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This past weekend, I saw the movie, “The Greatest Showman.” This wasn’t something I was planning on, but this was for a birthday celebration so I was happy to go along. Fair warning, this post contains spoiler. I was very worried because I’m terrified of clowns and this was a story about PT Barnum,who is most famous for his circus. I am also not a huge fan of Barnum, who was known to be a showman, but he was also known for some pretty terrible things. Since this movie was such a spectacular production, with a fanciful story, this can be considered another great sham done by Barnum. With the beautiful music, clothing, and stars it is easy to get swept up in the magical story. At the same time, it really is hits home with one of Barnum’s favorite quotes. “There is a sucker born every minute.”
The story follows a very, very loose story of PT Barnum’s life as he struggled through tragedy and poverty during his childhood. Supposedly, he had known his first wife, Charity for years and came into contact her while he was working. They fell in love and got married and had two children. Barnum then did a little bit of fraud and got a loan to purchase a museum. On the advice of his starry-eyed children, Barnum goes out to find something alive to put in his exhibits and winds up putting together the world’s first “freak show.” This included the breaded lady, a tiny person, a dog man, and African American artists which was unheard of at the time. They all worked together and stared in his show. He was highly successful and even was invited to see Queen Victoria.
While in London, Barnum met up with Jenny Lind, a world famous opera singer. He convinced her to come to the United States and have a show for one night only. It went so well, that Barnum abandoned his family and his freaks and took Jenny on tour. Barnum leaves his every day work into the hands of his partner, Phillip who is falling in love with the Anne the acrobatic artist who was a different race. Again, this would not only be highly controversial, but illegal in some places. Barnum eventually came back to his home after Jenny hit on him and he turned her down. She continued the tour without him for a few more weeks. Barnum got back home in time to see his museum burn down to the ground after people in the city set it on fire after trying to get them out of their town.
Barnum has lost everything and had no money. His wife had left him, and he had essentially turned his back on everyone. He eventually comes around, and with the help of Phillip, they purchase a plot of land by the water and and put up tents to have their show. It ends with Barnum walking away from the project and going to be with his wife and children. He hands over everything to Phillip is now with Anne publicly not matter the cost. The show ends with Barnum and his wife Charity happily watching their children. Everything is wrapped up in great musical numbers, beautiful colors, and lots of dancing.
While it was a enjoyable, it was very long, and very far fetched. PT Barnum was not a great person and they just seemed to gloss completely over any of the horrors he committed. He did a lot of terrible things at the cost of people’s sanity and even their lives. One of tiny man that he cast in the role of Tom Thumb was not a man at all. He was actually a small boy that he basically bought off of his family and trained him to seem more adult. By the time he was 7, he was a drunk mess. Barnum then took his distant cousin, Charles Stratton, and gave him the role of Tom Thumb. His experience with Queen Victoria is what is portrayed on screen.
Barnum was known for being a person who worked with anyone no matter the race. This didn’t mean that he respected them. One of the things he did to launch his career was to exploit one of his many slaves. That’s right, he was a slave owner. He put an older female on display and claimed that she was over 160 years old. When she died, he charged 50 cents per person to witnessed a live autopsy, therefore exploiting this women not only in life, but in death as well. She was only about 80 years old when she died. Of course the people in his shows were not really taken care of. They lived in terrible conditions, made to work long hours, and got paid very little. He also took advantage of spreading stereotypes of Africans, Mexicans, and Native Americans. Some of these stories were so damaging that they were believed in popular culture for years.
As terrible as he was with humans, he was even worse with the animals. Several of the animals will killed in accidents due to an animal being in unrealistic conditions. He used them for many dangerous stunts including trying to have elephants take down the Brooklyn Bridge. While the movie briefly touches on finding a mermaid, they never went into the horror of what he did. He was obsessed with trying to find the mythical mermaid and that led to some pretty unsettling experiments. This involved sewing the head of one animal on to the body of another one and putting it on display. Sometimes, they tried keeping the animal alive by killing one and sewing the head on the still living second animal. Eventually, he settled on monkey head attacked to a fish.
It was also deeply suggested that Barnum had an affair with not only Jenny, but several women. They only touched on the fact that he had two children, but he and his first wife Charity had four. Charity passed away and he very quickly married his second wife, Nancy. Years ago, there were rumors of how many illegitimate children that Barnum had. It was rumored that he had a kid in every city, although none of this is proven. It’s all part of the legend.
A few other things that they just got wrong during the movie are the following. First, the circus was something that didn’t happen for Barnum until he was in his sixties. In the movie, it is portrayed that he started the circus sometime when his girls were around 10 and 12 years old. They also never said anything about his two other children that he had with Charity. Phillip also didn’t exist, but was loosely based on a few people including James Bailey of Ringling Brothers and PT Barnum and Bailey Circus fame. Bailey was not a playwright from an influential family, but an orphan. He was a poor man who died in his fifties and never had a relationship with an acrobat. He was married and he passed away in his fifties. Barnum also was in and out of jail for multiple things including theft and fraud.
While it seems most of the reports of Barnum are terrible, there are just as many people are on the opposite side and suggest that this is all hearsay. Barnum was known in several circles as a man who was not only a human rights activists, but an animal activist as well. He also supposedly was a person who worked for women’s rights. It was also never proven that he said the sucker quote, which would be hard to tie to a person if it wasn’t directly verbally quoted. However, with all the other factors of the very real things he did to animals and humans, it is hard to believe that he really so great. Anything is possible. However, he was a good showman, and a charmer, which could lead to any opinion here. The bad is good press, the good is great for his character. It goes to show how skilled he was at story telling. He was, of course a politician that served several terms in office as both a Democrat and a Republican. That says a whole lot!
At the end of the day, PT Barnum is a story onto himself. He is both fiction and reality at the same time. He is terrible and ground breaking. None of this was really covered in the movie, which makes it so very appropriate. You go out of this movie thinking you know something about his life, but then find out you know nothing. You were entertained, which was the point. Barnum loved that his audience was in on the joke, so maybe this was all a joke about the lack of information about him. It was a story, that’s all. It was a manipulation of the truth which he was pretty good at doing himself. Was it the greatest show on Earth? No, but there were great parts. It was just to hard to overlook the pacing issues and how they glossed over anything remotely controversial about PT Barnum. At the very least, the music was excellent and this could make a great stage show.
*Cited Sources www.thehistorychannel.com