This was entertaining, but, as far as telling the life story of Phineas Taylor Barnum goes, it fell a very long way wide of the mark. What a shame. It really is a fascinating story, and I wish people wouldn’t make films (or write books) about real people if they’re not going to stick to the facts.
Oh, OK, the basic idea was there – the circus, the (to use the expression of the times) “freaks”, and the opposition from sections of the public and the media. But the hoaxes were badly watered down. There was no mention of the old lady whom he claimed was George Washington’s nurse, or of the Feejee mermaid. Claiming that someone was heavier than they were, or that they were of a different nationality, is hardly in the same league. Maybe they were worried that the snowflake brigade might find things like the Joice Heth story, a true story, offensive? I don’t know, but it felt as the point was being missed.
Some of it was just plain silly. There was a farcical scene in London, with a portrayal of Queen Victoria which seemed to belong in something like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and Beefeaters wandering around inside Buckingham Palace! He was given a fictional business partner. And there was a bizarre storyline which claimed that, rather than abandoning the tour because of concerns about over-commercialisation, Jenny Lind packed it in because she fancied Barnum and had the needle because he wasn’t interested!
And, before they even got as far as him entering showbusiness, they’d invented a tale whereby he first met Charity, his future wife, when he was a tailor’s delivery boy and she was the daughter of a New York society family, and they were childhood sweethearts who ran off together, and he was always desperate to prove to her snooty parents and their friends that he was good enough for her. Oh, it was quite a romantic idea, but unfortunately it was largely the product of someone’s imagination! And there was nothing about his involvement in politics and philanthropy, which was a shame. Yes, all right, I appreciate that not everyone would have wanted a lecture on the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the middle of a film about a circus 🙂 (although I so would!), but that whole aspect of his life and character was missing.
It was entertaining, though. The music was great – although I kept expecting to hear the music from the Barnum musical instead. It is really weird watching something about Barnum without anyone singing “Join the circus like you wanted to when you were a kid”. And the stories of the circus performers, some of whom did really exist, were genuinely touching. Even now, you get these programmes like Embarrassing Bodies, which come uncomfortably close to treating anyone with some sort of physical difference as a “freak”. In the mid 19th century, life didn’t offer very much to people with, say, dwarfism or hirsutism, and Barnum’s circus did offer those people an opportunity, which was certainly much better than the sort of horrific freak shows that “the Elephant Man” was made part of. And there was a storyline about a romance between the fictional white business partner and a fictional mixed-race trapeze artist, which was very nice, but, if they’d wanted to make the point about racial attitudes at the time, they could have stuck to the actual facts and show Barnum speaking out against slavery. It came later than the period covered by the film, but he did make a well-known and rather touching speech about how all human souls are human souls, regardless of which body they inhabit.
It’s entertainment – which Barnum would approved of. And, hey, he might well have approved of the fact that it’s all a bit of a swizz (to use an old-fashioned term!), in the name of entertainment. But it feels as if someone’s written the story that they want and then used the name of a well-known historical figure to guarantee popular interest and therefore box office success. It’s not uncommon for films, books and TV dramas to do that, but it isn’t half annoying 🙂 .