Firstly, I’ve had a bit of a inner struggle recently on whether to consider myself a 19th Century Historian or not based on the simple fact that I do not have a degree in History. I do, however, have a Masters in Theatre in the realm of Costume Design and over 32+ hours of graduate hours in History courses (from two well-respected Universities) which is sort of the equivalent of a Masters degree in of itself. I don’t take such a designation lightly, but I did reach out (quietly) to people with Masters and Doctorates and asked them their opinions. All ten assured me that I had all the qualifications of being considered a Historian because I met a few simple guidelines being I had spent hundreds, if not thousands of hours studying my specific area of expertise. That I could, without much hesitation, answer their questions in a timely manner (up to ten minutes) via Skype and not needing to resort to Google but only using my personal notes meant I would be able to pass an oral exam if I had been given the chance. Many stated I did not need a piece of paper to do what I was doing because I had already proven myself and needed nothing else. So, I am very pleased with that knowledge. But understand that I will always use published and verified resources to back up my statements whenever I can.
Now that I have gotten that out of the way, I can now turn your attention to the purpose of this entry, which is ‘The Greatest Showman”, or what I would like to refer to as “The Greatest Bit of Humbug I’ve Ever Seen Grace the Silver Screen.” If you’ve not seen this film, I will not apologize for spoiling it for you. If you have seen it, I will not apologize for tearing it to shreds. The film stars Hugh Jackman and he is superbly cast (per usual) in a role that utilizes his theatrical gifts of the stage; singing, acting, and dancing are clearly his forté. I do not fault Mr. Jackman for taking such a role, as it must have been lovely to be presented one which was vastly different from his role in Les Miserables. Even so, I do find issue with casting a man with the looks of Adonis to portray P.T. Barnum, who in reality resembled the offspring of a gremlin and a lump of clay (and I do most heartily apologize to all lumps of clay reading this currently). Of course, this is Hollywood and we most assuredly cannot ever cast average looking people to portray average historical figures! Heavens no! Imagine the horror!
Casting concerns aside, I have an issue with the lack of historical accuracy in the film overall. The film tries to portray Barnum as this poor, unfortunate street urchin in love with a wealthy girl and somehow is able to marry her within the first ten minutes of the film. This is complete bullshit right from the start and should infuriate any historian. Barnum’s father was a tailor, innkeeper and store owner. His grandfather was a landowner in Connecticut (meaning the family had wealth at some point, who had been in the legislator and a justice of the peace. Barnum was also born from his father’s second marriage, indicating his father had been well off financially to marry a second time. Barnum’s grandfather, Phineas, was known to run a lottery scam. This is important because P.T. had to learn the basics of running a scam from someone. He owned and ran several business before owning the museum in New York; one of which is a newspaper (The Herald of Freedom) and, most shockingly of all, a lottery scam in 1829. By 1834, Barnum had to move to New York because lotteries were declared illegal in Connecticut and his money making scheme was coming to an end.
Now, had any of this been shown in the film? Absolutely not. Jackman’s character is seen as a poor street urchin who sees a train, then is magically transformed in Hugh Jackman, marries his childhood sweetheart and moves to New York so he can make good on his promise to shower his young wife with riches. Now, he did marry Charity in 1829, but they didn’t move to New York until 1834 after the whole lottery thing. And did I mention he slandered some Churches with his newspaper, did jail time, and had to sell his store that also sold books? His life is vastly more interesting than the little song and dance routine Jackman did with Michelle Williams depicting their love. Still, the film is called “The Greatest Showman” which implies it is about how Barnum became synonymous with the circus. The film woefully fails at this.
Barnum was 25 in 1835 when he leased for $1000, not owned because slavery was outlawed in New York at this time, a paralyzed and almost completely blind black woman named Joice Heath. He leased her for a year from a friend, who had been exhibiting her in Philadelphia, claiming she was 161 years old and George Washington’s nurse. Barnum worked her to her death; she was put on display a minimum of 12 hours a day and died in February. She was no more than 80 years old. But Barnum would not allow Joice Heath the dignity of a grave and would find a way to make money off of her even in death; he exhibited her corpse and had a live viewing of her autopsy done to prove to onlookers she could not possibly be 161 years old. Barnum excelled at making money from hate, which is what the film makers never show you. The price to see Joice cut up was fifty cents per person; Barnum never revealed how much money he made off of her corpse and I could not find any source only that many did go and the autopsy lasted days. I have to admit even now, while it’s been well over a century, when I first read about Joice Heath, I cried. It still upsets me to know this woman is largely forgotten and considered insignificant. She should have been mentioned in the film. But maybe I am being selfish. Such a scene would not have tested well with audiences, I dare say. No, they’d rather believe Barnum cared for the misfits, the rejects. Sorry to say, but the filmmakers lied.
Take for instance, Tom Thumb. The film depicts accurately that such a person existed in Barnum’s sphere. However, there were two such person’s with that same name. The first was a child of four, but said to be eleven, who was put on display, made to drink alcohol and smoke cigars so he would appear older. It would be a way to make the child look like a little man instead of a small child. A bit of trickery. The second Tom Thumb was, of course, an actual little person. That Tom did meet Queen Victoria (who was already a Widow at that time, not young per the film) and ended up marrying Thumbelina, the smallest lady in the world.
The film never mentions the Fiji Mermaid. They hint at it, of course, but never show it nor mention it. This is and was the most famous of all of Barnum’s humbugs and was the collaboration between Barnum and his friend Moses Kimball. It is never seen on film. This is a travesty of historical proportions for a film to consider itself to be a biopic of Barnum and never once show the infamous Fiji Mermaid. Not even a poster did appear. Shameful. Utterly shameful.
Other historical events which are never mentioned in the film, which shockingly did occur are the panic of 1837. Whole not well know, it did hurt his finances for a time. The Civil War is never mentioned, which astonished me to no end. The man lived during this time and not once did any part of the war between the states ever grace the screen. I understand the purpose of the film is to be entertaining and filled with merriment, but to completely forgo a major significant part of United States history smacks of revisionist history of the likes of Dineish D’Szousa and is in no way honest to the life of P.T. Barnum not the people who worked for him.
Barnum was known for being a humbug, meaning he was known for being dishonest. He made his living of of exploitation of others. It’s not a pleasant thing to research because no one likes to become confronted with the knowledge that the man everyone associates with the circus and happiness was, in fact, a hard core racist who believed in slavery even after it was outlawed everywhere. He helped popularize minstrelsy shows, he perpetrated a hoax stating weed (or a weed, it depends on the source) would black people white. He willingly told people the reason he left the Democratic Party was because they would not uphold the right to own slaves (this was in 1854; suck it Dinesh). He claimed to hate politics, yet served in the legislator himself. He spoke against the evils of alcohol, but willingly supplied such things to Native Americans. He did not always believe non-whites had the capacity to even contain souls yet donated a fortune to Tufts University. He was a man full of contradictions. This was the man I wanted to see on screen and this was the man I expected to see in some manner.
Instead, I saw a very white-washed, sterilized, rose-colored glasses version of P.T. Barnum. The same can be said for the people of the circus and the people of the era. Never have I seen such clean streets. Seriously. The Musuem had historically been located near brothels and tenants which had no indoor plumbing. Nary did I spy any shit nor rubbish in the streets. Those were the cleanest Victorian streets I’ve ever seen. Contrast them with the streets in “Gangs of New York” and you’ll appreciate what I mean. I do understand the appeal of the whole “us versus them” mentality the filmmakers gave the circus workers. And I sympathize because it does make for a more compelling film. Be that as it may, it is entirely inaccurate and dishonest. Most were sold by their parents or worked for room & board. They worked 10-12 hour days and it was degrading work. Many of the women would have prostituted themselves for extra money (yes, that did happen). Barnum excelled at making money at selling nothing. There was never an “us versus them” for him because he owned the “us” via contracts.
As for the costumes, I can only say they were very theatrical, as they were no doubt meant to be. Doesn’t mean they were accurate. They were very old timey sort of generic quasi Victorian looking enough to resemble something old without having to be historically true. Not one woman was wearing a corset and yes, you can tell. Many appeared to be wearing padded or push up bras, a big no-no. Shaved legs and arm pits didn’t exist in those days and neither did smooth chests for men. Not enough facial hair for men either, which is strangely weird. Visible zippers. I had an attack of the vapors on that one. Michelle Williams also resembled an advert for Target or Macy’s at some point (pick one). Evening wear styles for men-also, pick one. Either they are wearing tails, cut aways or frock coats, not all three in one scene (sweet lord, do they not know how to dress extras). I shall not discuss hair, hair products, nor makeup because it just is not worth my time.
Basically, the point of the matter is the film is vastly inaccurate. It kills me, not only as a 19th Century Historian, but as a Theatre person, to hear people praising it for it’s realism, attention to detail, and how it really told the true story of P.T. Barnum. It didn’t-not even remotely close. It’s a musical loosely, and I do mean loosely, based on the life of Barnum. The film is 20% Barnum and 80% Humbug, with me being overly generous in that regard. As a piece of musical theatre it is vastly entertaining and for that alone, I can enjoy it. I must disassociate any attempts to connect it with history and reality to do so, which puts this in the realm of a fantasy film for me or a fairy tale. However, anyone out there trying to think this film has any connection with the real and historical figure needs to go to their local library forthwith for I don’t have the strength to deal with such nonsense.
Barnum, P.T. Struggles and Triumphs; Or, Forty Years’ Recollections of P.T. Barnum. Buffalo, N.Y.: The Courier Company, 1883
Adams, Bluford. E Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman and the Making of U.S. Popular Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Cook, James W. The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Reiss, Benjamin. The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum’s America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.