Hollywood has produced a terrific, though historically inaccurate, movie based on the life of showman P.T. Barnum. It is a singing and dancing extravaganza that is highly compelling, though the songs are of the pop variety. Even so, the opening sequence alone, which recapitulates the story of Barnum’s fictional life, is worth the price of admission.
The movie tells the story of a young hustler trying to make a living in New York City circa 1870. He loses his job as a clerk in a shipping company when the firm’s ships sink in a typhoon, but he manages to steal documents purporting to show he owns the ships, the fate of which he hides from the bank that accepts them as collateral for a loan.
Barnum takes the loan and opens a museum of wax figures, a venture no one is much interested in. His children suggest he put something “live” into the museum and he hits upon showing “freaks”: a midget billed as Tom Thumb, a bearded lady, a tattooed lady, a fat man. He also hires a young black woman and her brother as trapeze artists. The show is a massive hit.
The public is of two minds about Barnum’s circus. While the seats are filled every night with enthusiastic fans, a small coterie of protesters shout and sneer outside. And where Barnum hungers for the approval of the upper classes, the elite, they look down upon him and his freaks.
Our sympathy extends to the freaks over against the intolerant townspeople who picket the theater and the elites who look down their noses at these people who are merely different, born that way, you might say.
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