I love a good movie musical. I think Moulin Rouge! is the only movie that makes me cry literally every time I see it. I have the Into the Woods soundtrack on my phone. The soundtrack from the movie. And so I admit, although I had rolled my eyes at the Greatest Showman marketing campaign and its attempts to turn P.T. Barnum into a sympathetic figure, by the time I sunk into my seat, I was begrudgingly excited. It’s been a bleak year; who doesn’t want to escape into a glittery song-and-dance land for 90 minutes?
But, within five minutes, my optimism soured into distaste and general confusion. Rather than commit to telling the story about an actual complex anti-hero, or even swinging for the fences, The Greatest Showman pulled itself in at every opportunity — resulting in something like Kidz Bop Baz Luhrmann, a Disney Channel-sanitized story filled with vague lyrics about reaching for the stars.
Needless to say, I had questions.
Do the people who made this movie know who P.T. Barnum was?
Do you know how the real P.T. Barnum started his career as a showman? He purchased an elderly slave woman named Joice Heth, who was blind and nearly completely paralyzed. He said she was 160 years old and had been George Washington’s nurse, and exhibited her to the public until her death (at no more than 80 years of age).
I totally understand why The Greatest Showman might want to skip over the enslavement of an elderly woman, but the real stories of the characters they did decide to include aren’t that much better.
In real life, Barnum began exhibiting his bearded lady (real name Annie Jones) when she was 9 months old as “The Infant Esau.” He enlisted Charles Stratton, or “General Tom Thumb” when he was 4.
And it’s not just the flat-out racist and abusive things in his real biography that this film straight out ignored: for all of the pints of ale he drank and shots he downed with Zac Efron’s character, the real P.T. Barnum was a temperance speaker. He spent the 1850s touring the country to make money speaking about the evils of alcohol.
And not that this fits the storyline of the movie, but later in life, when Barnum was a Connecticut state senator, he banned all forms of contraception — a law which remained in place until it was overturned by the Supreme Court nearly a hundred years later.
It’s literally the only other thing on the “Known for” sidebar on his Wikipedia page: “Known for: Founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus, legislative sponsor of 1879 Connecticut anti-contraception law.” This fictional Barnum spent so much time swirling his daughters around and telling them to pursue their dreams that he somehow forgot to mention that their dreams would be completely beholden to their biology and that all sex is for purposes of procreation only.
The real Barnum was certainly a figure interesting and complex enough to merit a movie. The only character misstep fictional Barnum makes is when he gets swept up in an attempt to get the upper class to accept him, and when Jenny Lind offers him a route to mainstream success, he casts aside the “freaks” who originally made his name. That’s it: he cares so much about being popular that he forgets about his real friends. That’s not complexity. That’s the climax of an episode of Hannah Montana.
What the hell was that straw-man critic doing there?
The movie has a foil in a joyless newspaper critic who writes about how fake and shallow Barnum’s circus offering is, giving Barnum the chance to become a mouthpiece for filmmakers who want to respond to their own critics. “Do their smiles look fake?” Barnum says when the writer makes the perfectly excellent point that Barnum is a total fraud. If people have fun, what’s the harm? He argues. Barnum is the living embodiment of “for the fans, not the critics.”
Aside from how transparent that straw-man creation is, here’s the thing: that writer, James Gordon Bennett, was a real person. And he was a hell of a lot more impressive than the fake P.T. Barnum in this movie.
Bennett was born in Scotland and immigrated to the United States, where he began the New York Herald as a four-page penny paper he printed in a cellar. The Herald would go on to have the largest circulation of any newspaper in the world.
As for his clashes with Barnum: remember the slave Barnum paraded around as George Washington’s wet nurse? That was Bennett’s most notable involvement with P.T. Barnum, attempting to dispel the obvious hoax.
So, in The Greatest Showman, an immigrant who started from nothing and went on to publish the biggest newspaper in the world, a man who challenged liars and racist frauds, is the no-fun snob who just can’t let Barnum and his friends have a good time making people laugh. And then, as the ultimate insult and act of humiliation, the film makes Bennett come around to Barnum, more-or-less apologizing and saying his circus was a “celebration of humanity.” This whole movie is like Barnum orchestrating elaborate and petty revenge from beyond the grave and he’s tricked us all into believing he was the hero.
Why was the “Swedish Nightingale” an alto?
Among the historical figures this movie bulldozes in order to make room for a heroic P.T. Barnum, perhaps the greatest disservice is done to Jenny Lind, the Swedish opera singer who partnered with Barnum on a tour of America.
As this movie frames it, Lind was in love with the married Barnum, and she quits the tour in a huff after he rebuffs her advances, leaving him bankrupt. Women, am I right?
But here’s the thing: not only was Jenny Lind a consummate professional, she was also incredible in ways this movie completely ignores in order to cast her in the role of “jilted lover.” The only reason Lind did the tour in the first place was because she realized how much money she would be able to raise for charity, particularly for free schools in Sweden. From the 93 concerts she gave in America, Lind earned about $350,000, or what would be nearly $10 million today, and she donated all of the proceeds to charity.
As it happens, she did complete her tour, but not with Barnum. Lind was uncomfortable with how relentless and tacky Barnum’s marketing of her was, and so she split with him and then continued the tour on her own, for nearly a year. Aside from one self-published romantic novel I found on Google Books, there is no indication that Lind and Barnum ever had a romantic relationship. She married a German Jew, Otto Goldschmnidt, and went by Jenny Lind-Goldschmidt both privately and professionally for the rest of her life.
Ignoring all of that is one thing, but the worst crime this film does against Jenny is her voice. Jenny Lind was a soprano. She was the Swedish Nightingale. This film calls her the Swedish Nightingale. So why is her “opera solo” belted? Her song is a jam, sure, but it’s like an Adele song by way of one of those songs they used to write for whoever won American Idol. #JusticeForJennyLind.
What was Charity talking about with the whole “we always did it together?”
During the climax of the movie, Barnum’s wife, Charity, leaves him when he returns from his truncated tour with Jenny Lind, because she sees a newspaper picture of Barnum and Jenny kissing, and also because he mortgaged their house and gambled the entire circus on the tour that got cut short, which means they’re now bankrupt. Suitcase in hand, Charity says something like, “I didn’t mind you taking the risk, but we always did it together,” and then she’s out the door.
Okay, but hold up. Barnum and Charity never did anything together. Not from the start, not ever. Barnum’s first business adventure is a complete surprise to her: he gets a loan from the bank by lying about ships he can offer as collateral and buys a museum to fill with wax figures and stuffed animals. He surprises his wife with all of that information. There was no brainstorming session or conversation. She finds out what his business venture is and how he paid for it the same conversation she actually sees it. So every day, Barnum was sneaking off, buying cheap wax figures and shipping a giraffe into New York without telling his wife, and she was totally cool with the surprise.
Another major financial decision they absolutely did not do together? The house Barnum buys. Barnum buys a massive mansion that he and his wife used to play in as children and yet again, it is a complete surprise. He literally blindfolds her as the carriage brings them up to the house, which is how not “together” they did this. Nothing in their relationship ever implies they ever did anything, let alone make major financial decisions together, and so staking the emotional climax of the film on that line made me full-on choke on my popcorn.
Why couldn’t they mention that Zendaya is a woman of color?
Race is implied — Zendaya’s character, Anne, says things like “people like me” and “us” and offers enough context that if you can definitely pick up on why her relationship with Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron) might raise a few more eyebrows than just an upper-class boy dating a lower-class circus girl. And yet for some inexplicable reason, they never mentioned race once. The only time it’s even obliquely referenced is when the protestors use a racial slur to describe members of Barnum’s troupe. But it’s quick and subtle enough that a child might not know what the movie is referencing.
How did Barnum receive mail from Charity when he lived on the street?
This is a small and possibly dumb point, but one that bothered me nonetheless. The opening song shows Barnum and Charity growing up in montage, and writing letters back and forth. But after his father died, Barnum is living on the street. How did Charity send him mail? We see him reading a letter at one point with an indecipherable but clearly visible full address. Where would that have possibly been?
So… Zac Efron really isn’t going to have the middle name “Bailey”? Really?
At the end of the movie, Barnum hands off the circus to his right-hand man, Philip Carlyle with 50-50 split. “Partners,” they say, shaking hands. And yet there is no reveal while Carlyle (who is a completely fictional character) is signing the paperwork or something, that his middle name is “Bailey.” Come on. Just give us the Joseph Gordon-Levitt from Dark Knight Rises thing. We already sat through this entire movie.
How was there a derelict and abandoned mansion in Victorian-era New York?
P.T. Barnum was born in 1810, so the song where he and Charity are singing about their dreams and exploring an abandoned mansion, it’s probably 1820, maybe 1823. How could there have possibly been a massive, abandoned mansion in one of the wealthiest areas of New York? Just, logistically, how was there possibly time for that manor estate, with a finished garden and working light fixtures, to have deteriorated into a haunted house. How did a hundred years pass for ivy to overgrow over the entire building? It’s 1820. When could this neo-Classical mansion possibly have been built? In what time bubble did it age?
This guy still has to make everything about him, huh?
At the end of the movie, when Barnum is supposed to have presumably learned his lesson, this yahoo shows up to his daughter’s ballet recital riding an elephant. Not everything needs to be about you! This one stupid night is supposed to be about your daughter, but you’re such an insufferable pathological narcissist that you would wither and die if, for one second, the attention wasn’t on you. So you show up riding an elephant. Sure, your daughter thinks it’s cute now, but just wait until you arrive at her high school graduation with fire breathers, or walk down the aisle at her wedding to a choreographed dance. Your ego will tear your family apart.
Where… where was the Civil War?
Again, not to belabor the point about how this movie just completely ignored history, but The Greatest Showman takes place in the 1850s and 1860s and they just full on pretend the Civil War didn’t happen. For a bit of context, Barnum’s museum burned down in 1865. Do you know what else happened in 1865? President Lincoln was assassinated. I so hope that the front page of the paper that day was P.T. Barnum kissing Jenny Lind and the news “President shot” came after the fold.
I’m not the only one who mentally launched into a Pitbull song during “Rewrite the Stars,” right?
The love ballad, “Rewrite the Stars” begins with the phrase “You know I want you,” which my dumb pop-radio brain auto-completes with “One, two, three, four. Uno, do’, tres, cuatro.” I cannot be the only one.
All in all, The Greatest Showman is P.T. Barnum’s greatest con: getting our most likable Australian to turn him into a family man in an Oscar-bait pop sing-a-long from beyond the grave. Honestly, hats off to you, Barnum.