barnum poster

As was the case with many of the legendary actors of the studio era who came along in the forties and fifties, Burt Lancaster moved into the television  movie during the final years of his acting career. Casting Burt as legendary showman P.T. Barnum is a perfect match. It allowed Burt the chance to play a role bigger than life and once again hang out at the circus where he got as start with pal Nick Cravat as trapeze performers before he took Hollywood by storm in 1946.

burt as barnum

Burt addresses the camera directly as he tells us the tale that is the life of Phineas Taylor Barnum. Lancaster looks back and tells the story of his early years when his father inspired him to use his imagination to see whatever he chose to. Using a child actor allows Burt to let us see the story of his early years and as a young man working in an emporium where he gets ‘taken” in a deal. Humbugged as he loves to describe it.

The younger actor in the role of Barnum played by John Roney is raising a family and trying to make ends meet when he buys a slave who is said to be 161 years old who at one time was believed to be the nanny of a young George Washington. And so the exhibits begin and the money for selling tickets turns Barnum into a wealthy man. Fortunes will easily come and go in his lifetime.

Moving along in the story as told by the elder Lancaster, Burt actually steps in and portrays Barnum in our flashbacks for the remaining hour of the film. It’s with great delight that he meets a tiny man he dubs Tom Thumb. A legend is born and the little man’s fame takes the pair all the way to Europe where they meet the Queen of England and tour the continent.

tom thumb in barnum

Burt gets a chance to shine here as he wheels and deals his way through various endeavors. Some work and for those that don’t he just lets out with a huge Lancaster grin and laughs at the hand fate continues to deal him. It’s a very energetic performance from the aging Lancaster.

“Imagination is the elixir of life.” he boldly states.

The Barnum and Bailey Circus is just around the corner.

Made on a small scale for television works in Burt the performers favor as he or his off screen narration are rarely not the focal point of this 90 minute production that was directed by Lee Philips.


Actress Hanna Schygulla portrays Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind and her scenes with Burt are full of admiration yet flaming with fire when the two don’t quite agree. According to the film the real life Barnum brought her to America to perform at a great financial risk without ever having seen her perform. Burt captures these scenes with her splendidly and once again makes me appreciate him in most any role. Even in small scale TV work.

It’s a credit to Mr. Lancaster that he brings this character to life and Burt the salesman of Elmer Gantry lives again. His enthusiasm shines with the patented Lancaster smile

barnum vhs

Like many of Burt’s later films for television producers, this one may not be the easiest to find. I have a copy from the VHS days if you are looking to score a copy of your own so good luck at the flea markets.