The life of the great showman receives a less effective treatment than one might expect with Beery in the title role, but there are moments that recapture that golden era of color and panache when Barnum excited the world with his spectacular attractions. Beery is disarming and prosaic in
his antics to enhance his New York City general goods store by populating it with sideshow freaks, much to the disgust of his New England wife Beecher. The store grows into an emporium of freaks and curiosities, but trouble arises when La Verne, playing the reported 100-year-old nursemaid to
George Washington, is exposed as a fraud, as is Boley, the Bearded Lady. Undaunted, Beery goes after bigger and bigger attractions, signing British singer Jenny Lind (Bruce) and bringing her to New York, where she becomes the rage. Next the great showman signs on George Brasno, playing the role of
the inimitable Tom Thumb, and his fortunes soar. But the bumbling Beery soon alienates Bruce by giving a party in her honor and then disgracing her through his awkward fumbling. Through his romancing of Bruce, Beery loses the affections of Beecher, who leaves him and returns to New England. He has
also lost the friendship of his dearest pal, Menjou, playing Bailey Walsh, who has taken to drink over Barnum's follies. Then he loses Bruce and finally his museum. But the very people he has supported for years, the freaks, come to his rescue, providing money for Beery to continue his museum.
Beecher also returns to stay by his side. Disaster again strikes when the museum is burned down by competitors. But Beery cannot be licked. Menjou shows up, a reformed drunk full of plans. With him is a gigantic elephant, Jumbo, a present from Bruce to Beery. As Beery, Menjou, and the elephant
head a Manhattan parade, Beery excitedly outlines his plans to start a circus, "the greatest show on earth," which will be known as Barnum and Bailey. (Walsh used his first name for the alliance for alliterative purposes.) The rest, as they say, is history. Beery holds this one together and Menjou
is effective in his few scenes. The wonderful collection of colorful characters makes the film special, but Beecher is limp in her role of the long-suffering wife and Bruce is less than believable as songstress Lind, her voice being dubbed.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: The life of the great showman receives a less effective treatment than one might expect with Beery in the title role, but there are moments that recapture that golden era of color and panache when Barnum excited the world with his spectacular attractions.… (more)