The Movie “The Greatest Showman”

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The movie, ‘The Greatest Showman’ portrayed P.T Barnum as a heroic savior. One might realize the opposite is true after learning his background and the way he ran his business.

Phineas Taylor Barnum, later known as “P.T Barnum” was born on July 5, 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut. His father, Philio Barnum, was a man with many careers. He farmed, tailored and operated a small business for a short period of time. His mother, Irene, was unemployed for most of Phineas’ life. Philio had ten children while Irene only had her beloved son. Their family was financially stable enough to live a comfortable but not luxurious life.

In the beginning of the movie, one sees young Barnum as a rummager. He is going through trash cans and stealing fruits from the markets to make a living. The movie, The Greatest Showman, portrayed Phineas’ character as poor and neglected. When Philio went to the Hallet residence to do some tailoring work, Phineas came along it was there where he first met Charity. In the first scene, Phineas makes her laugh. She then is scolded sent to her room by her parents. After realizing what the great injustice, making Charity lau Phineas approached Charity’s father and accepted all fault in the incident. Her father hit Barnum while his father was just a sitting bystander. After his father disregarded his beating, Phillip ran away from the Hallet residence. Shortly after, Charity was sent away to boarding school to learn how to act like a ‘civilized young lady’. One of the most popular songs, in the movie is: “A Million Dreams” the chorus, sung by young Phineas says: “…I close my eyes and I can see, the world that's waiting up for me…that I call my own. Through the dark, through the door, through where no one's been before. But it feels like home. They can say, they can say it all sounds crazy. They can say, they can say I've lost my mind. I don't care, I don't care, so call me crazy. We can live in a world that we design…(The Greatest Showman, 6:50). One could infer that the song is about the mistreatment and neglect young Barnum felt throughout his childhood. In his dreams, one day, he would finally be in control and be able to live an enjoyable life.

Barnum’s salesman skills developed at an early age. When he was just a young boy, he delivered snacks and drinks to local soldiers. He also worked in his father’s grocery store for a short period (P.T Barnum, 1). At fifteen, Philip’s father, Philio passed away, the responsibility of Barnum’s family shifted to Philip. He had become the head of the household, while still a young teenager. The next job Barnum took, was the publisher of “Herald of Freedom”, Connecticut’s famous weekly newspaper. While employed there, he was arrested three times for defamation (Wallace, 1). The arrests gave Barnum a glimpse of the coming fame. Young Philip was incredibly successful. He was gifted in math and was extremely skilled in physical labor and a incredibly hard worker. After Philio had passed away, Barnum had “liquidated the family assets and went to work at a local general store”. While working, nineteen year old Barnum met Charity Hallet, his future wife. (Connecticut History, 2). The young couple then married in the fall of 1829.

Not only did he meet his wife in the grocery store, he also met Coley Bartram, the man responsible for getting Philip involved the world of the exotic. Bartram knew Barnum had a curiosity before meeting him in person. At the store, Coley mentioned that he was looking to sell a certain “curiosity”, who was then intrigued and jumped at the opportunity (Connecticut History, 1). The curiosity Barnum purchased was Joice Heath, an elderly enslaved woman. People were deceived into believing that she was one hundred and sixty one years old and the nurse of former president George Washington. Barnum displayed this woman and traveled with her, trying to get his money’s worth (Biography, 1). “With Heth, he [Barnum] saw an opportunity to strike it rich, although he almost went bankrupt because of her purchase. Though slavery was outlawed in Pennsylvania and New York at the time, a loophole allowed him to lease her for a year” (Mansky, 1). Heth was not the only slave Barnum owned, he is quoted saying: “…I did more, I whipped my slaves (Mansky, 3). The extent to which Joice was treated is unknown today. After toting her around the world, and making a large profit off of her, Heth finally passed away. Although Philip was not done with her after she passed away in 1836, he had one more trick up his sleeve. He exploited the poor woman even after she died. He hosted a live autopsy of Ms. Heth that February. Over one thousand attendees paid to watch the dissection of this curiosity. The autopsy proved that she was half her foretold age, that this “nurse of George Washington” was just a fable. Barnum claimed to believe that he truly believed Joice was who she said she was. He placed all blame on her and Coley. (Mansky, 2).

Barnum was not finished after Heth, his showman career had just begun. After moving to New York with Charity, he went and purchased Scudder’s American Museum. Barnum used the money he made off of Joice’s autopsy to remake the Manhattan museum (Biography, 1). The five-story building was gutted of all of the paintings and wax figures that it had once contained. Philip wanted to make the first live and exotic museum (Britannica, 1). Some of his most famous exhibits were the Feejee Mermaid and Siamese Twins. The Mermaid had the face of a human but the tail of the mystical sea creature. The Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, were two twins connected at the hip and were one of Barnum’s most successful exhibits, according to Britannica Encyclopedia. Charles Sherwood Stratton, a four year old who weighed fifteen pounds and stood a little below two feet tall, was Barnum’s most popular exhibit. It was led to be believed that Barnum sold over 20 million tickets to this exhibit alone (Britannica, 2). Barnum then taught Stratton, to sing later introducing him to the public as “General Tom Thumb.” (Biography, 2). He stripped the boy of his childhood for his own selfishness and glory. Barnum received much praise from the public for this decision. The most famous fans of “General Tom Thumb” and Barnum were President Lincoln and Queen Victoria.

The movie failed to portray the monster that Barnum had become. There was no mention of Joice Heath, Feejee Mermaid or the Siamese Twins, although Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey, in the movie) made an appearance. In the movie, Stratton was a consenting twenty year old man. In the movie, Barnum is seen approaching Charles’ house demanding a chance to persuade him into joining the show. He speaks with Charles, regarding his insecurity, suggesting that will actually make him more popular (The Greatest Showman, 21:18). Another time, he preys on someone’s insecurity for his own good is when he meets Keala Settle, later known ‘Bearded Lady’. In the movie, Barnum is seen walking with his daughters, advertising the need for more ‘curiosities’. While walking, he hears a beautiful singing voice coming through the windows of the local laundromat. He follows the voice even after being begged to stop. When he approaches the beautiful voice, he is warned to back away by Keala. After removing the curtain, she was hiding behind, the woman with a beard begs him to go. Barnum then tells her that she is magnificently looking and belongs on the stage. He then convinces her that she is misunderstood and being on stage will help others understand how she feels (The Greatest Showman, 23: 08).

Barnum later meets with a series of misfits, Dog Boy, seven hundred and fifty pound man and even a black trapeze artist are just a few. Each time, he convinces each “exotic” that they need each other and need family. He makes them believe that they are a family and want what is best for them. Barnum begins singing “Come Alive” and the chorus reads: “…And the world becomes a fantasy and you're more than you could ever be.’ Cause you're dreaming with your eyes wide open. And you know, you can't go back again to the world that you were living in. 'Cause you're dreaming with your eyes wide open. So, come alive. I see it in your eyes. You believe that lie that you need to hide your face. Afraid to step outside so you lock the door but don't you stay that way…” (The Greatest Showman 26:14). Shortly there- after, Paul Sarks, (James Gordon Bennet Sr [in real life]) approaches Barnum about being a fraud, Barnum then goes on to accuse Sarks of being the real fraud for being a theatre critic but finding no joy in the theatre. Again, there is no wrong found in Barnum nor his actions.

In 1850, Phillip took another risk and used every penny earned from his previous successful shows to get Jenny Lind (professional Swedish singer) flown in. He never heard Jenny sing, he just heard how talented she was and knew she came highly recommended. Jenny was known as “Swedish Nightingale” and Barnum’s most famous project (Wallace, 2). Together they toured nine months of concerts and made an incredible profit (Wallace, 3). He profited over $500,000 off of Jenny and her tour. (Biography, 2).

In the movie, Jenny is told to be the most famous singer in all of Europe (The Greatest Showman, 45:14). Jennie’s song, in the movie, is “Never Enough” her chorus is: “…All the shine of a thousand spotlights, all the stars we steal from the night sky. Will never be enough. Never be enough. Towers of gold are still too little, these hands could hold the world but it'll never be enough, ever be enough, for me…”.During the tour, the two are exposed of having an affair together. The scene after Jenny sings, she is seen in a hotel room kissing Barnum. A picture of the promiscuous two is then released and sold to the public because Barnum refused to betray Charity. Ms. Lind then quits the tour. According to History and Hollywood, there was no affair nor a scandalous photograph of Jenny and Barnum that was circulated around. (History Hollywood, 12).

According to Biography, in July of 1865, Barnum’s museum was abruptly burnt down (Biography, 3). The massive fire caused Barnum to go bankrupt as he has no savings. Barnum eventually then moved on from show business and got into politics. Barnum served multiple terms as legislature and moved up to mayor in 1875. He then helped and founded the Bridgeport Hospital and became its first president. (Biography, 4).

After forty four years of marriage, Charity fell ill and passed away. Since one child had passed during childhood and his other daughter was shunned from the family for committing adultery, Barnum had no heir to leave his precious possessions to. He then married twenty four year old, Nancy Fish, hoping to find an acceptable heir (Wallace, 2).

According to the online Britannica Encyclopedia, at age eighty one, Barnum, incredibly ill, passed away. Phillip always enjoyed a show and requested that the New York Paper would publish his obituary weeks in advance so he could enjoy it and the attention that came along with it (Wallace, 3).

The movie, The Greatest Showman, failed to mention Charity’s death, Barnum’s children’s death and disownment, nor mentioned his government positions and his death. Benjamin Reiss, professor at Emory University and author of The Showman and The Slave, of Barnum said: “We can choose to erase things or dance around touchy subjects and present a kind of feel good story, or we can use it as an opportunity to look at very complex and troubling histories that our culture has been struggling with for centuries.” That applies to the life of Barnum. One can focus on the terrible things Barnum had done or can choose to focus on the joy he brought people, although it was all based on a lie. Reiss also shared about Barnum’s “uncle reputation”, that today, when “Phillip Barnum” is heard, the first thing that comes to the mind of many people is the joy that Barnum brought many people. He helped give the underdogs a place where they belonged. People ignore the exploitation that Phillip had made and focus on the qualities they chose to believe. They chose to believe in a man who loved the curious and the different, not a man who neglected them for his own profit.

Overall, spinning a sinful life into a beautiful story that families would enjoy together, is also a ‘story’ that Barnum would be a fan of. Being able to deceive everyone into believing in a little “magic”. Truly, the movie, ‘The Greatest Showman’ portrayed P.T Barnum as a heroic savior. One could realize the opposite after understanding his business and background.

“Contrary to popular belief, Barnum’s great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public, but rather how much the public enjoyed being deceived.”

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The Movie "The Greatest Showman". (2021, Jul 01). Retrieved December 4, 2023 , from

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