The Greatest Showman is a shiny, sugar-coated musical version of P. T. Barnum’s rise to fame.
I’ve written a couple of times about Charles Stratton, who used the stage name General Tom Thumb. Although there's been a documentary about him and he's been depicted in a few plays or movies about Barnum, this is the first time I've seen his story told onscreen.
Stratton is played by Sam Humphrey, who has skeletal dysplasia and actually stands 4’2”. (The real Stratton was a little over two feet tall when he began performing as a child, and eventually reached 3.25 feet.) Also, Humphrey’s voice is much higher in interviews. In the movie, he’s been dubbed with a different, deeper voice. I did think his face bore a pretty good resemblance to the real Stratton's and I liked his performance overall.
(EDIT: Thanks, Elizabeth, for the heads up - James Babson was the voice of Tom Thumb. I also found more information on how the movie was made. To make Humphrey look shorter, he knelt or was filmed with his legs out of frame, and his legs were digitally edited in scenes where they were visible.)
I had a feeling that his role might be little more than a cameo. The movie is about Barnum, not Stratton, after all. However, it turns out that General Tom Thumb is instrumental to the plot at a couple of points.
P. T. Barnum lives in poverty with his wife and two children until he comes up with the idea of opening his own museum. While at the bank seeking a loan, Barnum notices Charles, a sharp-tongued young man only two feet tall. (Here, he’s twenty-two years old, but in real life he was only four when he met Barnum.) Barnum then goes home and notices his daughter’s picture book about Tom Thumb, which gives him the rest of his inspiration. Instead of a museum full of wax figures and stuffed animals, he needs something living. Out to the street he goes, posting advertisements for human “oddities." He also pays a visit to the Stratton home, where he wins Charles over.
Out of the crowd of performers, Charles Stratton and the bearded lady Lettie Lutz have the most lines and the most screen time. (There’s also Zendaya as an acrobat who falls in love with Zac Efron.) The group quickly bonds and comes to see each other as family, as well as rediscover their self-worth and confidence. I would have liked to see more of their performances, but it’s mainly people dancing around with an occasional CGI lion or elephant thrown in.
In reality, when Barnum took five-year-old Stratton on tour through England, his shows consisted of acting, singing, telling jokes, and doing impressions. (Again - five years old.) After a lot of work, Barnum managed to get them an audience with Queen Victoria. This allowed them to come back to America and start advertising with more gusto than ever.
The movie has a brief, creative adaptation of this. After the circus finds success in America, Zac Efron’s character obtains the invitation offscreen, and the whole circus family just bops over the Atlantic to visit the queen. When they have their audience, Queen Victoria specifically mentions having heard of General Tom Thumb. In turn, he manages to make her laugh with an irreverent comment. The visit is a success, and while at court, Barnum meets the opera singer Jenny Lind. This launches the movie into its next act.
I’d recommend this movie if you’re looking for a fun family film with lots of singing and dancing. My mom went with me to the theater and she loved it. Personally I liked the actors and the music. It’s not historically accurate and doesn’t try to be, but I don’t mind that. From the trailers, I expected that it would gloss over the reality in favor of feel-good follow-your-dreams be-yourself Hollywood glitter. It met my expectations there.
I do mind that it wipes away anything uncomfortable. Rather than exploitation, Barnum’s work is “a celebration of humanity.” Plus, other than lying to get a loan from the bank, Barnum doesn’t do much hoaxing. We see him exaggerating things, such as putting an already tall man on stilts, but we never see him fabricate anything. There are no Fiji mermaids here. There's certainly no Joice Heth (an elderly slave woman whom Barnum advertised as George Washington's 160-year-old "mammy"). So when Barnum talks about wanting to do something ‘real’ for once, or embraces his title as the Prince of Humbug, it’s a little confusing. His performers may be exaggerated, but they’re still genuine.
I would love to see something that delves more into the historical events and lets Barnum be his real, problematic self. I’d especially love to see a movie devoted to Charles Stratton or his wife Lavinia Warren.
Charles Stratton, more famous by his stage name General Tom Thumb, wed Lavinia Warren on on February 10, 1863. Both had a form of dwarfism and were among P. T. Barnum's most renowned performers. They toured the world and people gathered to marvel at their small size - Charles was 3'4" and Lavinia 2'8". They rode in a miniature carriage. They had miniature furniture.
All they needed was a miniature baby.
It was announced that their child was born on December 5, 1863. Most sources referred to it simply as a baby or child, and at least one periodical appeared to think it was a boy. The overwhelming evidence, however, points towards a baby girl who was named Minnie after her aunt. She went on tour with them and was mentioned by name as early as 1864 in English papers. There was some disagreement as to whether Minnie would take after her parents' "Lilliputian" stature, but she was undoubtedly a hit and always described as a very beautiful child. They sold a fortune's worth of pictures of the happy little family.
Tragically, less than three years later, newspapers reported that "Minnie Tom Thumb" (her nickname) had died. She suffered from an inflammation of the brain while in Norwich, where her parents were touring ("Foreign News and Gossip." Brooklyn Eagle. Oct 15, 1866). She was mentioned in Charles' obituary in the New York Times, and in 1882, the Strattons' manager, Sylvester Bleeker, said the child had looked just like her Aunt Minnie.
Then, in 1901, eighteen years after Charles' death, Lavinia told newspapers that she had never given birth at all.
Renting babies from orphanages? Abruptly announcing the child's death when the charade had run its course? It was exactly the type of thing people expected from Mr. P. T. "There's a sucker born every minute" Barnum. In fact, skeptics tended to preemptively declare Barnum's acts hoaxes; as soon as 1878, obituaries for Lavinia's sister mentioned "the spurious Thumb baby."
And the Strattons had played along with Barnum - or even suggested it to him in the first place. Tom Thumb's baby was all a hoax.
OR WAS IT?
In the BBC documentary "The Real Tom Thumb," historian John Gannon claims that they really did have a daughter. He produces a death certificate and burial record for "Minnie Warren Stratton, daughter of the celebrated General Tom Thumb," a contemporary news article, and finally a tombstone in Earlham Cemetery in Norwich.
The Norfolk News said that the private funeral was invaded by a crowd of about a thousand, and that the General planned to later have the body moved to America and reinterred (Norfolk News 29 September 1866 p.5). The reinternment never happened, and the grave still lies there today. Newspapers stated that the Strattons cancelled performances in order to grieve.
However, it has been accepted for over a hundred years that the child was a hoax. and John Gannon's records are far from conclusive evidence. Although it seems technically possible that Lavinia bore a daughter, the timeline makes it unlikely. She was performing onstage constantly during the year when the child would have to have been born.
Pregnancy would also have presented her with the same risks that took the life of her sister, who was even smaller than she was, and who died in 1878 after a painful and difficult childbirth. The baby died with her. It left a deep mark both on her family and on the public. Even years later, in 1892, an article on the wedding of Admiral and Mrs. Dot (another small pair of performers) said, “Every mother in the room thought of Minnie Warren, and felt a throb of fear at the risk this little woman in white was taking.” On the other hand, the same article indicates rumors “that Tom Thumb’s son is nearly six feet high, and that he is very proud of his little mother.”
There was no reason for Lavinia to say she'd faked a baby - willingly participating in such a hoax would not have made her look good. And it seems odd that, in her autobiography, she would mention the death of her sister (which affected her deeply) but not her daughter. As a matter of fact, her autobiography, which was probably written somewhere around 1900 or 1901, has no mention of a baby whatsoever. Because it was even more painful than her sister's death? Or because it had become an old shame?
Later on, Lavinia's family went out of their way to set the record straight. Her nephew, Benjamin J. Bump mentioned the baby hoax in his 1953 pamphlet, "The Story that Never Grows Old," and in his correspondence with researcher Alice Curtis Desmond. His wife Edna wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times on April 21, 1946, saying that "The Tom Thumbs never had a child."
It seems most likely that the Strattons never had children, but they may have grown attached to their surrogates. Based on the death record and grave, it seems that one of these borrowed children died in their care, and they grieved for her and had her buried under the name Minnie Warren Stratton.
That seems to have marked an end to the touring with babies. On the other hand, Bogdan in Picturing Disability dates one of the family photos to 1868, and Desmond reported in her 1954 book that they were exhibited with a baby in 1881 (page 215). On the other other hand, A. H. Saxon suggests that some European newspapers mistook Lavinia’s sister for a child (Autobiography). It was too long ago and there was too much misinformation to be sure.
What gives me more pause is the 1901 interview with Lavinia. Although this article is frequently quoted, something seems off with the math, and the mention of the child apparently reaching age four before any problem was seen. Even though this was decades later, and memory can fade, how does the life and death of "Minnie Warren Stratton" mesh with the baby boy described in that article?
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.