P.T. Barnum’s life, the things he did and the things that were done to him up to the time of the inspiration for the circus that was to become Barnum & Bailey, proves engrossing if not sensational screen entertainment.
Opening on the scenes of the present day Barnum & Bailey show, the story turns back 100 years to the time when Barnum was operating a general store in New York. Earlier sequences are very meaty and compact, whereas in the second half the action slows a bit here and there.
Despite the danger of a split with his conservatively-reared wife (Janet Beecher), Barnum (Wallace Beery) signs up Joyce Heth (Lucille La Verne), supposed nursemaid to George Washington, who’s later exposed as a fake. Then Zorro, the bearded lady (May Boley), who double crosses him. He tries again, this time becoming so successful with Tom Thumb (George Brasno) and his little midget wife (Olive Brasno) that he brings Jenny Lind over (Virginia Bruce). His romance with the singer causes P.T. to neglect his museum of freaks as well as his wife.
Adolphe Menjou, playing the reformed drunk who is to become Bailey, is capital in his assignment, with Rochelle Hudson for charming love interest. Beecher gives a commendable performance. The Jenny Lind sequences are inclined to slow matters. Two soprano solos are included where one might have been enough. Bruce, in singing, appears to have the benefit of a dubbed-in voice.