The World’s Greatest Showman: The Life of P.T. Barnum by J. Bryan III.
I’m going with some of the urchins to see The Greatest Showman, the new movie musical starring Hugh Jackman as Phineas Taylor Barnum, the great huckster, advertiser, showman, lecturer, and promoter of nineteenth century America. So I had to pull out the Landmark history book about the life and times of Mr. Barnum so that I could check the movie against reality. I’m told that there’s not much reality in the movie.
If so, that’s probably a tribute to the real P.T. Barnum, who included about as much truth and reality in his shows and his advertisements and media campaigns as the average Hollywood movie mogul does in his, not very much. Everything in Barnum’s shows, first his New York museum, and then his circus, was colossal, unique, amazing, stupendous, prodigious, and/or fantastic—because Barnum said so. He was a liar and a humbug (one of his favorite descriptors), but the public knew it and ate it up. He made a fortune first for himself, but also for Charles Stratton, aka General Tom Thumb, for The Swedish Nightingale singer Jenny Lind, and for numerous other performers and partners who worked with and for him.
He also lost more than one personal fortune. Five different fires destroyed his various businesses and homes at different times, and he never did learn to adequately insure his holdings against disaster. Each time, according to the book, he was under-insured and had to start all over again building up his museum or circus or house to come back from the brink.
The World’s Greatest Showman portrays Barnum as a joker and a salesman, certainly not averse to exaggeration or downright lies as long as he could put on a good show and rope in a big audience. His views and actions in regard to racial issues and and slavery and justice were mixed, as befits the time in which he lived (1810-1891). But he was all-in-all a likable character, generous and a sharp businessman at the same time, a teetotaler and a “religious man”, according to Wikipedia, a dedicated member of the Universalist Church.
I’ve been to see the movie, and it was a great show, but not at all true to the life of P.T. Barnum. The movie took many liberties with the timeline and events of Barnum’s life, but that’s to be expected. Barnum would probably not have minded a bit or a even a lot of “humbug” in the interest of a good show. However, two elements of the movie plot would emphatically not have been to Mr. Barnum’s taste.
As I said, Barnum was quite dedicated to the temperance movement, didn’t drink alcohol at all, and encouraged others to abstain from alcoholic beverages, too. In the movie, he not only drinks, he’s rarely seen without a drink in his hand or sharing champagne or whiskey with friends, associates, and strangers. In fact, in the movie, alcohol almost becomes a symbol of the joie de vivre that Barnum tries to share with everyone he meets.
Also, Jenny Lind was Barnum’s friend and associate, and he did sponsor, finance, and arrange her American tour. But she would never have kissed him or tried to seduce him, on stage or off. Jenny Lind was, indeed, a devout Christian, and she gave most of her money, if not all of it, away to charities and churches. She and Barnum parted amicably before her contract with him had quite expired because she was tired of his commercialism and relentless promotions, even though she wanted to make as money as she could for her charitable endeavors.
Still, I recommend the movie and the Landmark book about his life. Each tells the story of a different man, one factual and the other fictional. I enjoyed both stories, and the music in the movie and Hugh Jackman’s performance as Barnum were worth the ticket price. (The movie reviewer at EW didn’t cut the movie any slack at all, and that wasn’t the only bad review I found in a cursory search. So you may want to ask yourself how much you can abide in the name of humbug from a fictionalized musical bio-pic.)
Quoting P.T. Barnum:
“Men, women, and children who cannot live on gravity alone need something to satisfy their gayer, lighter moods and hours, and he who ministers to this want is, in my opinion, in a business established by the Creator of our nature. If he worthily fulfills his mission and amuses without corrupting, he need never feel that he has lived in vain.”
“There’s no such thing as bad publicity. I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.”
“Nothing draws a crowd quite like a crowd.”
“More persons, on the whole, are humbugged by believing in nothing, than by believing too much.”
“I am a showman by profession… and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me.”
“The bigger the humbug, the better people will like it.”