tek's rating: ¼

P.T. Barnum, on A&E
IMDb; Sonar Entertainment; TVarchive.ca; TV Tango

Caution: spoilers!

So, this first aired in 1999, but I didn't see it until 2013, on DVD (in a 2-disc set that also included The Infinite Worlds of H.G. Wells). Before seeing it, I didn't know much of anything about Barnum; I basically just associated his name with the circus. But apparently he did a lot of stuff before that. In fact, he pretty much revolutionized the concepts of advertising and show business. I'm not sure how much liberty the story takes with actual history, but it's fairly interesting to see just how much we take for granted simply didn't exist, or existed in drastically different form, before he changed things. (Wikipedia doesn't have an article on the miniseries, but you could read their article on P. T. Barnum himself.) Um... so, I'm gonna try to list as much of what happens in the movie as I can, which might be considered spoilers, but I don't think my few words really compare to watching it, which should still be enjoyable for you, I think. What's more important than what happens is how Barnum makes things happen, and how he deals with both successes and failures. (And incidentally, while I seem to say a lot, I am leaving out any number of details.)

Anyway, part one starts in 1891, when Phineas Taylor Barnum is on his deathbed, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. But it quickly flashes back to 1826, in Brooklyn, New York (when he was about 16). After a very brief scene, it again flashes forward, to 1829, in Bethel, Connecticut. It's not exactly clear to me how or why certain things changed. I know his father had died at some point prior to the Brooklyn scene, which vaguely involved cattle, I guess. Maybe he was selling them. Or something. Honestly, the scene seemed to serve no real purpose. But anyway, in 1829, he was working in a little general store... which I guess belonged to his grandfather. (Phineas's father had been a preacher, I think. I could have misunderstood, though. And I don't think we ever heard anything about his mother). But in this scene, we quickly find that Phin is an imaginitive young man, with big plans for the future. And we meet a young woman named Charity, who soon marries him. While honeymooning in New York, he shows Charity this boring old place called Scudder's American Museum. He had plans to open a "museum" of his own, which would be more about entertainment. But that's just a dream, for now. The story soon flashes forward to the birth of their first child, Caroline. Believing he needs to provide a better life for his daughter, he decides to finally start working toward his goals.

This begins with taking over a traveling show where a slave woman claimed to have been the nursemaid of George Washington (which would make her 161 years old). He knew this wasn't true, and he was sure everyone else knew it, too, but thought people just wanted to allow themselves to believe things for entertainment purposes. (Which seems pretty reasonable to me, though at the time it could be considered a hoax, and cause a scandal if the truth came out.) Anyway, he greatly improved the show (which had been running out of steam before he bought and freed the woman). I guess the show become successful for him, for some years (I don't think they mentioned a year for the next flash forward, but Caroline was at least a few years old). And... well, the act couldn't last forever. But Barnum started a friendship with the editor of a newspaper, the Sun, which would prove a useful connection over the years. And he was briefly associated with a circus, which allowed him to make some money, but... that didn't last long. He has a second daughter, Helen, and the movie flashes forward again... at which point (35 minutes into the first half of the miniseries) the role of Barnum switches from Jordan Bridges to Beau Bridges. (And Charity switches from Natalie Radford to Cynthia Dale.)

Again, I didn't see a year mentioned, but he's been... I think... staying at home more often, in the years between scenes. Really, the movie didn't make it at all clear what he'd been doing, as far as I could tell. But basically, it sounded like he'd put his dreams of showmanship on hold, to stay with his family. Anyway, after the jump forward, an opportunity arises to buy Scudder's, though he has no money. So he tries to make a deal with a lawyer named Olmstead, but that doesn't exactly work out. Barnum is clever, though, and manages to force a deal, which allows him to open "Barnum's American Museum." (Wikipedia says this happened in 1841.) And he takes on an assistant manager named Greenwood. And they begin displaying all sorts of "curiosities," which make the museum popular. But Barnum has to go back to doing a lot of traveling, looking for new attractions for the museum, which Charity isn't happy about. And eventually he meets this kid who, um, had a condition... some peculiar variety of dwarfism. Barnum makes a deal with the kid's father, and dubs him "General Tom Thumb." Tom becomes a very popular part of Barnum's show, and eventually they even appear before various European royals. Which of course means Barnum spends even more time away from his family. So, the more successful Phineas becomes, the more Charity begins to resent him. Things get worse after the death of their third daughter, Frances. But Barnum, even once he was rich, was obsessed with gaining the respect of members of high society... who in spite of his wealth, still looked down on him as a mere showman. To that end, he convinced the popular Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind to come perform at his museum/theater.

At the end of part one, in 1855, Barnum announces that he's retiring from running the museum, passing it on to Greenwood. He has new plans: building a new city, East Bridgeport, Connecticut. And he plans to write his autobiography. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, at some point Phineas and Charity had a fourth child, Pauline.

Part two starts with another brief scene in 1891, before flashing back to 1856. Barnum had suffered some kind of setback that isn't made very clear, but now he's deeply in debt. His eldest daughter, Caroline, is now married to a man named David, who comes from a wealthy family. They want Phineas, Charity, Helen, and Pauline to move in with them, but Phineas refuses. He still hopes to make enough money to pay off his debts and support his family himself. He goes on a tour of Europe with Tom Thumb, and by the end of 1857, his debts were paid off. However, while he was away, his fabulous home burned down, so the family had to move in with Caroline and David, after all. Oh, and Phin and Charity had a couple of grandkids. And I guess Helen married a young man named Sam (whom Phin got along with a lot better than he did David). And Phineas was offered a lecturing tour... which Charity encouraged him to go on, so apparently she had stopped resenting his travels.

Eventually, Greenwood started having trouble with the museum, and Barnum went back to help him, along with Sam. They decided to bring in a menagerie, but they put it under a tent, I guess. So once again we see something along the lines of a circus. But then something I'd been waiting for all along happened... the Civil War began. Barnum became heavily involved in supporting the Union, and even got help with that from some of his old adversaries. However, David took an opposing position on the war, which led to even greater strain between not only Barnum and David, but Barnum and Caroline. Meanwhile, Helen wasn't happy in her marriage to Sam. And Pauline decided she wanted to go into show business herself, as a singer, which Phineas was against, because he'd worked so hard to provide his children an education he'd never had himself.

But eventually the war ended. And apparently Phineas mended his relationship with Caroline. But Charity... well, it seemed to me like she was always sick. For so many years, I never saw her when she wasn't at least coughing a little, so I kind of thought she might have tuberculosis or something. But there was never any mention of her health, particularly, until, um... well, I usually had no clear idea of what year any scene was set in. It must have been the late 60s or early 70s when she was seen by a doctor who had been discovered by Helen. This doctor had some new ideas about the interaction of the brain and nervous system. Ideas so new that he had no idea how to treat her. Though it was pretty obvious there was a potential romantic connection between him and Helen (who was of course still married to Sam). Anyway, it was in 1873 that Charity died. Meanwhile, Sam had introduced Barnum to a couple of men who had a small traveling circus, which wasn't drawing crowds. So Barnum came up with new ideas on how to make the circus popular....

Gosh, so many things happen in the miniseries, and I'm sure tons of things from Barnum's real life and career are omitted entirely, while other things are barely mentioned in passing. I guess that's what happens when you try to compress decades into hours, but it does make it hard to follow. And I don't always know who certain characters are even when called by name. Anyway, um... I guess Pauline was a singer for awhile, but I think that ended when she married a man named Nathan. And Helen did run off with the doctor, but Sam continued working with Barnum. And something I neglected to mention was that during the time of Barnum's lecture tour, he met an Englishman named John Fish, who was a fan of his autobiography, which had helped him become a successful businessman, himself. He also met John's 11-year-old daughter, Nancy, who was obviously quite interested in Barnum, herself. Well, by the time Charity died, Nancy was a young woman- a few years younger than Pauline- and more interested in Phineas than ever. About a year after Charity's death, Nancy and Phineas got married. (And now I can say that we'd already seen her during the scenes set in 1891.) In spite of their 40 year age difference, they were both very much in love (not that Phin would ever stop loving Charity). Incidentally, I find it kind of amusing that early in the miniseries, a minor point was made of the fact that Charity was two years older than Phineas, as if that was such a big difference.

Anyway... Barnum pretty much took over the circus, and had a permanent place for it built in New York, the Hippodrome. It did quite well, but Barnum was always looking for ways to make it better. Though he did take some time off to enter politics, which is barely mentioned. But he got back into the circus business after... a certain personal loss, which I won't specify. Eventually he merged his circus with that of James Bailey (who had a partner named Cooper, who I'd never heard of), creating what we now know as the Barnum & Bailey Circus. But because the name "Hippodrome" was so associated with Barnum (even though it was actually an ancient name), Bailey wanted a new name... so apparently the place was renamed Madison Square Garden. And... in 1882, Barnum acquired a giant elephant that he named Jumbo. (Apparently the word "jumbo" didn't exist before that. I'm not sure, though, because throughout the movie he occasionally makes up new words and phrases that are quite common now... but I'm fairly sure some of them didn't come into the vernacular because of Barnum. It's hard to be sure which ones he may genuinely deserve credit for.)

Um... so there were brief glimpses of 1891 throughout the second part of the miniseries, and of course that's where the very end takes place. We could see the end coming since the very beginning, but still... I thought when it finally came, it was rather abrupt. And it seemed like nearly the last decade of Barnum's life was just not shown at all. Maybe he slacked off in his old age, but I doubt it. After watching this, it's hard to imagine anyone having done more living than P.T. Barnum. Certainly there can't ever have been a greater showman. And... I guess that's all I can think to say. However many details the miniseries left out, rushed through, glossed over, or altered from real history, it was certainly interesting and reasonably entertaining. (I mean, it was no P.T. Barnum show, but what is?)


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