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How Historically Accurate is "The Greatest Showman"?

By Rebekah Skeens
On February 1, 2018

"The Greatest Showman" takes creative liberty with the life of P.T. Barnum.
Photo Courtesy of Digital Spy










    Inspired by the life of Phineas Taylor Barnum (P.T. Barnum), musical “The Greatest Showman” tells the story of a young man who used his imagination to become the most successful showman in the world. But how historically accurate is this charming musical?

Hugh Jackman takes on the role of P.T Barnum in this thrilling movie for all ages. It begins with Barnum, the son of a tailor in Connecticut. Before long, he has married his dearest love Charity Hallett, portrayed by Michelle Williams, and has received an office job. Before long, his two daughters are born. He is unexpectedly laid off and forced to make work for himself elsewhere, launching him into fame.

According to an article from History vs. Hollywood, P.T. Barnum never actually was laid off. Nor was that his only source of income. He had a large amount of money invested in a general store and the lottery. His decision to go into the show business was his alone. Because of the angle used here, the viewers believe that Barnum had zero success until the opening of his museum.

P.T Barnum dreams of giving his family the most amazing life, full of hope and imagination. He opens the American Museum in New York, which is not as successful as he had hoped. With this failure, he then goes on a search for real people who are unique in their own way. Along his journey, he finds a bearded lady, fully tattooed man, dog faced boy, a dwarf, and people of all shapes and sizes. These extraordinary people have been looked down upon their entire lives until Barnum brings them together and makes them unashamed of who they are.

Before long, the entire town, state, and country is talking about The Greatest Show. With help from Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), moneyed playwright, his show business rapidly grows. Of course, not everyone is on board with the idea, as many start riots outside of Barnum’s building.

According to Betsy Golden Kellem of Vanity Fair Magazine, the character of Phillip Carlyle was completely made up. The purpose of his character was solely for entertainment. The love side plot between Carlyle and trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) is fictional. This interracial relationship and characters are an inaccuracy.

When Barnum tries to get the acceptance of high society members, he begins highlighting “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind, portrayed by Rebecca Ferguson. Did the kiss between Swedish opera singer, Jenny Lind and P.T Barnum occur? According to History vs. Hollywood, this is another historically inaccurate scene in the movie. While Lind does make advances toward Barnum, it was never proven that they were romantically involved. The movie portrays her as someone trying to separate the happy family. Lind is not a very likable character and only creates chaos, and largely serves to create personal conflict for the main characters.

P.T. Barnum’s American Museum burned to the ground in the early 1860s, according to historical records. While it was most likely arson, an origin for the fire was never realized. In the film, several rioters set the fire, and he moves his business inside a tent. In reality, he did not have to do that until the late 1860s.

In the end, he comes back to his family, particularly to watch his girls grow up.

Audience member Kaitlin McBride states, “The film possessed a good variation of captivating scenes, as well as a look into the trials Mr. Barnum and his family experienced. However, I was surprised to learn that the movie is classified as a musical.” McBride went on to mention how she felt it was overall a good movie and that the special effects were one of the most impressive parts.

The movie is full of humor and impressive choreography. A livelier version of P.T. Barnum’s life, audiences are dazzled by characters and special effects. The musical was impeccable and kept interest throughout.

The positives of the film outweigh the negatives. Unfortunately, the quality of the musical talents is lacking. While this takes away only slightly from the production quality, at times it is overwhelming. There are several historical inaccuracies, including things that have been added or taken away to improve the quality of the film. Though there are inaccurate scenes, this is still an overall entertaining and enlightening film for anyone interested in the inspirational story of Mr. Barnum. 



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