powered by AFI
In 1935, scenes of Barnum and Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth are presented. One hundred years earlier in New York City, P. T. Barnum, the proprietor of a general store, upsets his wife Nancy by continually buying freaks of nature, such as a stuffed two-headed calf and a three-headed frog. Barnum further irritates his wife by keeping in their house the alcoholic Mr. Walsh, an "educated" man whom Barnum hopes will help him open a museum of freaks once he has given up drinking. When the Barnums' niece Ellie tells Mr. Walsh that she loves him, he promises that he will not fall in love with anyone else until she comes of age. Having had enough of her husband's obsession, which has left them in debt, Nancy gives him money sent from her father to buy railroad tickets for them to return to Connecticut. Barnum, however, sees Mr. Walsh order buttermilk in a saloon and decides that it is time to go into business. He uses $200 of his wife's money to rent a livery stable in which to exhibit his collection and the remaining $50 to pay promoter J. P. Skiff for the right to exhibit Joice Heth, supposedly a 160-year-old woman who was the nurse to George Washington. Barnum's museum is an instant success. When Skiff informs Barnum that Heth is a fake and demands $1,000 to keep quiet, Barnum throws him out. Although Skiff goes to the newspapers, who expose the fraud, Barnum's next acquisition, Madame Zorro, the original Bearded Lady, revives public interest. Editor Horace Greeley calls Madame Zorro another hoax and publicly wagers Barnum $5,000, which the winner is to donate to charity, that she is no woman. Skiff then succeeds in bribing Madame Zorro with $1,000, and she allows him to replace her with a man with hair on his chest. This sight shocks the ladies from the cream of New York society, who examine "her." The public riots and the museum is destroyed. As Nancy packs, Walsh is again drunk and Ellie cries. A midget then arrives named Tom Thumb, who needs a job so that he can marry his sweetheart Lavinia, who is smaller than him. They become the basis of Barnum's revival, and he rises to international fame as he tours Europe, where he is received by Queen Victoria. Back in America, Barnum is disappointed when Walsh returns from Europe having failed to procure Jumbo, the world's largest elephant. Instead he has brought soprano Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale. When Barnum hears her sing and sees the crowd go wild, he sees that Jenny is even more valuable than Jumbo. As Barnum falls in love with Jenny, his ego grows, and as an "impresario," he neglects his museum and wife and snubs his friends, the "freaks" in the museum. At a banquet for Jenny, with the Swedish consul, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the mayor as guests, Barnum insults the Swedish consul by interrupting the Swedish National Anthem, and when Barnum innocently toasts Jenny with a vulgar Swedish phrase, everyone leaves in a huff. The next day, after Jenny leaves with Walsh, whom Barnum fights, Barnum learns that Nancy has left him. Barnum goes bankrupt, and sometime later, as he sits on a bench near his old museum, Tom Thumb walks by. Tom invites Barnum to dinner, where the other freaks, including Madame Zorro, agree to work for him for nothing. At the new opening, Nancy returns. Skiff, who had wanted the freaks for his own show, starts a fire. Barnum rescues Walsh, who upon arriving, hid himself in a mummy's case to surprise Barnum. Although the museum burns down, Walsh has brought back Jumbo as a gift from an apologetic Jenny. He says that he never loved her and tells Ellie, who has come of age, that nothing can keep him away now. As Barnum and Walsh lead Jumbo in a parade, they decide to go into partnership and create a traveling circus. Not happy with the sound of "Barnum and Walsh," Barnum, upon learning that Walsh's first name is Bailey, christens their endeavor "Barnum and Bailey, the Greatest Show on Earth."