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.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.