A&Es P.T. Barnum is Prime Time

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Who invented the concept of the "rain check?" Who
invented the three-ring circus, and why?

If you can't immediately answer this pop-culture pop
quiz, do some refresher work watching A&E Network's P.T. Barnum, a biopic
of the nation's first and probably still pre-eminent showman.

This is a pleasant family affair, both in content and in
construct. The young P.T. is played by Jordan Bridges, son of Beau Bridges, who takes over
after the first hour as the grown P.T.

But make no mistake: This is the senior Bridges' tour
de force. He plays Barnum with all of the joie de vivre that must have been demonstrated
by a man who, with a straight face, promoted his first attraction: Joice Heth, a former
slave who was marketed as the 161-year-old employee of George Washington.

Even when she died and pathology proved that she was no
more than 84, Barnum recovered by co-opting the New York Sun into printing an
exclusive story indicating that Barnum himself was the poor dupe, not the public.

Although Barnum is credited with the axiom,
"There's a sucker born every minute," that saying is not part of this
portrayal. This biopic is more friendly and well-rounded, demonstrating more of
Barnum's get-'em-in-the-door philosophy.

Yes, he wasn't above trickery, but if he could find
legitimate culture, he imported that, too. Just as he turned a 10-year-old dwarf into
"General Tom Thumb," he also coaxed opera star Jenny Lind into performing in
America.

Barnum's story gives Bridges great opportunities to
reach. Although Barnum was most known for bright circuses, he also survived the death of
two of his children and his first wife, Charity, as well as bankruptcies and catastrophic
fires.

The self-made man was attached for most of his life to
upper-class bankers who sought his failure and, on at least one occasion, who succeeded in
pushing him over the edge. But in a testament to his own self-confidence, Barnum talked
those same investors into bankrolling him one more time and repaid his debts to the penny.

The production is sterling, benefiting from luxe costumes,
grand sets (especially Barnum's fated Moorish-style home) and a brisk script.

But the rest of the cast -- which includes George Hamilton
as an evil banker and Charlie Martin Smith as a Sun editor -- fades into
Bridges' appropriately larger-than-life shadows.

P.T. Barnum, a great recommendation for viewing by
children, debuts on A&E Sept. 12, with the second part following Sept. 13.

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