Ladies and gents, roll up, roll up, as I offer to you a fantastic and surprising story. You’ll think you’re seeing one story. Then you’ll think it’s another. Actually it’s another story entirely.
Our story begins to be about a circus owner, before appearing to turn into a story about giving voice to people once considered to be deviants.
Yet, it would fail at both tales, because to romanticize historic circus owners would be wrong (and it couldn’t be clearer that the film is not a biopic) and to really give voice to so many people would require a different film entirely.
Instead, we have a fairly safe and conventional film in which the main characters are white, male, heterosexual, and going on the usual voyage of self discovery.
As such, its popularity can be ensured by appealing widely to a fairly conventional family audience without being too threatening to the people buying the tickets.
Yet, there is an unusually radical morality tale hidden within this safe morality tale if you conclude eventually that the white male heroes are not heroic at all.
At first glance, you think you’re being asked to root for them as they go on a journey at great risk to themselves for the benefit of other people.
At second glance, they act out of selfishness and ignorance, yet still do well despite their faults because, for them, the rewards are unusually high and the stakes will always be relatively low.
The main character is PT Barnum. At first, there is a lot to root for. He emerges from poverty after showing much tenacity and imagination. In the process, he sticks it to the upper classes – symbolised by Charity Barnum’s violently oppressive father – and shows that anyone from humble beginnings can end up rich and famous if they have a big enough chip on their shoulder.
Yet, really, his is a story of male hubris and selfishness, in which he manipulates the people he claims to care for, and takes all sorts of risks which affect the people around him more than himself. He is in the remarkably privileged position – afforded to very few other characters – to be able to fail then succeed; to emerge as the wise hero at the end.
The superficial moral is to treat people with respect, and be thankful for the love of a small group of people around you (a message handed to him by the heroically supportive Charity). The deeper moral is that our hero is not to be admired for his actions. Our main character is a clown who (*spoiler alert*) emerged victorious despite his faults. He did not get there on merit.
The second main character is Phillip Carlyle, a rich white man putting on theatrical plays and drinking a lot until he inherits massive wealth from his father. At first glance, he is cast in the heroic role of a man willing to give it all up for his dreams and for love. Yet, his economic position never really seems in doubt, wavering from super wealthy to merely wealthy.
More importantly, he appears heroic because he is (eventually) willing to undermine his social position to form a relationship with a black woman, Anne Wheeler.
Yet, Phillip quickly serves as the film’s representation of the ignorance of white men who do not understand the unequal negative effects, or unintended consequences, of collective positive action.
For him, the choice is simple: to declare their love, be defiant, and not care about the reactions of other people (including his racist and classist parents).
This act exposes his ignorance and prompts Anne to explain that she would bear the brunt of their decision. She would be continuously vulnerable to violence and abuse (and would have to choose to be totally reliant on a white man for support and protection, despite having no previous life experience prompting her to trust white men). She knows this because it is a constant part of her life experience, of which he is blissfully ignorant.
[The importance of racism to this story is reinforced in three brief scenes with WD Wheeler, Anne’s brother. In one scene, he warns correctly about the likely hostile and violent reaction of a white audience to black performers, even though Barnum clearly designs his recruitment of performers to shock.
In another, his brief knowing smile confirms to Anne their belief that black people will be excluded from their visit to the Queen, because exclusion has been their routine experience
In another, he punches a white man – part of a mob – who threatens him and calls him a ‘spook’].
This context does not occur to Charles at all. Then, when she explains, he dismisses her concerns (albeit melodically) before she rejects him.
In the end, Anne decides (*spoiler alert*) that a lifetime of external abuse for her is preferable to his horrible death, which really makes her the hero.
By the end, the two main male characters are totally delighted because their lives turned out brilliantly despite their ignorance and hubris. So, the film provides a realistic moral from a deliberately unrealistic premise.
🎤🎵🎶🎼 It also has some brilliant songs which make me cry every time I see it. I’ve seen it 7 times so far and I’ve lined up 2 more visits. I honestly don’t know why it’s so good, but I love it. Love it. Absolutely love it. If you go, sit in the front section. It has better sound and you can weep liberally and have a little dance when no one’s looking.