The Greatest Showman

Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in Connecticut on July 5, 1810. After a move to New York City, he ran the Barnum American Museum from 1841 to 1868. The museum featured the “Feejee Mermaid,” that looked suspiciously like a monkey with a fish’s tail, “General Tom Thumb” and other oddities that appealed to the insatiable appetite of the American people for the shocking and absurd. In 1871 he launched a travelling show that would eventually become the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He is quoted as saying of himself, "I am a showman by profession… and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me." After a celebrated career as a showman, author, and sometime politician, he died in 1891. The circus survived him and finally closed in 2017.

P.T. Barnum was a complex and highly problematic figure. However, The Greatest Showman, the latest film about the man’s life and times, directed by Michael Gracey and starring Hugh Jackman as Barnum, does not do the man justice.

The film, a bright and bouncy musical, seems to be more focused on telling the audience to follow their dreams than it is on providing us with actual information on this larger than life individual.
The Greatest Showman portrays Barnum as a kind of show business saint, and a champion of the oppressed, which is by no means accurate.

In truth, he helped both General Tom Thumb and Cheng and Eng (the conjoined twins who helped popularise the term “Siamese Twins”) to start their careers in show business, but Barnum seems to have been a dyed in the wool capitalist, and profit was his primary goal.

In my opinion, the major problem with the film is that it doesn’t focus enough on the lives and adventures of the performers who worked in Barnum’s circus. In the end, we know nothing about who they loved, who their families were and what they dreamed of.

For example, General Tom Thumb (real name, Charles Sherwood Stratton) was born in 1838 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He was the son of a carpenter, and his paternal and maternal grandmothers were allegedly small twin girls born 1781. He started touring with P.T. Barnum at the age of five. Interestingly, Barnum was his fifth cousin. In 1883, six months after surviving a house fire, Charles Stratton died of a stroke. Unfortunately, after such an interesting life, he is relegated in this film to the status of a glorified extra to Barnum. Very disappointing!

In order for the story of P.T. Barnum and his “freaks” to be done properly, the film would have to be at least three hours long, directed by Martin Scorcese, star Brendan Gleason as Barnum, be rated “R” and have fewer musical elements.

However, if what you are looking for is a fluffy musical with wonderful choreography and an exquisitely happy ending, then this is the film for you. You’ll come out of the theatre smiling.
One thumb up.