickets. As an adult, besides his famous freak shows and traveling circus, he campaigned against slavery, was elected to the Connecticut legislature after the Civil War, and served as the mayor of Bridgeport.
Barnum’s passion was entertainment. He got rich by exploiting the public desire for sensation, often duping his audiences with fraudulently advertised human and animal curiosities. He displayed the “Feejee mermaid” in his American Museum in New York, the torso and head of a monkey sewn on to the body of a fish. He bought Joice Heth, a slave woman in her 70’s who was blind and paralyzed, and exhibited her as “The Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World,” the 161-year-old nursemaid to George Washington. She died 7 months later, and Barnum set up a public autopsy before 1500 spectators to prove her age, then rejected the results.
Barnum’s most famous attraction, whom he called General Tom Thumb, was the dwarf Charles Sherwood Stratton, a distant relative, whom Barnum began displaying at age 5. Stratton was a talented performer, whose performances went beyond the usual display of “human curiosities” to be compared by theater critics with other professional singers and dancers. Barnum and Stratton toured Europe, were presented to Queen Victoria, and thrilled audiences across the US. Stratton became wealthy and bailed Barnum out when he went bankrupt in 1856. He married another little person, Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump, in a highly publicized wedding in 1863, and the couple was received by President Lincoln at the White House.
Barnum sought ever more sensational acts. Although the couple did not produce any children, Barnum acquired a succession of babies wherever they performed. His autobiography, “The Life of P.T. Barnum”, was sub-titled “Golden Rules for Money-Making”.
Barnum’s contradictory qualities as showman, hoaxer, anti-slavery activist and politician are too much to fit into a big budget spectacle, much less a family-oriented musical.
Presenting complex historical characters is not Hollywood’s strength. Barnum’s contradictory qualities as showman, hoaxer, anti-slavery activist and politician are too much to fit into a big budget spectacle, much less a family-oriented musical.
Film critics did not like “Showman”. In England, the “Telegraph” called it “insane” and “miserable”. Canada’s “Globe and Mail” said it was “empty, moronic, pandering and utterly forgettable”. These critics were expecting history, but “Showman” delivered instead a spectacle. “Showman” is itself a historical hoax, transforming Barnum into a celebrator of human diversity, who freed his “freaks” from the shackles of popular prejudice. The film’s P.T. Barnum is not a historical character, but a vehicle for a moral message not entirely foreign to the real Barnum’s political ideas.
The sacrifice of historical truth for message is the source of the sub-plot of the white-black love affair between Zac Efron as Barnum’s partner and Zendaya as a trapeze artist. Love conquers all, in this case the racial prejudices of the upper class.
Barnum profited from the presentation of freaks, but also helped to transform his unusual collaborators into respected personalities. His historical efforts to abolish the enslavement of some Americans by other Americans are transformed in the film into a broader “celebration of humanity”. Barnum exhibited Annie Jones Elliot, a bearded girl and later woman, paying her $150 a week, an enormous salary at that time.
When the bearded woman in “Showman”, the biracial singer Keala Settle, belts out “This is Me”, she speaks for all human freaks and curiosities. The song won a Golden Globe and became a hit in countries as diverse as South Korea, Sweden and Australia.
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