Tag Archives: Tod Browning

338. FREAKS (1932)

Recommended

“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: , , , 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)

LUGOSI

According to ‘s official bio, before coming to America he had been a star on the Hungarian stage, appearing in major Shakespeare productions.  Several biographers, however, have disputed Lugosi’s “star” ranking during that period.  It seems most of his roles had actually been small ones.  Regardless, Lugosi enlisted in the Hungarian army during the First World War, was wounded several times, and later had to flee Hungary during a tumultuous political climate which was unfriendly to his leftist leanings.  After a stay in Germany, Lugosi arrived penniless in the States.  Eventually, he made his way to the New York stage and began appearing in plays and silent films.  In 1927, Lugosi was cast in the role of Dracula in Hamilton Dean’s famous stage play.  With that, Lugosi became a major star of the stage, and stardom brought him numerous female fans, including Clara Bow, with whom he had a brief affair.

Bela Lugosi as DraculaIn 1929, director , shopping around for the lead of the film version of Dracula, cast Lugosi as a vampire-like inspector in The Thirteenth Chair (1929)Although Lugosi was not a great actor in the conventional sense, he did have an undeniably magnetic screen presence, and he brought an air of European mystery to the most rudimentary melodramas.  Browning capitalized on this as few directors could and it worked, leading to Lugosi landing the career-making role of Bram Stoker’s Count in Browning’s 1931 film, Dracula.  The 49 year old Lugosi was perfect for the part.  His idiosyncratic mannerisms, unique mangling of the English language (which, despite rumor, he did not deliver phonetically), and otherworldly persona made for a compelling figure, a point made all the more obvious when compared to Carlos Villarias’ laughable performance in the Spanish language Continue reading LUGOSI

TOD BROWNING’S MIRACLES FOR SALE (1939)

Tod Browning‘s final film, Miracles For Sale (1939) has been made available on home video for the first time in 2011.  It is part of the Warner Archive Collection, but rather oddly, it’s  hidden inside a Robert Young double-feature package.  Nothing against Young, but one is tempted to ask the Warner Marketing team an incredulous “what were you thinking?”  The list of devotees of actor Robert Young would seem quite short today.  Comparatively, the marketing team would probably generate far more interest in collections by directors such as Browning or James Whale, both of who still have considerable followings among classic film fans,  genre fans, film students, and film historians.

Although Browning was on his brand of “best behavior” following the debacle of Freaks (1932) and was forced to be cautious within the Will Hays Code Universe, he stubbornly only made compromises which still allowed him to be Tod Browning, retaining thematic continuity up to this, his last work.  Miracles For Sale begins with a typical Browning scenario: mutilation.  A young woman has been captured and awaits military execution for political crimes.  She is placed in a large box and shot in half.  This stark opening is followed by another Browning theme: the illusion.  It turns out this below the waist mutilation is merely a staged demonstration trick for the magician’s business “Miracle for Sale.”  According to the magician and seller of magic tricks,  Mike Morgan (Robert Young), “the hand is faster than the eye” (with a sleight of hand now, watch that sugar bowl).  The structure of Miracles For Sale takes Morgan’s credo to heart.  It is kinetically paced like a screwball comedy, reminding us that Browning’s earliest ventures into film were slapstick.

Still from Miracles for Sale (1939)In this very loose adaptation of Clayton Rawson’s hit novel, “Death from a Top Hat,” Browning revisits familiar, obsessive themes of fake spiritualism, magic acts, the whodunnit locked door murder mystery, and transformation through disguises (the last provided by the Houdini-like character of Dave Duvallo, played by Henry Hull of 1935’s Werewolf of London).  Morgan has a reputation for assisting the police department in helping to expose phony mediums, occultists and immoral tricksters who prey on gullible widows and the like.  Morgan’s rep gets Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S MIRACLES FOR SALE (1939)

TOD BROWNING’S THE MYSTIC (1925)

Tod Browning‘s frequent collaborator Waldemar Young wrote the screenplay for The Mystic from Browning’s story, and it is clearly part their family of work together which includes The Unholy Three (1925), The Blackbird (1926), The Show (1927), The Unknown (1927), London After Midnight (1927), West of Zanzibar (1928), and Where East is East (1929).  The early knife-throwing act seen here could be a blueprint for the same act in The Unknown The Mystic (1925) opens in a Hungarian gypsy carnival.  The main attraction of the carnival is “The Mystic,” Zara (Aileen Pringle).  Zara is  part of a trio which includes Poppa Zazarack (Mitchell Lewis) and Zara’s lover Anton (Robert Ober).  Of course, Zara’s clairvoyant act is all illusion and Browning, as usual, lets his audience in on the trickery almost from the outset.

Still from The Mystic (1925)Conman Michale Nash (Conway Tearle) approaches the trio with a proposal to take their act to America, where they can bilk  naive, rich Manhattanites out of their fortunes. The New Yorkers make Zara’s seances a hit, although not all of the natives are so gullible, and the police are secretly investigating the scam.  To complicate matters, Nash puts the moves on Zara, and Anton is pushed aside.  Love does funny things, and soon Nash develops a conscience.  He becomes reluctant to swindle a young heiress.  The ever-jealous Zara believes Nash must want her for himself; but, Nash simply wants to reform and make a better, honest life for Zara.  Their relationship is reminiscent of the one between Priscilla Dean and Wheeler Oakman in Browning’s Outside The Law (1920), as are the familiar Browning themes of reformation and unpunished crimes.

Pringle shows considerable screen charisma; or, at least, Browning draws it out of her here.  Her performance compares to other great female roles in Browning’s ouevre: Joan Crawford in The Unknown and Lupe Velez in Where East is East.  In many scenes, such as the knife throwing scene, Pringle looks remarkably like Crawford; in close-ups, Pringle exudes the same soft sensuality and subtle anguish.  In other scenes, Pringle shares the bubbly quality that we see later in Velez’s performance. At other times Pringle calls to mind the mysterious exoticism of Edna Tichenor.  Unfortunately, Pringle and Browning never got to work together again.  The actress was reportedly difficult to work with; most of her co-stars considered he an intellectual snob.  Indeed, she kept company with many of the artisans and intellectuals of her day.  George Gershwin and H.L. Mencken were among her notable lovers and she was married, briefly, to author James M. Cain.  Pringle’s acting career never really took off, and she didn’t seem to care.  She remained active in films (mostly small parts, which included uncredited roles) up until the mid 1940s and died in 1989 at the age of 94.

Because of the lack of usual Browning stars, The Mystic is an interesting, lesser known film in the director’s canon.  Not only is it thematically related to his other films, but it also shows the idiosyncratic continuity of his taste in actresses and his ability to mold actors, whoever they were.

Note: the luxurious costumes for The Mystic were the work of legendary French designer Erté.  Erté, who was a big fan of Georges Méliès, later said it was a thrilling experience to collaborate with such a distinguished surrealist as Tod Browning.

TOD BROWNING’S OUTSIDE THE LAW (1920)

Although Lon Chaney has two roles in Outside the Law (1920), he is not the star; rather, the film features early Tod Browning favorite Priscilla Dean.  Dean plays Silky Moll, daughter of mobster Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis), and both are attempting to reform under the guidance of Confucian Master Chang Lo (E. Alyn Warren).

Black Mike Sylva (Chaney) interrupts the reformation by framing Silent Madden for murder, so that Silky Moll, like Lorraine Lavond in The Devil Doll (1939), now has a wrongly imprisoned father.  Silky and Dapper Bill Ballard plan a jewel heist with Black Mike.  Unknown to Mike, Silky is aware of his betrayal of her father and, with Bill, she double-crosses Mike.

Escaping with the heisted jewels, Silky and Bill hole up in an apartment.  The time the criminals spend holed up in a claustrophobic setting  is awash with religious symbolism that points to transformation.  Browning, a Mason, repeatedly used religious  imagery and themes.  In West of Zanzibar (1928) Phroso stands in for the self-martyred Christ and calls upon divine justice under the image of the Virgin.  In The Show (1927), the sadomasochistic drama of Salome is reenacted and almost played out in the actors lives (Martinu’s opera ‘The Greek Passion’ would explore that possibility in a much more sophisticated, and jarring, degree). Where East is East (1929) utilizes Buddhist and Catholic symbology.  Priests and crucifixes play important parts in The Unholy Three (1925), Road to Mandalay (1926), Dracula (1931- possibly the most religious of the Universal Horror films) and Mark of the Vampire (1935).

Poster for Outside the LawHere, Bill tries to convince Silky that they can have a normal life.  Puppy dogs and small boys begin to have effect on Silky, but it is not until she sees the shadow of the cross in her apartment that her tough facade gives way.  Browning is not one to allow for a genuinely supernatural mode of transformation and reveals that the cross shadow is merely a broken kite, but its psychological effect on Silky is manifested in her actions, and her beauty.  Bill notices the origin of the cross shadow and, realizing that Silky’s  naive interpretation of that image has inspired her to renounce her crimes, Bill allows her to continue in her naivete.  He draws the blind so she cannot see that her inspiration comes from a child’s kite.  As Silky begins to drift away from a life of bitterness and crime, towards redemption, she physically grows more beautiful (a transformation achieved through soft lighting and composition).  It is not the inspired symbology of the cross alone, but the prophecy of Chang Lo that frames the outcome.  Chang Lo has been consistent in his belief that Silky will reform and he strikes a deal with the investigating constable that, should Silky return the jewels, all charges have to be dropped.  Here again, Browning’s heart is too much with the criminal to allow for a full-blown punishment, something that later Hays Code Hollywood would demand.

Chaney’s small bit as Ah Wing is so subtle and so effective as to almost be unnoticeable.  Browning remade Outside the Law in 1930.  The remake starred Edward G. Robinson and received comparatively poor reviews.  While the remake is not available on DVD, this original is.  Kino Video has done a good job in its presentation, but the last quarter of the film is marred by nitrate deterioration, which is not altogether intrusive to viewing.

TOD BROWNING’S THE SHOW (1927)

The screenplay for The Show (1927) was written by frequent Tod Browning collaborator Waldemer Young (with uncredited help from Browning).  It is  (very loosely) based on Charles Tenney Jackson’s novel, “The Day of Souls.”  Originally titled  “Cock O’ the Walk,” The Show is one of the most bizarre productions to emerge from  silent cinema, nearly on par with the director’s The Unknown from the same year.

John Gilbert plays Cock Robin, the ballyhoo man at the Palace of Illusions.  A character with the name of an animal is a frequent Browning trademark, and Gilbert’s Robin is a proud Cock indeed, both the character and the actor.  The Show amounted to punishment for star Gilbert, who had made what turned out to be a fatal error.  When co-star and fiancee Greta Garbo failed to show up at their planned wedding, Gilbert was left humiliated at the altar, where studio boss Louis B. Mayer made a loud derogatory remark for all to hear.  Gilbert responded by thrashing Mayer.  Mayer swore revenge, vowing to destroy Gilbert’s career, regardless of cost (at the time Gilbert was the highest paid star in Hollywood).  Mayer’s revenge began here and climaxed with the coming of sound, when he reportedly had the actor’s recorded dialogue manipulated to wreck Gilbert’s voice and career.  Whether Mayer’s tinkering with Gilbert’s voice is legendary or not, Mayer did intentionally  set out to give Gilbert increasingly unflattering roles, and the consequences were devastating for Gilbert.  Having fallen so far, so fast, Gilbert took to excessive drink.  He actually had a  fine voice and starred in a few sound films, including Tod Browning’s Fast Workers (1933) and with Garbo in Queen Christina (1933) (she insisted on Gilbert, over Mayer’s strenuous objections).  Gilbert died forgotten at 37 in 1936, and became the inspiration for the Norman Maine character in a Star is Born (1937).  The Show was the first film after Gilbert’s aborted wedding incident, and instead of playing his usual role of swashbuckling matinee idol, Gilbert is cast as a cocky lecher.

Still from The Show (1927)Cock Robin is the barker for a Hungarian carnival, dazzling the ladies and bilking them of their hard earned silver.  He ushers patrons in to the  show with the help of “The Living Hand of Cleopatra,” a disembodied hand akin to Thing from “The Addams Family.”  Among Cock’s unholy trio of mutilated-below-the-waist attractions is ‘Zela, the Half Lady.’ “Believe me boys, there are no cold feet here to bother you!”  Zela is followed by ‘Arachnadia! The Human Spider!,’ a heavily mascaraed, disembodied head in a web (played Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S THE SHOW (1927)

TOD BROWNING’S WHITE TIGER (1923)

Tod Browning‘s White Tiger (1923) finds the director revisiting intimate motifs and has an unusual connection to Edgar Allan Poe (Browning, who has often been referred to as the Poe of cinema, listed the classic author as his favorite).  In 1836, Poe wrote an exposé of the touring “Mechanical Chess Player” Automaton.  In the article Poe revealed that inside this mechanical chess player was a concealed, quite human, operator.  Poe’s article was the seed for Browning’s film, which the director co-wrote with screenwriter Charles Kenyon.

White Tiger stars Browning regular Priscilla Dean, Raymond Griffith and Walter Beery.  Griffith, who got his start with Mack Sennett, was once considered a rival to both Chaplin and Keaton.  Due to a childhood injury to his vocal cords, Griffith was practically mute, quashing any chance he might have had for surviving into sound film.  Most of Griffith’s films are lost, but the most celebrated, the Civil War comedy Hands Up (1926), survives, and is thought by some to be nearly as good as Keaton’s (somewhat overrated)The General from the same year.  Although that comparison is highly debatable, Hands Up is a unique film and worth seeing.  It is available from Grapevine Video, but otherwise it is hard to find.

Griffith’s screen persona was that of a debonair comedian, a la Max Linder, but  Browning, of course, used him quite differently.  Griffith plays Roy Donovan.  Sylvia (Dean) is Roy’s sister, but they are separated at childhood when Hawkes (Beery) betrays their father, Mike Donovan (Alfred  Allen), which results in Mike’s murder.  Hawkes takes Sylvia with him.  She believes her brother has also died and is unaware that Hawkes was her father’s Judas.

Still from White Tiger (1923)Years later, Sylvia is a professional pickpocket under the guardianship of Hawkes, who now goes by the new identity of  Count Donelli.  Sylvia stakes out her victims at the London Wax Museum.  There she meets The Kid, who, unknown to her, is her long lost brother, Roy.  Roy has his own nefarious gig; the Mechanical Chess Player.  When Sylvia introduces the Kid to her “father,” Count Donelli, the three form an unholy alliance, which leads them and the Mechanical Chess Player to a new land of opportunity in America.

Roy develops incestuous feelings for Sylvia (of course, he is still unaware that she is his sibling), which leads to jealousy when Sylvia falls for goody two shoe Dick Longworth (Matt Moore).  Tension between the unholy three builds with the arrival of Dick.  After a jewelry heist in a mansion, utilizing the Mechanical Chess Player, the trio hole up at a claustrophobic cabin in the mountains.  The final quarter of the film casts a Poe-like eye on imagined (and real) enemies.  Mistrust between the trio is sowed and much coffee is downed, in an effort to stay awake and keep an eye on each other and the hidden jewelry.

The truth about Hawk’s betrayal of Sylvia’s real father comes out, as does the revelation that the Kid is none other than her brother.  The Oedipal killing of a (surrogate) father, mistrust among a trio of criminals, theft of jewels, false identities, the double cross, staged gimmickry, deception (which the spectator audience is privy to), latent incest, followed by jealousy for a righteous rival, a claustrophobic getaway retreat, and a finale in which one of the criminals deeds goes unpunished are familiar Browning themes.  Poe’s deceptive Mechanical Chess Player is a bizarre, added quirk.

According to several Browning biographers, acquaintances of the director and his wife, Alice, would often be forced to lock up the jewelry when the two came to visit because the Brownings had a notorious reputation for swiping  any stones they could get their hands on.  At least Tod Browning’s empathy for the criminal mindset was an honest one.