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It's amazing that an individual like PT Barnum actually existed at one time and film writers didn't have to go and create him. An extraordinary character for better or worse. Love old Hollywood though! ... as they got away with so many falsehoods. The opening caption of this movie makes no bones about it being non-truthful to the facts of Barnum's life. So at least 20th Century studios(there was no Fox yet) were just being honest about it. The flick is a lost opportunity to tell a much more coherent story as it jumps back and forth through many decades of Barnum's life & career mixing up events and taking them out of chronological order. The writers credited were top-notch. Gene Fowler was a well known novelist and Bess Meredith had been screenwriting since the silents. I think those two meant well but it just doesn't gell in the final product. Wallace Beery is well cast as PT Barnum physically but tends to lay on too much of his shifty-mugging self as he had done and continued to do in film after film. Director Walter Lang should have toned down Beery's mugging and had him be more subtle with more close-ups to his face. This would've made Beery as Barnum a little more introspective. It would have shown the audience what made Barnum tick!
HIGH POINTS in this production are: the inclusion of Rochelle Hudson in a role that I don't know is factual or not as Barnum's 'niece'. Hudson, twenty at the time and already a veteran screen actress is just delicious eye candy with a beautiful face. She brightens up this picture in all of her scenes. She was one of the prettiest actresses to come out of 30s Hollywood. The fire sequence where Barnum's Museum burned down and the caged animals caught in this trauma is pretty accurate as the real Barnum had about 5 to 10 fires and train wrecks. Virginia Bruce, attractive,like Hudson, makes a believable Jenny Lind. Jeanette MacDonald would have probably been ideal as she could really sing opera but Bruce is quite adequate. Many Barnum favorites are represented ie: Joice Heth, Tom & Lavinia Thumb, Jenny Lind, Jumbo the Elephant, The Bearded Lady and quick glimpses of other so-called Barnum 'freaks'.
INACCURACIES abound: Most notable is Janet Beecher's Mrs. Barnum. The question is which one is she playing? Beecher is obviously playing Barnum's first & long suffering wife Charity but in this film she's called Nancy which was the name of Barnum's much younger second wife Nancy Fish. Also dear ole Adolphe Menjou, who brings a touch of class to all of his roles, is playing a man named Walsh, Barnum's partner. Obviously Walsh is a thinly disguised James Bailey.(Surprisingly at the very end of the film Walsh reveals his 'first' name to Barnum, after decades of partnership, as being named "Bailey Walsh".) In reality James Bailey & PT Barnum would not join forces until near the end of Barnum's career. So Walsh(Bailey),having anything to do with early Barnum events such as with Jenny Lind or Tom Thumb, as shown in this movie, is just ludicrous. Another scene shows Tom Thumb & Lavinia Warren already married when they meet Barnum. Nada, as Barnum was the one who introduced Lavinia to Tom. Still another falsehood shown in this movie is that Jenny Lind sent Jumbo the Elephant to Barnum as a gift. Laughable as Lind had severed ties with Barnum thirty years before.
20th Century gave the Barnum legend a shot. It's a big production so the ambition was represented in that. But the true Barnum story got lost somewhere. My take is they KNEW enough of the true Barnum story to tell it accurately but proceeded nevertheless to purposely jumble the real events. A lost opportunity about a remarkable character.
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