The unexpected success of Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum in "The Greatest Showman" has obviously provided Mill Creek Entertainment to release the largely forgotten 1986 production "Barnum" on DVD. The made-for-television production has one distinction: it stars Burt Lancaster as the legendary marketing genius. I found I liked the Jackman film more than I suspected I would, though I doubt I'll ever have the yearning to view it again. It made many concessions to modern audiences that robbed the film of its authenticity. (I loathe the gimmick found in many period dramas in which the characters speak in present-day vernacular.) "Barnum" is much more low-key and seems to make a sincere effort at presenting the titular figure's fascinating life with some degree of accuracy. Not being a Barnum scholar, I'll take for granted there's plenty of "artistic license" on display here as well. The movie opens with Barnum as a young boy, influenced by his uncle's encouragement to see and embrace the more fantastical aspects of life. The action quickly cuts to him as a young man (played by John Roney, who bears absolutely no resemblance to Lancaster at any stage of his life) working in a dead end job in a small town general store. He finds a way to turn a quick profit by engineering a sweepstakes in which the winner will get a substantial credit at the store. The result is a significant profit for the delighted owner, who shares the proceeds with him. The story meanders a bit through Barnum's early years as he falls in love with Charity (Laura Press), who he married at age 19. The couple would remain together for 50 years until her death. The film is interspersed with occasional scenes of elderly Barnum breaking the "Fourth Wall" and addressing viewers directly. The production gets a boost when Lancaster is finally on screen for the remainder of the tale. The screenplay clearly wants to present the showman in a favorable light and he's seen as a kindly, honest figure who delights in using hyperbole to sell his presentations of nature's oddities (including animals and people.) The script takes pains to point out that Barnum always resented being labeled as the man who said "There's a sucker born every minute" and we see him rage against this "quote" that was made up by a newspaper columnist. In the film, Barnum admits to using creative marketing techniques but stresses he treasures and respects his audiences. The movie addresses some of his personal shortcomings, as well. Apparently, the great showman was also a lousy businessman, and we see him make and lose fortunes due to dubious financial dealings with dubious partners. The film chronicles his career highlights from making the little person he dubbed Tom Thumb (Sandor Raski) into an international phenomenon who was invited to meet Queen Victoria. There was also the building of his museums, both of which burned down (once by arson). In his later years, he rebounds and it's interesting to note that Barnum never owned a circus until he was over 60 years old. His importation from England of the giant, trained elephant Jumbo elevated his reputation once again. The film also compellingly shows how he audaciously signed singer Jenny Lind (well played by Hanna Scygulla)to tour America without ever having heard her sing a note. When he discovers no one in America ever heard of her, he embarks on an aggressive marketing campaign that made audiences salivate for the eventual arrival of the woman dubbed "The Swedish Nightingale". (The film avoids any of the speculation that he engaged in a romance with her, a historical debate that is given prominence in the Hugh Jackman movie.)
"Barnum" was directed by Lee Philips, a respected television director whose work here is efficient but unremarkable. The production values are impressive but the pace is often pedantic and unexciting. The strategy of having Barnum address the viewer to relate the highs and lows of his life chronologically looks like an attempt to check off the boxes by rote in order to cram facts into a production that had to make room for commercial breaks. Still there are areas of interest. Following his first wife's death, for example, Barnum found wedded bliss again by marrying at age 64 to a woman who was 40 years younger. The story ends with the formation of his partnership with James Baily to create the famed circus that bore their names (though it doesn't delve into their many business disputes.) The TV movie rests almost entirely on Burt Lancaster's broad shoulders and even at age 72, he still had the trademark toothy smile and distinctive laugh and charisma. Lancaster never gave a bad performance he brings gentle dignity to the role of Barnum.
The Mill Creek transfer is disappointing and at times looks like it was mastered from a VHS tape. Doubtless, the company used the best transfer available but there should be a disclaimer saying as much at the beginning, a policy the Warner Archive often employs. As with most Mill Creek releases there are no bonus features. However, the company is generous in providing digital copies of their releases and this is the case with "Barnum" as well- and it's most welcome.