DATELINE: Barnum’s Biggest Star
Tom Thumb, 1845
Charles Stratton was 21 inches during his youth, and he grew to 25 inches in middle age. In between, he tied his star to P.T. Barnum and became the biggest celebrity of the 19th century.
The Real Tom Thumb: History’s Smallest Superstar is a British documentary that we learn most of the surprising details about this little person and his burst into worldwide fame, at the cost of truth from his roots in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Michael Grade is the ominipresent researcher and narrator, a showman and producer whose uncle was the late great Lord Lew Grade whose show biz antics left him with the nickname Low Grade.
Nephew Michael reminds us of Anthony Hopkins who made a name for himself playing in the David Lynch film, The Elephant Man, another freak of the 19th century.
From age 5, Stratton was known as General Tom Thumb and pretended to be an adult, to make his smallness more amusing to the throngs who paid to see him. Barnum discovered, however, that his freak actually had talent—singing, dancing, wit, and grew into a true stage presence.
With the advent of photography postcards and railroads, little Tom’s image went viral without an Internet. Thank Barnum for making them rich, at the cost of truth and integrity. There was a staged wedding to another small person—and perhaps a faked child from their union. Who really knows the truth—other than Barnum and his Tom Thumb.
World tours dominated Tom’s life. He managed to enchant Queen Victoria and Abe Lincoln too. Yet, he was troubled, even with success, likely with a drinking problem from his adolescent years. He also smoked cigars as a child to heighten the image of a small adult. All these likely contributed to poor health in later years.
The pathos of the tale is interwoven with Grade’s interviews with present-day midgets and freak performers to try to give us a sense of the theatrics.
Of all the surprising details, we were taken aback to learn Stratton retired to Middleboro, Massachusetts, not far from where we lived for a time. Who knew that he custom-made his house with tiny stairs and stove? Or, who knew he and Barnum were buried only a few feet from each other?
Not your likely choice for entertainment, this film compels in a way that helps us understand the 19th century vaudeville.