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The recent hit movie The Greatest Showman, starring Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, is an enthralling musical filled with scenes of ambition, love, and heartbreak. It is easy to get lost in the extravagance of it all, especially with such an attractive cast and an abundance of exciting musical numbers. However, the movie tragically excuses some of the most interesting and controversial aspects of the real P.T. Barnum’s wonderful life.
The Greatest Showman fantasized Barnum to a large, unknowing audience who may not know anything about the reality of his life. The movie blatantly dismisses some of Barnum’s cruelest actions, choosing instead to portray him as a quirky idealist. However, in reality, he was not the audacious and eccentric dreamer that he was portrayed to be in this film. P.T. Barnum was a businessman, an entrepreneur, and a politician.
Barnum’s successful career started quite differently than the movie depicts. In 1935, Barnum purchased an elderly named Joice Heth, whom he advertised as the 160-year-old nurse who raised George Washington. Barnum exploited her until her death, subsequently staging a false autopsy to prove her age. Joice is not included in the movie in any degree, most likely because Barnum’s treatment of her was so atrocious that it would not be suitable for mass audiences. Barnum then purchased his first museum, the Barnum American Museum, in 1841. Barnum claimed his museum contained more than 850,000 "interesting curiosities." More than 4,000 people visited the museum each day, with attendance swelling to 20,000 on holidays.
One of the most prevalent events throughout the nation during Barnum’s prosperous career was the Civil War. Barnum actually advocated for the 13th Amendment, which initiated the end of slavery in the United States, and campaigned for Abraham Lincoln. The racial tension and divide would have been extremely prevalent during this time period, however, the The Greatest Showman’s only attempt at addressing this racial divide is the enthralling love story between the fictitious Phillip Carlyle and trapeze artist Anne Wheeler. Even within Phillip and Anne’s interracial relationship, the movie fails to focus on Anne having family with her as well, instead capturing only how Phillip’s actions affect him and his family—depicting the effect of the relationship as more detrimental to Phillip than to Anne. Phillip’s parents threaten his inheritance, his social standing, and his place in their family. His internal struggle of choosing between societal expectations and his love for a lower woman is the only side of the story portrayed on screen. The movie fails to explicitly note Anne’s personal conflicts with such a divide. Her brother, W.D., is present with her at the circus, but the movie never once shows how Anne’s relationship with Phillip could affect W.D.’s or Anne’s lives. It shows her as an emotional and ignorant young girl who is only allowed to be at the circus because she has an act; her “abnormality” goes beyond being a trapeze artist, she’s a colored trapeze artist. The film’s attempt to discuss racial incongruities during this time period is pathetic at best; it’s romanticized and diminished.
Barnum’s blatant exploitation of “anomalies” included the incredible Bearded Lady. Lettie Lutz, portrayed by Keala Settle in the film, gave a fanciful performance of the empowering story of a woman coming out of the shadows. In the movie, Barnum discovered Lettie while she sang, hidden in the back of a laundromat. He charmingly tells her that he can make her a star, and gives her a starring role in his freak show. Lettie gains a remarkable amount of confidence and learns that being different is okay because she’s human too. Reality for the bearded woman was much darker. The real bearded woman was named Annie Jones. Barnum discovered her as a nine month-old infant and paraded her around on his new travelling show after the Barnum American Museum burned down in 1868. Annie was featured in Barnum’s museum as ‘The Infant Esau’. (The name ‘Esau’ was often applied to hirsute wonders and was in reference to the biblical grandson of Abraham, brother of Jacob. Esau’s name in Hebrew means ‘hairy’, and, according to Genesis 25:25, it is a reference to his hairiness at birth.) While her parents were originally horrified by her appearance, the monetary benefit of allowing Barnum to use their child as entertainment was enough to change their minds. Annie’s parents received nearly $600 a month while their child was used as a circus attraction. Annie’s career with Barnum lasted nearly four decades. His new travelling show, featuring the famous bearded lady, was dubbed the “Greatest Show on Earth”, even when it used the exploitation of people like Annie for mass entertainment.
Barnum’s romantic life is also highly exaggerated in The Greatest Showman. The movie places a fictional love affair of Barnum and Jenny Lind, portrayed by Rebecca Ferguson, center stage to ultimate breaking point of Barnum’s career. In reality, however, there was no affair at all. There was no dramatic scene where her admission of love for him ended up in newspapers subsequent to her quitting the tour Barnum scheduled; the movie made this all up for pure entertainment. Jenny Lind, nicknamed the “Swedish Nightingale”, kept all eager male suitors at a distance, instead focusing on her music and extensive dedication to charity. She was not at all charmed by Barnum’s lifestyle and likely would have found the relationship highly inappropriate; it was just who she was- chaste and professional. Barnum, who was intensely self-centered and eager for consistent public activity, would have found an a relationship with Jenny to be a distraction. The tour Barnum and Lind went on brought Barnum nearly a half a million dollars, a sum practically unheard of during this time period. Barnum was focused on the money and the public attention and Lind would have been focused on the new exposure for her opera career. An affair between Jenny Lind and P.T. Barnum would have been inconceivable; there was no mixing business and pleasure.
Apparently, this passive view towards love and affection extended into Barnum’s married life. While Barnum once wrote that he “became the husband of one of the best women in the world,” Charity Hallet, he spent a minuscule amount of time with her or his daughters. Oftentimes, he was gone extending his entrepreneurship, leaving Charity, who had a chronic illness, at home with the responsibilities of raising their children and coping with the death of their fourth daughter. In the film, Charity seems to believe that she plays a large role in Barnum’s life, claiming at one point that she didn’t mind the risk as long as they made their decisions together; she says this after his ego causes his career to collapse and the world he built begins to fall apart. Charity’s words are moving and almost believable. However, Charity and Barnum hardly do anything together throughout the film, or in reality. He buys a museum without her, he buys a house without her, he goes on tour without her, he ruins his life without her.
The Greatest Showman is exciting, fantastical, a cinematic work of art. However, its inaccuracies and blatant dismissal of the reality of the life of P.T Barnum shouldn’t be overlooked by the movie’s extraordinarily large audience. These inaccuracies deserve to be recognized. It is important to realize, though, that in the end The Greatest Showman is only one thing: it’s a show. It is a movie designed to entertain large audiences and it accomplishes what Barnum wanted to do throughout his life— it creates joy.
“The Phineas T. Barnum Freak Show.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 23, 1999, pp. 44–44.
Reiss, Benjamin. “P. T. Barnum, Joice Heth and Antebellum Spectacles of Race.” American Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 1, 1999, pp. 78–107.
Pednaud, J Tithonus. "Annie Jones - The Esau Woman". Circus Freaks and Human Oddities.
“P.T. Barnum Brings Jenny Lind to New York.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2017 Sept. 1AD, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/p-t-barnum-brings-jenny-lind-to-new-york.