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Weekend Tv : Lancaster Stars In Cbs' 'Barnum'

November 29, 1986|LEE MARGULIES | Times Staff Writer

"You're some humbug," a man says of P.T. Barnum in the two-hour TV movie that CBS will be broadcasting Sunday about the legendary showman. Rather than derision, however, the observation is meant in admiration, and it sums up the film makers' attitude too.

With Burt Lancaster in the title role, "Barnum" (airing at 9 p.m. on Channel 2) is a decidedly affectionate portrait of a man who, long before creating the modern-day circus known as "the greatest show on earth," earned fame and fortune by flamboyantly flim-flamming the public with novelty acts and freak shows.

If he didn't actually say "there's a sucker born every minute"--as he denies here--he acted on that premise. Yet his huckstering was not malicious, he insists: "I never took anyone's life savings. I only took their 50 cents. . . . I entertained them."

One gets a sense of this in the film's early scenes, as director Lee Philips establishes the early 19th-Century period in which a citizenry for whom movies and TV were non-existant and reading was still a luxury must have hungered for diversion. They were, Barnum tells us, an audience waiting to be formed.

Lancaster plays the role with gusto, narrating the film from late in Barnum's life and introducing chapters from it that are played out in flashback. But the movie's initial charm and momentum in recounting his early career (with John Roney as the young Barnum) are lost when writer Michael Norell lapses into long, limp passages about Barnum's involvement with managing midget entertainer Tom Thumb and singer Jenny Lind.

The remainder of his colorful life--developing East Bridgeport, Conn., becoming a lecturer, traveling, hooking up again with Tom Thumb and, finally, taking over a circus when he was about 60--is hurriedly sketched in.

One can't help but feel that P.T. Barnum got the better of television, too: His life was too grand to be encapsulated on the small screen.

Meanwhile, with Thanksgiving behind us, television's annual Christmas-programming blitz begins in full force this weekend.

KHJ-TV Channel 9 gets the ball rolling at 8 tonight with a telecast of the 1970 movie "Scrooge," with Albert Finney in the title role of this musical rendition of Charles Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol."

On Sunday, KTLA Channel 5 will provide live coverage of the 55th annual Hollywood Christmas Parade from 6 to 8 p.m., hosted by Bob Eubanks and Lee Meriwether. At the same hour, KCOP Channel 13 will be broadcasting the 1954 film "White Christmas," starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye.

And at 8 p.m. Sunday on Channel 9, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton team up in "A Christmas to Remember."

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