Tag Archives: 1932

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: , , , 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)

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: BLONDE VENUS (1932) AND THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934)

Among the most influential and potent of all director/actor collaborations is that of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. They made seven films together, beginning with 1930’s infamous The Blue Angel. (For this film, each scene was shot twice, once with the actors speaking in German, then in English. If you haven’t seen it, go for the German version. It’s grimier.)

Blonde Venus (1932) is the least discussed and revisited of their work together. Apart from an embarrassing, but expressionistic, musical number, it’s something of a train wreck. Von Sternberg can’t be blamed. Paramount forced the dreadful script on him, and the director rightfully disowned it. There’s little originality in the story, and what enthusiasm von Sternberg  finds is, predictably, in the lensing.

Of course, he gives considerable attention to his discovery (and off-screen mistress) Dietrich. She’s a German cabaret singer here (imagine that), and Venus is occasionally a fatigued rehash of elements from Blue Angel. Its worst error is in in deviating from Dietrich’s femme fatale persona, miscasting her here in an empathetic role as a sacrificial wife/mother who becomes a cabaret singer and beds a New York club owner (Cary Grant) to finance treatment for her ill husband (Herbert Marshall). Hubby finds out. Hubby blows his top. She runs. He chases. She falls into ruin, literally becomes a prostitute, and gives up custody of their child. It limps along melodramatically, with the fallen penitential woman reaping what she has sown. Dietrich is better suited to getting away with her sins.

Frank about sexual mores (there’s also a brief skinny-dipping scene) it’s definitely pre-code, but that can’t save this from static dullness. Dietrich is statuesque and has a picture-perfect son in Dickie Moore (he was briefly one of the Little Rascals). Dietrich was a limited actress, but one who shrewdly utilized her limitations (and smokey voice) to perfection. However, cast as a pre-June Cleaver housewife, she is out of her range and falls flat. She’s best when she is exotic. Among the musical numbers,  she steals everything but the camera in “Hot Voodoo.” In spite of the blatant racism (black-faced chorus girls), which which will have contemporary viewers squinting 1)Sans Trumptards of course—but then I’m referring to human audiences., it’s a startling sequence, with Dietrich glamming it up in a gorilla suit and blonde afro wig (hence the title Blonde Venus). There’s also the hackneyed Freudian symbology of the duality in the Venus figure (sinner/saint, mother/whore). As with all of von Sternberg, it’s worth watching for his blatant photographic obsession with Dietrich, and for what he can milk out of the sin/virtue script.

Despite its flaws, Blonde Venus was a box office hit that paved the way for their penultimate collaboration, The Scarlet Empress (1934), which proved to be both their masterpiece, and an epic box office flop. Yes, 1934 American audiences reacted to something original and unexpected the same way audiences do today: they stayed the hell away, unaccustomed to any spice in their diet.

To say that Josef von Sternberg  was one of the great visionaries of 1930s cinemas should be blatantly obvious to first year film school students everywhere. With the poor box office Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: BLONDE VENUS (1932) AND THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934)

References   [ + ]

1. Sans Trumptards of course—but then I’m referring to human audiences.

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) AND THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

‘s The Old Dark House (1932) might be seen as a companion piece to his Bride Of Frankenstein (1935). Both represent Whale at his most personal within the grand-guignol genre. While Bride Of Frankenstein is post-Production Code, so that it’s thinly disguised gay spirituality had to be delivered indirectly via myth, the pre-Code Old Dark House is awash with eccentric characters mocking dogmatic, false religious morality. Tackling hypocrisy within religion was a frequent theme with this director. Like , Whale applied the critique through cutting humor. However, as a Surrealist, Buñuel naturally didn’t give a damn about the intended audience; Whale deliberately sought accessibility. As his character states in the biopic Gods And Monsters: “The trick is, not to spoil it for those who aren’t in on the joke.”

Both films are replete with Whale’s idiosyncratic humor. However, Whale’s British sensibilities are more pronounced in The Old Dark House, which makes it a stand apart from the other Carl Laemmle-produced Whale films. Although it opened to good box office in the States, The Old Dark House failed to repeat the success of Frankenstein. It did phenomenally well in England and throughout Europe, but it was simply too sophisticated for hayseed domestic audiences, and business quickly tailed off (it also undoubtedly suffered from the Freaks anti-horror backlash). The Old Dark House was only revived once in the States, its rights lapsed, and the film languished in obscurity. It was considered lost for over a decade before a print was discovered (Whale died believing it to be forever lost). It was partly restored by preservationist and Whale confidant . Near the end of his life, star Boris Karloff was grateful when informed of the discovery. The Old Dark House has been released on DVD via Kino, but still shows some deterioration. Hopefully, a more thorough restoration will be forthcoming.

R.C. Sheriff and Benn Levy adapted J.B. Priestly’s “Benighted” and, under Whale’s orchestration, superseded the original literary source. The film’s cast responds to Whale’s deviant humor with contagious enthusiasm. The film had to be as much fun to make as it is to watch.

Still from The Old Dark House (1932)The Old Dark House opens with travelers seeking refuge from a storm. Sanctuary appears in the form of an old dark Welsh house, but its promise of shelter is a facade. Unknown to Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and their hitchhiking companion Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) a tempest is brewing within the house. They are joined by two more “invaders” who belatedly enter the scene: Gladys (Lilian Bond, oozing sex) and Sir William Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) AND THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: RED-HEADED WOMAN (1932) AND THREE ON A MATCH (1932)

While tame by 21st century standards, the best of the pre-Code productions (1929-1934) flauntingly mocked the increasing threats of industry censorship and yet, for all those displays of sex and sin, still managed to stylishly outclass thirty years of (mostly) bland “moral majority approved” films that followed. It is, perhaps, not surprising that these films, caught in the tail pipe of Victorianism and under the Poe-like eye of the Catholic Legion of Decency, were also more authentically provocative and aesthetically conscientious than the bulk of the “opened floodgate” post-Code productions that began in the 1960s. Somehow, that stressful studio climate inspired filmmakers to produce movies that were very much enshrined in the amber of their specific time and place,  yet also transcend many of the films immediately following.

Red-Headed Woman (1932) is one of the sauciest examples from that all-too brief period. It helps considerably that it stars Jean Harlow, the quintessential pre-Code sex symbol. Harlow has often been referred to as the Marilyn Monroe of the 1930s. (Monroe idolized Harlow and even considered playing her predecessor in a biopic, but changed her mind after reading the script. Monroe reportedly quipped: “I hope they don’t do that to me after I’m gone.”) Actually, Harlow was more talented and interesting than that later icon. After numerous roles in features and short films (including a memorable bit in ‘s Double Whoopee), Harlow became an “overnight sensation” with 1930’s pre-Code Hell’s Angels (dir. Howard Hughes) and 1931’s The Public Enemy (dir. William Wellman). Having been dubbed “the Platinum Blonde” and “the Blonde Bombshell,” Harlow dyes her trademark tresses here to play a carrot-topped succubus.

With a screenplay written by Anita Loos and F. Scott Fitzgerald (based on Kate Brush’s “Wicked Lady”), and competently (if not altogether imaginatively) directed by Jack Conway, the strength of Red-Headed Woman lies in the writing and acting (the ladies seem to get it more than their male director).

Poster for Red Headed Woman (1932)Harlow is Lil, an unflinching mantis who ferociously devours her prey without even pausing once at the stop of moral consideration. Harlow imbues Lil with such intoxicating, nonchalant witchery that we initially root for her, regardless of how many Sunday School lessons we might have endured that strenuously warned us not to. It was this necromantic charm, combined with the film’s failure to punish its Eve, that partly inspired the moral outrage that accelerated strict enforcement of the Motion Pictures Production Code (the “Hays Code”) a Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: RED-HEADED WOMAN (1932) AND THREE ON A MATCH (1932)

197. VAMPYR (1932)

Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Grey; Castle of Doom (alternate English version)

“I just wanted to make a film different from all other films. I wanted, if you will, to break new ground for the cinema. That is all. And do you think this intention has succeeded? Yes, I have broken new ground.”–Carl Theodore Dreyer on Vampyr

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Julian West, Jan Hieronimko, Rena Mandel, Sybille Schmitz

PLOT: Allen Gray, a student of the occult, wanders to the small hamlet of Courtempierre. There, he witnesses ghostly visions and meets an old man who is soon killed by an assassin’s bullet. The man’s sickly daughter lies in bed, her blood drained by a vampire, and Gray takes it upon himself to find the source of the contagion.

Still from Vampyr (1932)
BACKGROUND:

  • The story was inspired by tales from Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 Gothic short story collection “In a Glass Darkly,” the most important of which is “Carmilla” (a vampire tale with lesbian undertones).
  • Vampyr was produced in three versions: one with the cast speaking English, one in French, and one in German. Complete prints of the English and French versions no longer exist, although parts were used in restoring the German version. Some say the English version was never completed. Filming the same script in multiple languages was a trend at the time—see also the Spanish-language version of Dracula—although this practice was soon abandoned as too costly.
  • Star “Julian West” is actually Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, who funded the production in exchange for the leading role. Gunzburg used a pseudonym to avoid the embarrassment that would result from having an actor in his Russian expatriate noble family.
  • Vampyr was shot through a layer of gauze positioned in front of the camera to create the soft, dreamlike visuals.
  • The film was booed at its premiere in Berlin, and in Vienna crowds rioted, demanding their money back. Vampyr lost money and at the time was seen as an embarrassment in its distinguished director’s career, although now it is regarded with near universal acclaim.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The translucent astral body of our protagonist, peering down at his doppelganger as it lies in a coffin.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A nearly irrational, mood-based horror gem with imagery that verges on the surreal, Vampyr is a grim and restless death parable made in the brief age when the melodramatic structures of silent films were slowly being fleshed out with the new colors and textures afforded by sound. This experiment in terror by a master filmmaker, made in a unique period that cannot be recreated, is an artifact of its time that paradoxically seems all the more universal because of the age-bound specificity of its style.


Clip from Vampyr (1932)

COMMENTS: “It was an eerie moonlit night. Lights and shadows, Continue reading 197. VAMPYR (1932)

CREEPY COWBOYS: 4 WEIRD WESTERNS

Retro Media’s collection of “weird westerns” begins with Tombstone Canyon (1932) starring (already reviewed here). The Western, like that other indigenous American art form, jazz, ran the gamut from innovative to godawful. It goes without saying that this set of films falls in the latter category. Naturally, there are different degrees of awfulness. Cheap production, atrocious acting, pedestrian writing and, debatably, juvenile charm characterize the entries.

Tombstone Canyon was made before Maynard began ballooning up from booze, but he was already finding more empathy from his horse than from his fellow actors, which is perhaps why he spends much of the picture talking to his “wonder horse” Tarzan. The movie was made for the Z-grade studio World Pictures, whose mascot was a semi-nude blonde beauty holding two globe balloons over her breasts. No doubt, the 30s kiddies must have had their eyes bugging out.

If Tombstone Canyon looks like a backyard production put on by junior high school kids, then Vanishing Riders (1935) takes us a couple of years back, to fourth or fifth grade. It stars Bill Cody as the titular cowboy and Bill Cody Jr. as his adopted son. The fight scenes are laughable, the acting even worse, and the “scary” ghost riders, dressed in skeleton suits, are a hoot. There a couple of curly blonde cuties for window dressing, but the film, like many early poverty row westerns, is devoid of a score and is an unforgivably dull affair. It was directed by Bob Hill for Spectrum Pictures.

Security Pictures was such a low budget enterprise that it was and remains anonymous even among the infamous poverty row backlots. Its Rawhide Terror (1934) is saddled with three directors: Bruce Mitchell, Jack Nelson, and uncredited western schlockmeister Victor Adamson (whose son was horror schlockmeister Al Adamson). It is easy to assume Adamson, with his resume, did most of the work. Rawhide Terror started production as a serial, but when funding fell through it was converted to a 46 minute feature, despite its listing time as 52 minutes. It seems that six minutes have been lost, and let us fervently hope they are never found. The movie stars Art Mix. Adamson started his career by playing a character named Art Mix. However, he hired at least two different actors to also play Art Mix; that is, until  sued Adamson for capitalizing on his name. To get around that, Adamson searched for and found an “actor” with the real name of Art Mix. Apparently, this is that Art Mix. The plot of this truncated serial is even more confusing. White marauders, dressed as Indians, rob and kill a couple. The couples’ two sons, who have identical birthmarks, survive the raid. The elder son goes mad, wandering off with a maniacal laugh, which is as atrociously acted as one might imagine. Years later, the masked Rawhide Killer systematically kills each of the couples’ killers by strangling them with rawhide. Art Mix is the younger son, grown up. Describing the rest of the indecipherable plot is hardly worth the effort.

Still from Vanishing Riders (1935)
Vanishing Riders (1935)

Wild Horse Phantom (1944) wallows in its own silliness. Directed by Sam Newfield for the notorious PRC Studios, it co-stars that unlikeliest of western heroes: Buster Crabbe. With his blond locks (dyed black here) and baby face, Crabbe always looked out of place in oaters. Rather than taking on Ming the Merciless, Buster here confronts a Wild Horse Phantom. The title turns out to be a cheat, as there is no phantom horse. Instead, PRC dusted off the same flying rodent from ‘s The Devil Bat (1940). The flying rodent takes half of forever to make its appearance. It’s still equipped with the same screeching sound effect, and looks the worse for wear. It’s not after cologne this time. Rather, it’s a dime store Rhinemaiden protecting a gold mine (minus the gold). Stolen bank loot is the treasure, and Al  “Fuzzy” St. John is the slapsticky Nibelung dwarf ready to claim it. Fuzzy’s fight with a bat-on-a-string is tailored for six-year-old boys.  Kermit Maynard (Ken’s brother) fills out the cast.

These are strictly for the curious and, apart from that, to whom the “weirdness” of these might appeal remains the only mystery.

CARL THEODOR DREYER’S VAMPYR (1932)

Most agree that ‘s Nosferatu (1922) is the greatest and most unique screen incarnation of Bram Stoker’s iconic character (although, as blasphemous as it sounds, I would place ‘s 1979 remake on an equal plane. Yes, I said that, but that is a subject for another week). However, the greatest cinematic treatment of  vampire folklore is a world removed from the titular Transylvanian count: ‘s Vampyr (1932). But it is not for attention span-challenged vampire fans.

Vampyr is a film of relentless, static beauty, almost demanding chimerical concentration and phantasmagorical imagination of the viewer. After the predictable box office failure of the greatest film ever made—Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)—the director deluded himself into thinking he could produce something commercial. He had what seemed to be the right source of inspiration (slight as it is): Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 pulp hit “Carmilla,” taken from the collection “In a Glass Darkly.” “Carmilla,” with its theme of a lesbian vampire would, of course, be enticing fodder for the dull masses. But it turned out Dreyer was too original and too much in possession of an authentic, artistic spiritual substance for titillation. Fortunately, Dreyer, who wrote the screenplay, jettisoned the lesbianism and, with it, any anticipation of appeasing puerile genre fans. Vampyr was a financial flop, resulting in Dreyer’s nervous breakdown and the dissolution of his production company. He would  not make another film until Day of Wrath (1943). If period aficionados found Vampyr‘s deliberate pacing and intense, ethereal milieu too challenging, then many contemporary viewers, saddled with grand guignol expectations, often find the film provocative. Despite this, Vampyr proved to be a profound influence on both the German Expressionists and the Surrealists.

Although Vampyr was Dreyer’s first sound film, he was uncomfortable with the medium, and the movie is imbued with pronounced silent film aesthetics. The great Rudolph Mate served as director of photography, interpreting Dreyer’s crepuscular world through incandescent, gossamer grays, giving the film an enchanted but foreboding sheen. Dreyer likened the experience of watching the film to a person standing in a room, then being told that another has just died in an adjacent room. The perception of the room you are in suddenly alters, even though the room itself remains the same.

Still from Vampyr (1922)As in a dream, the imagery is often disjointed, but deeply ingrained: a ferryman with scythe, a shrouded river, a shadow departing its one-legged owner,  the antagonist dispatched by suffocating from falling white flour in a dilapidated windmill, and the film’s nexus, the disquieting vignette in which the protagonist, Allan Grey (Julian West, who financed the film) lies, trapped, in a sealed coffin, perforated with a glass window. We take on the role of voyeur to Grey’s nightmare, his helpless, vacant stare masking his terror. His eyes take in the landscape as he is carried away to burial.

The cast is primarily made up of non-professionals (with the notable exception of Sybille Schmitz as the dying sister, Leon). Chief among the amateurs is Henriette Gerard as Marguerite Chopin, the old woman whose spectral presence is matched by her ominous Doctor (Jan Hieronimko). Together, the two weave a spell over the film, as does Dreyer, who imbues Vampyr with a resplendent sense of hermetic purpose permeating its sickly skin. As with all of Dreyer’s work, Vampyr is replete with spiritual preoccupations and fears.

Vampyr may be one of the films most benefited by the Criterion Collection treatment. For years, it was only available in washed out transfers. Even the Image Entertainment release was disappointing. Criterion has done a remarkable restoration, using both French and German versions. Jorgen Ross’ documentary of Dreyer, Casper Tyberjerg’s essay, commentaries, a 1958 Dreyer radio broadcast, and the original script are part of an extensive package of goodies.