Okay, I had read too many reviews of The Greatest Showman –based on the life of P. T. Barnum—before I actually made it to the theater. But I’m not one to fall for the humbug of cynical reviewers, preferring to get mine from the “Prince of Humbugs” himself.
One reviewer who really set me off was The Muse’s aptly named Bobby Finger. He wrote that “the most fundamental problem is its source material: the true story of a shitty man whose rotten life story is the antithesis of worthwhile family entertainment.” I guess Mr. Finger is one of those who—completely erroneously—believe Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” What the fun-poking showman did sagely observe was, “People want to be fooled.” Here are some examples of Barnum’s playful mischief.
Having hired a certifiably genuine bearded lady, Josephine Clofullia of Switzerland, Barnum secretly had a spectator bring suit for imposture, accusing Barnum of exhibiting a man as a bearded woman. Naturally Barnum publicly responded by arranging for a medical examination, with the resulting newspaper stories about his victory prompting huge crowds to visit his American Museum.
Again, when the fake petrified colossus known as the Cardiff Giant was hugely selling tickets amid controversy, Barnum naturally sought to buy it. After he was rebuffed, he had a copy made, outrageously billing it as the original!
A typically Barnum production was his astonishing feature, the great Egress. Museum signs proclaimed, “This way to the Egress”—obviously a major exhibit. But when patrons suddenly found themselves out on the street again, they might have realized that egress simply meant “exit.”
The real Barnum also had a serious, deeply moralistic side. He was an abolitionist prior to the Civil War, and before his death he had become a Universalist. He was noted for many debunkings—testifying, for example, against William Mumler, who was on trial for producing fraudulent spirit photographs. In his book, The Humbugs of the World, Barnum prefigured challengers like Houdini by offering $500 to any medium able to produce genuine spirit communication. (For more on the great showman, see my book or audiobook, Secrets of the Sideshows.)
True, the movie is less a biography of Barnum (Hugh Jackman) than a sort of Wizard of Oz tale, but then it is a PG musical with the message that all different sizes and colors and kinds of people are equal and valuable. As to art, witness black aerialist (Zendaya) in an action duet with her white manager-sweetheart (Zac Efron) and tell me it is not cinematic magic. Or watch the transformation of the bearded lady (Lettie Lutz) from object of ridicule to empowered woman and claim this dazzling entertainment doesn’t—again and again—get somewhere.
No humbug now.
Rating: Three wooden nickels (out of four).