27 November 2005 | rsoonsa
Applause Is Fitting For This Delight-Loaded Film.
It is very appropriate that former acrobat and trapeze artist Burt Lancaster should play as Phineas T. Barnum, in a well-crafted biographic film produced for television with an adequate budget and a top-flight cast that helps to enable director Lee Phillips apply nicely focused leadership in this treatment of Barnum's eventful life. Action opens in 1883 as a circus performance is in preparation, with 70 year old Barnum, surrounded by acrobats, jugglers, animals and clowns, talking to the camera as he recalls (through flashbacks) a series of dramatized events that have brought him to this stage of his career (he discloses that he did not conceptualize of a circus until he had passed the age of 60). We see young Barnum with his grandfather, Phineas Taylor (a solid turn by Michael Higgins) for whom the lad is namesake, as Taylor advises the youngster to always credit and honour imagination: "the seed of genius, the elixir of life", words that leave a lasting effect upon the impressionable boy. Subsequent highlights include the larger-than-life entrepreneur's development of such attractions as Joice Heth, purportedly a slave of 161 years, diminutive "General" Tom Thumb, Jennie Lind, "The Swedish Nightingale", and Jumbo, a gigantic elephant, eventually arriving at Barnum's business merger with James Bailey, resulting in "The Greatest Show on Earth". The financial compact arranged between Barnum and Lind (Hanna Schygulla), who was aware of the value of promotional advertising and who therefore permitted him to retain 70% of the profits from her highly successful touring, is covered in some detail; however, there is simply too much fascinating content within this man's lifespan to do it justice with normal cinematic restrictions. This is a splendidly mounted and costumed film that never flagrantly strays far from documented truth, and enjoys ably atmospheric scoring by Charles Gross and the skillful cinematography of Reginald Morris, benefiting a well-selected cast that gives nary a weak performance, Lancaster providing a magnificent turn as the showman with Schygulla a standout, as well.