‘The Greatest Showman’ Review, Pt. 2
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‘The Greatest Showman’ Review, Pt. 2

A failure of historical fact.

‘The Greatest Showman’ Review, Pt. 2

Joice Heth was one of America’s earliest celebrities. She was known in the nineteenth century as the oldest woman in the world—allegedly 161 years old and the former nursing mammy for George Washington himself. This believe-it-or-not type personality attracted attention not only from local audiences, but from the press and from curiosity-seekers abroad. According to Eric Lott, admissions to meet her could earn an impressive $1500 a day—over $35,000 in today’s money.

Joice Heth was also P.T. Barnum’s slave and never saw a penny of that money.

Heth was, in fact, Barnum’s first major exhibit. Despite the fact that she was blind and almost completely paralyzed, Barnum showed her to the public for twelve hours a day, six days a week. Her death in 1836 became Barnum’s second major exhibit. The public autopsy meant to verify her incredible age determined that she was actually around 80 when she died. Charismatic as ever, Barnum claimed that her death had been faked, that the real Heth was alive elsewhere, now 162 years old, and so on.

Barnum later admitted that the whole thing was a hoax.

This story is far from the only unsavory account of Barnum, but it is to me the most emblematic of what made him unsavory: he put spectacle before dignity. Whether that meant torturing elephants, boiling whales alive on stage, or exhibiting the deformed like members of a human zoo, Barnum didn’t blink an eye. It was show business.

If nothing else, the facts of Barnum’s history make watching "The Greatest Showman" profoundly uncomfortable. Audiences that love the movie would probably love it less if Hugh Jackman had conducted an autopsy of a newly-deceased paralytic and charged 50 cents per person for admission. Most people would not say the movie is automatically bad because of its inaccuracies, but… it’s in a weird spot.

The challenge of "The Greatest Showman"is that it is a historical musical. Musicals are fun. History is not. On one end you have the flamboyance of stories like "West Side Story" and "My Fair Lady," the allure of personalities like Fred Astaire and Idina Menzel—on the other end you have the meticulous storytelling of documentarians like Ken Burns and… all the historians interviewed by Ken Burns. Both fields are respectable in their own right, but they don’t often play well together.

“Hamilton” seems to be the sweet spot in terms of balancing historical accuracy and fun in a musical. It might polish Alexander into a bit more of a progressive than he actually was, but by the same token it doesn’t shy away from his real-life mistakes, such as the Reynolds affair. Barnum’s real-life mistakes were comparatively pretty gruesome. Watching a protagonist lie and cheat irredeemably would sap the fun out of any musical in a snap. Thus, "The Greatest Showman" substitutes Barnum’s profiteering and abuse for a fake affair—quite a coincidence after “Hamilton” had shown that an affair was an audience-friendly character flaw.

But "The Greatest Showman" is no “Hamilton.” Instead of addressing the flaws of its historical protagonist, the film whitewashes them. Barnum transforms from an old, cynical charlatan to a young, optimistic family man—but why? What does the film gain from rewriting history in such a way?

For one, it sells tickets.

The fake conflict, the fake affair, and the fake romantic subplot all make the film far more marketable than a Ken Burns documentary on Barnum would be. As many times as I’ve heard a movie criticized because “the book was better,” I’ve never heard anyone make the criticism that “the history book was better.” Audiences are far more defensive of fiction than of fact.

The grand irony of the situation is that Barnum is still selling tickets a century after his death. Once you get to know the historical Barnum, "The Greatest Showman" feels like another tall tale, another hoax, another spectacle specially designed to get butts in seats. But if we can learn anything from the story of Joice Heth, it’s that such spectacle comes at a cost. Barnum is remembered, but the slave who made him famous is forgotten. The woman who worked a 70-hour week to make this man rich gets no mention because she is not audience-friendly enough. That is the cost of spectacle: Heth’s voice, and person, and dignity.

"The Greatest Showman" is a film made in the spirit of Barnum, and as such, I cannot like it any more than I like the man.


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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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