Why “The Greatest Showman” is the Biggest Piece of Crap

Are you sure this isn’t “Cats”?

I shouldn’t have said “yes”, when a friend asked to take to me see The Greatest Showman. It was a nice gesture on his part and it was an opportunity to socialize with my friend, those were my only motivations for attending. I was predisposed to dislike it not a little but a lot: I don’t like contemporary musicals or musical theatre culture or the contemporary movie theatre going experience with its shoving of ten other movies down your throat, followed by instructions about what you can and cannot do while you’re privileged to sit in some corporation’s theatre. And I’m guessing others might feel the same way about modern cinema chains, for we were subjected to no less than two PSAs thanking us for attending a movie in a cinema, which reminded me a great deal of the prerecorded messages you used to get in the final days of pay phones (i.e. phone booth phones): “Thank you for choosing [whatever the service was]”, a clear sign that this formerly preeminent force was now in fear for its life.

But mostly my trepidation rested on the fact that I know something about P.T. Barnum, he’s a kind of hero to me, I’ve written about him many times here and elsewhere, he’s a distant relative of mine (we’re both descended from Thomas Barnum, 1625-1695), I’ve played him on stage, and I’ve spoken about him (twice in the Barnum Museum, located in the town Barnum built, Bridgeport, Connecticut). Ironically this was the reason my friend had asked me to attend. But my friend doesn’t know me that well. I walk out of plays and movies all the time. If I feel betrayed by an experience I see no compunction to remain and be tortured, and what is being forced to watch something you don’t want to watch but mind rape? (For a very similar experience, see my earlier review  of the James Franco Oz movie, entitled “The New Oz Movie is a Piece of Crap”). In such cases, I thank God I have a pair of working legs, and use them.

So I only made it fifteen or twenty minutes into The Greatest Showman. I had been ready to leave after the first minute. The opening musical number, which does nothing to evoke or honor Barnum or his times musically, was all I needed to know that I would hate the movie with every fiber of my being.  Yet I felt obligated to stay, as my friend had bought the ticket, and we were seated in the center of our row, surrounded on both sides by kids who, judging by their conversation, were extras in the film, I guess. So I sat and suffered for a few minutes.

Now, know this: I was actually ready to cut the film a good bit of slack. As I wrote in this multi part series, the bio-pic, especially the musical bio-pic, is the hardest of all dramatic forms to get right. In fact, I’m not sure anyone has ever gotten it completely right. I know the challenges of trying to wrestle reality into an aesthetic shape. I’ve done it several times myself.  One of the great geniuses of biographical drama, Shakespeare, made masterpieces because he wisely placed drama above facts, for he was a playwright, not a historian. So I don’t require a slavish devotion to reality. But I do require it be within shouting distance of the ballpark. And The Greatest Showman is several hundred miles outside the city that contains the ballpark.

The opening scenes of The Greatest Showman present us with the spectacle of P.T. Barnum as a penniless, homeless orphan boy on the streets of New York, with dirt on his face and holes in his shoes. (Except he may have a father or an uncle, the relationship with the man is unclear). The actual Barnum was raised in a solid middle class family in small town Connecticut. He had a large, close knit family.  Barnum was indeed a hustler with class aspirations. He was entrepreneurial. He had years of struggle. But when quite a young man he had successes under his belt that would have held anyone aloft — he had been a storekeeper (i.e. he owned a store), he had published a newspaper, he had run a successful lottery operation. He was a kind of hero and definitely a leader in his hometown of Bethel, Connecticut. Not some loser with no apparent future, as his father-in-law is depicted as casting him as here. Why the film takes this tack is unclear except perhaps they are trying to make the Barnum story into a Horatio Alger one. It’s a great idea to do a Horatio Alger story, but that is not Barnum’s. Change the character’s name to Ragged Dick if that’s the story you want to tell.

Then they go on to depict the adult Barnum as some sort of drudge (book-keeper, printing stock certificates or something?) at some large concern that goes bankrupt and lets everyone go. This never happened. Barnum was always an independent operator. His own boss. That is the whole point of P.T. Barnum. Why is that even in there?

But whether or not you care about Barnum, the film contains colossal, unbearable stupidities about history in general within its first few minutes. Barnum moved to New York City in the 1830s. But in the background the film shows the Brooklyn Bridge being built, which was started in 1869 and completed in 1883, and the Flatiron Building being constructed, which was completed in 1902. Further, the Barnums are depicted as living in a tenement building of the sort that were not common until Barnum was a wealthy, substantial man. These liberties are so egregious, such a palpable unnecessary outrage, I needed to leave immediately. This is stuff a teenage intern could have told you. So if the filmmakers didn’t know, it’s unforgivable, and if they didn’t care, it’s doubly unforgivable. Either way, I’m getting the fuck out of here.

As I was struggling with the dilemma, the screenwriters had Charity Barnum say, “Look who just moseyed into the old corral!” when her husband comes home. Why is a woman in 1830 uttering a cliche from Hollywood western films a hundred years in the future? I don’t know, I don’t want to know, I don’t need to know. I fled into the glorious world outside the theatre where The Greatest Showman was not happening and walked all the way from Times Square to the 2nd Avenue F stop to sweat the movie out of my system. If all goes well, I’ll never see another frame of it ever again. Judging from the all-important opening beats of the film, the movie has nothing to do with P.T. Barnum or 19th century New York. Those are what I had hoped to see depicted, and they weren’t. Feel free to watch and enjoy the movie if you have some other agenda, but don’t let me know about it.

13 comments

  1. It’s funny how they left P.T Barnum exploitative nature out of the movie. Like how he rose to fame by exploiting an 80-year old slave claiming she was 160. I believe he later went on to sell tickets to her autopsy.

    Seems like not the best character to idealize on a screen if you ask me.

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  2. I’m a teen and many of my friends say its the best movie ever I in fact refuse to see it as the music is awful and sounds like people screeching I just physically cant stand it.

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  3. SPOT ON! I had the same reaction! I suffered through the whole thing too as I sat with my children, and it was all I could do to refrain from bursting out “are you kidding me?”, “why?”, and “THAT never happened!” I felt insulted. I too felt it just bore the Barnum name…and in my opinion just for the promotional opportunities. Had it been “just a story” as a mother and an entertainer I would have been entertained and inspired. I didn’t see the point of this, though. So I ultimately saw it as a humbug, as I can respect and appreciate the costumes and modern music…although I felt the
    music didn’t fit this setting. Look me up on FB, cousin. We, too, are from Thomas Barnum’s line.
    -Dana L. Barnum

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    • Yay! Nice to meet a Barnum! The world awaits a good Barnum movie. Such an incredible story needs to be told — why change anything? I still haven’t seen the one from the ’30s, “The Mighty Barnum”, though I’m dying to. There was a tv movie with Beau Bridges that was fine for what it was, but not nearly as spectacular as it could be. And the Broadway musical, which is pretty good, though I think there is still room for something that balances facts, drama and spectacle — a historical epic on the order of “Titanic”

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  4. Very well written. I totally agree with your outrage. Thanks for speaking so eloquently for many us, who happen to enjoy historically accurate stories.

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      • Inaccurate of course, but I still recommend “The Seven Little Foys” for Vaudeville kids, or even more inaccurate, “ The Star Maker” which many of my students have enjoyed in parts. Do you have any other movie suggestions for elementary age kids, who are just learning that Vaudeville existed?
        Just curious.

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      • I love “The Seven Little Foys”! Also, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is surprisingly accurate about the Cohan’s early years. It’s airing on TCM tonight!

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      • I love YDD too, but not enough young Georgie Cohan to hold little kids for long. My own 2 kids wanted to perform vaude after seeing the play “Will Rogers Follies”. You’re the only person I can think of, (that might be mildly interested in the fact,) that I’m trying to get my Kids Vaudeville lessons, as a regularly offered After School Enrichment Program. Do you know of anyone else pursuing this cause?

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