31 January 2010 | BrianDanaCamp
Unusual biopic highlighting P.T. Barnum and his freak show
THE MIGHTY BARNUM (1934) would make an interesting double bill with Tod Browning's horror film, FREAKS (1932). Both films employed a number of actual freaks in their casts. While FREAKS portrayed them in an exotic way, with a certain sinister undertone, particularly in the horrific finale, BARNUM treats them as ordinary people and gives at least three of them substantial dialogue scenes in which they interact with Mr. Barnum (Wallace Beery). At one point, they descend on Barnum's house to make certain demands and Barnum indignantly dismisses them as "freaks" and sends them away. Later, when Barnum is down and out, the midget Tom Thumb (or "General" Tom Thumb as Barnum christens him), played by George Brasno, finds Barnum on a park bench on a cold night and invites him to his home, where all the other freaks soon gather to show their support for Barnum and offer to participate in a new venture with him. It's quite a touching scene and a far cry from the behavior of the title characters in FREAKS.
I always find it interesting when historical figures turn up unexpectedly in old movies. Virginia Bruce as Swedish singer Jenny Lind is, of course, a major figure in the film, but who expected poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to appear as a special guest at the banquet in Lind's honor? Played by Frederick Vroom, he has one line in which he declares he'd be delighted to compose a poem about her. A recurring character is a newspaper publisher named Greeley. When we see the newspaper headlines about his feud with Barnum, his name is printed as James Gordon Greeley, suggesting a composite based on two pioneering New York newspapermen of the 19th century, James Gordon Bennett and Horace Greeley. However, in the closing cast list, the character name is given as Horace Greeley. Also, Daniel Webster is listed as a character in the cast list, but I spotted no character in the film identified as Webster or anyone even resembling him.
The film is played as a series of vignettes occurring over a span of decades. Each sequence ends with a fade-out. Most seem to be played for laughs. One funny bit has Barnum asking his old Swedish masseur how to compliment Miss Lind on her loveliness in Swedish. Barnum is supplied with a phrase which, when uttered at the banquet, has catastrophic results. Did Barnum mangle the phrase or did the old Swede pull a prank on him? Only a Swedish speaker can tell you. Early on, there's a comic scene involving Barnum's attempt to find out if the Bearded Lady is really a lady, in answer to charges of fraud. The lady (played by actress May Boley, who wasn't bearded in her other films) thinks Barnum's attention is of a romantic nature and she responds in kind. (Hey, even a bearded lady needs love.)
There's a romantic subplot about Barnum's beautiful teenage niece, Ellen (Rochelle Hudson, who was 18 at the time), falling in love with Barnum's middle-aged partner, Walsh (Adolphe Menjou, who was 44 at the time). After they kiss (amidst a set of contrivances too complicated to explain), she reveals her feelings about him, only to be told she's too young. She asks him to promise to wait until she's of age. Years go by and Barnum becomes a successful entrepreneur and one day Walsh returns from Europe with Jenny Lind, the world-famous "Swedish nightingale," under contract. Ellen is there at the dock to greet them and happily announces to Walsh that upon her birthday next Tuesday she'll finally be of age. Now, the earlier scene of Walsh and Ellen took place in 1835 and the historical record shows that Jenny Lind came over to the U.S. in 1850. Some rather puzzling math, huh? The movie takes place over the course of some 45 years if you go by the timeline in any biographical entry on Barnum, yet every major character looks exactly the same throughout.