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338. FREAKS (1932)

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“BELIEVE IT OR NOT – – – – STRANGE AS IT SEEMS. In ancient times, anything that deviated from the normal was considered an omen of ill luck or representative of evil.”–prologue to Freaks

Freaks is one of the strangest movies ever made by an American studio.”–David Skal

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Henry Victor, Daisy Earles

PLOT: At a circus, an evil performer intends to marry a sideshow midget to exploit him for his wealth. Eventually her plans extend to attempted murder. The midget’s fellow sideshow denizens have his back, exacting a primitive form of carnival justice.

BACKGROUND:

  • Freaks was based on Tod Robbins’ short story “Spurs.”
  •  Director Tod Browning started out as a contortionist performing in the circus himself, an inspiration from which he drew for this movie.
  • Browning leveraged his clout from helming the previous year’s hit Dracula to get Freaks made. The controversial film nearly ended his career, however; he would direct only four more projects (working uncredited on two of them) before retiring in 1939.
  • MGM stars Myrna Loy, Victor McLaglen, and Jean Harlow all turned down parts in the film due to the subject matter.
  • Freaks was often banned by state censors in its original form when it first came out. It was not allowed to be exhibited in the United Kingdom until the late 1963. It’s since been cut from a reported 90-minute running time, leaving us with the modern edit that runs just over an hour. The original full length may forever be lost. The cut version was a dud at the box office.
  • Although Freaks bombed on its original release and was pulled from theaters, it survived when (Maniac) bought the rights and took the film on tour (often using alternate titles like Forbidden Love and Nature’s Mistakes) in the late 1940s. Freaks was screened at Cannes in 1962 and received positive reappraisals, sparking its second life as a cult film.
  • “Entertainment Weekly” ranked Freaks third in their 2003 list of the Top 50  Cult Movies.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sing it along with us, Internet: “We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us! Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble!” The Wedding Feast (it gets its own title card) is an omnipresent meme for very good reasons. Fast forward to it if you must, because this is the true beginning of Freaks.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Sensually connected twins; “Gooble-gobble!”; half-boy with Luger

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Life is not always fair; sometimes you’re born with no legs. But sometimes your movie comes along at the precise pinpoint in history where it could get made. We will always have exactly one Freaks, because even substituting CGI for actually disabled people, nobody in a modern day Hollywood studio would have the balls to remake this.


The opening scenes of Freaks

COMMENTS: We all know examples of movies where their hype far Continue reading 338. FREAKS (1932)

PAUL LENI’S THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928)

*This is the first of a three part series on the films of Paul Leni.

Paul Leni’s credentials as an avant-garde painter and art director served him well.  A Jewish German refugee, he came to the United States in 1927 at the invitation of Universal Studios.  His first film for them was the old dark house melodrama, The Cat and the Canary (1927), a critical and box office hit.  Leni and Universal followed up with The Man Who Laughs (1928) and his final film, The Last Warning (1929), which was released shortly after his untimely death from blood poisoning at 44Due to his brief life and career, Leni remains the most enigmatic of the silent horror mavericks (at least, that’s the pedestrian label often attached to him).  Where his career might have gone is almost impossible to assess.  Universal desperately wanted a follow up to their immensely successful version of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and they thought they had it with Leni at the helm of Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs.  Despite lavish production values and artistry, however, The Man Who Laughs was a disappointing box office failure, partly because it was released just as that new invention called “talkies” was taking hold.  Today, The Man Who Laughs is rightly seen as a landmark, influential film and vivid example of exported German Expressionism.

Still from The Man Who Laughs (1928)Set in 17th century England, Conrad Veidt (another Jewish German refugee) is Gwynplaine , the young son of a recently executed political revolutionary nobleman. Gwynplaine is kidnapped by gypsies and, as punishment for sins of the father, he is forever maimed when his kidnappers carve a hideous grin into his face and abandon him to the elements of a violent snow storm.  In a scene worthy of D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East (1920), or William Beaudine’s grim Sparrows (1926), the child Gwynplaine comes upon the corpse of a frozen mother cradling her still Continue reading PAUL LENI’S THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928)

TOD BROWNING’S FREAKS (1932)

There used to be a theory in art college that many of the professors blandly bandied about like religious dogma. It was the theory of “aesthetics only.” This theory maintained that it did not matter whether a painting was of a landscape, a penis, or non-representational. A work of art could only be judged by aesthetic criteria.

The biggest problem with that theory is that it rarely holds true. A good example of this would be in comparing the work of Diego Riveria to the work of his wife, Frida Kahlo. Riveria was clearly a better painter, aesthetically. He had a far better sense of composition, and a keener sense of color than Kahlo. However, Riveria lacked Kahlo’s obsessive vision, and it is her vision that remains far more memorably etched in our conscience.

Another example which blows the “aesthetics only” theory out of the water would be in comparing D.W. Griffith to his one-time assistant Tod Browning. There is no doubt that, aesthetically, Griffith was a far more innovative and fluid director. However, Griffith lacked two important qualities which Browning had in spades: obsessive vision and pronounced human empathy. It is the latter of these two vivid Browning qualities that renders Griffith a grossly inferior artist when compared to the inimitable Tod Browning.
Poster for Freaks (1932)Browning was consistently drawn to and connected with the social outcast, while Griffith espoused his racial superiority and reprehensibly tidied that up in his protruding “aesthetics” chest. That Griffith was (and still is) celebrated, smacks of American and Hollywood hypocrisy and superficiality at its most blatant.

Of course, this is nothing new, nor is it confined to the film community. Conductor Rafael Kubelik was mercilessly attacked and driven out of Chicago Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S FREAKS (1932)