What Hollywood needs right now is some good, honest “humbug.” Not the flat-out larcenous kind, like a fake medium charging for messages from a dead uncle. But the wit, verve, and, yes, wink of deception that are the soul of show business, as P.T. Barnum, the master American showman, might have defined it.
Fortunately, Barnum and some of his lessons are coming to town, in an unusual movie set for release by 20th Century Fox on Christmas, with some likely pre-release hoopla at festivals or otherwise in the fall. Directed by Michael Gracey, an Australian mostly known for his work on television commercials, the film is titled The Greatest Showman. Like last year’s La La Land, it is an original movie musical—the very concept defies the contemporary laws of cinematic gravity—and it counts the Oscar-winning La La Land composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul among its contributors.
Hugh Jackman plays Barnum, the 19th century trickster, impresario, and master of entertainment, both weird and wonderful. (The film credits include Oh So Small Productions, a British-based agency for short, dwarf and tall actors—so you can expect some delightful extremes.) More, Jackman, along with Laurence Mark, is a producer of The Greatest Showman, which, not incidentally, was conceived about eight years ago when Jackman was the host of an Oscar show produced by Mark and Bill Condon, who is among the new movie’s writers.
The Jackman-Condon-Mark Oscar ceremony was all about show business. Light on politics, heavy on song-and-dance, it relied on sequences contributed by movie insiders like Nora Ephron, Baz Luhrmann and Judd Apatow. In the middle of the fun, someone got the bright idea that Jackman, a showman to the core, should play Barnum, the brassiest entertainer of them all.
Oddly, Phineas Taylor Barnum, born in 1810, had all but escaped the clutches of a movie business that owes him more than it sometimes likes to admit. After all, it was Barnum who refined the art of “humbug”—we’d call it “hype”—drawing a distinction between outright fraud, which he loathed, and a kind of entertaining deceit in which the paying audience was cheerfully complicit. His more outrageous attractions, including the supposedly 161-year-old woman who had been George Washington’s nursemaid and a “Feejee Mermaid” apparently crafted from a fish and a monkey, relied on what film students now describe as the willing suspension of disbelief. “He understood that American audiences did not mind cries of trickery; in fact they delighted in debate,” Neil Harris wrote in his 1973 book Humbug: The Art Of P. T. Barnum.
“Amusement and deceit could co-exist; people would come to see something they suspected might be an exaggeration or even a masquerade,” continued Harris, in what might have passed for a description of the modern film audience and its relationship with ever more elaborate stunts and effects. Yet the movies pretty much looked away from Barnum after Wallace Beery played him in a drama called The Mighty Barnum in 1934. John Huston, who was supposed to write the film, had become fascinated with what he came to see as Barnum’s unplumbed depths. In his autobiography, An Open Book, Huston said he found in Barnum’s “wild energy, boundless vulgarity and casual assumption that he was the shrewdest man alive, an exemplification of the nineteenth-century American dream of conquest and Manifest Destiny.” That was enough to panic the producer Darryl Zanuck, who went with another writer and a less earnest approach. The resulting film, wrote Variety in its review, “possesses all the elements, except an occasional lack of speed.” (It was all of 87 minutes long.)
But The Greatest Showman now promises to arrive at a time when the movie business needs a dose of P.T. Barnum. Bored with its own summer sequels, Hollywood has to make do with tub-thumping the success of Wonder Woman—which appears to have posted the 43d-biggest opening of all time, without the annoying demotion of an inflation-adjustment, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.
Tech giants, meanwhile, have appropriated all the best hype. Robots will replace people in 45 years! Jeff Bezos will live forever!! Elon Musk will send the rich on tour buses to Mars!!! Competing movie promotions, by contrast, have about as much energy as those wrap-around posters on trash cans at the beach. (Is it any wonder millions forgot to watch Pirates Of The Caribbean 5?)
Even The Mighty Barnum had enough spirit to circulate seemingly magical blank posters that, when rubbed with a pencil, revealed oddities that “Barnum found to amaze all the world!” One oddity appears to have been a tattooed lady, perhaps not as amazing now as then. But we can hope that Jackman and company will soon bring some humbug back to a business that needs it.