Thursday, October 31, 2013

Freaks (MGM, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I did want to comment on the strange and beautiful movie TCM showed last night, which for once I watched “live” as it aired instead of recording it and getting to it later: Freaks, the 1932 film directed by Tod Browning (though his credit simply reads “Tod Browning’s Production of Freaks” and the only other behind-the-camera credit goes to writer Tod Robbins, whose story “Spurs” was the inspiration) that became a Hollywood legend both when it was released and when it was rediscovered in the 1960’s after having been thought lost for decades. Freaks began with MGM production chief Irving Thalberg noted the grosses on Universal’s pioneering talkie horror films Dracula and Frankenstein and told his most macabre director, Tod Browning, to give him something “more horrible than Frankenstein.” At least that’s the version Jon Douglas Eames told in his book The MGM Story, though there are other sources that have Thalberg green-lighting Freaks before Frankenstein was even released. Browning drew on his background in the circus to create a story in which carnival freaks would be the heroes and people of normal size, gender and appearance (except for a couple of juvenile leads) would be the bad guys. The inspiration was “Spurs,” a story by Tod Robbins dealing with a little person, Jacques Courbe, who works in a circus in France until he inherits a large estate. He’s smitten with bareback rider Jeanne Marie, but she’s only interested in her riding partner, Simon Lafleur. However, since her boyfriend has no money and Jacques does, Jeanne agrees to marry her, thinking that he won’t live long, she’ll inherit Jacques’ fortune and then she’ll be free to have both the money and Simon. The wedding banquet of Jacques and Jeanne attracts the other freaks in their circus and soon degenerates into a shambles. Jeanne forces Jacques to get on her back so she can humiliate him by carrying him piggy-back, joking that she could take him “from one end of France to the other.” A year later she returns to the circus, unrecognizably disheveled and haggard, and it turns out that Jacques has put on a pair of spurs and literally forced Jeanne to carry him from one end of France to the other. Simon tries to rescue her but Jacques, aided by the wolfhound he used to ride in the circus in a parody of Jeanne’s act, kills him. Jacques boasts, “It is truly remarkable how speedily one can ride the devil out of a woman — with spurs!” Any misgivings Irving Thalberg may have had about green-lighting a movie with such a weird plot were cast aside by the fact that one of MGM’s biggest silent-era hits had been The Unholy Three, directed by Tod Browning from a story by Tod Robbins, and that along with Lon Chaney, Sr. the cast of The Unholy Three had included the superb little-person actor Harry Earles, who would be perfect for the dwarf lead in Freaks and indeed was eager to play the role. (Earles had a fairly substantial career in the late 1920’s, repeating his Unholy Three role in Jack Conway’s sound remake — Lon Chaney, Sr.’s only talkie — and also playing a marvelous part in an early Laurel and Hardy short called Sailor Beware; Earles and his vampy girlfriend pose as a mother and baby to rob the other passengers of an ocean liner, and the film’s highlight is Earles and Stan Laurel gambling and Earles relieving Laurel of all his money: the irony is Earles is in baby drag but he’s acting like an adult but Laurel is a full-grown adult with the intelligence and maturity of a child.)

As the story developed — and though a plethora of writers were involved in Freaks, including “names” like Charles MacArthur and comedy specialist Al Boasberg as well as Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon and Edgar Allan Woolf (who seven years later would work on The Wizard of Oz, which employed some of the little people used in Freaks, including Harry Earles), the story and script were clearly from Browning’s own demented imagination — Browning expanded the film to include all sorts of freaks, from pinheads to bearded ladies to half-men/half-women (there are enough gender-bending characters in Freaks, including one pinhead who was passed off as female but was in fact male, though he wore a dress both on- and off-stage because he claimed dresses were more comfortable and easier to clean, that it practically qualifies as a Transgender movie) to “half-man” Johnny Eckstrom (who performed as “Johnny Eck” and was essentially missing the lower half of his body) and “human torso” Prince Randian (who lived only two years after making Freaks, though the most interesting part of his biography is that he had been born in British Guiana, lived in Paterson, New Jersey — also the home town of Lou Costello — and had a wife, four daughters and a son; a director even more twisted than Browning could have got a fascinating, if bizarre, movie out of Prince Randian’s home life and especially his sex life) as well as conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (who 19 years later would star in another movie that’s more interesting than you’d think, Chained for Life) and another little person, Angelo Rossitto, who like Harry Earles would go on to a semi-major career in films, including playing opposite Bela Lugosi in The Corpse Vanishes and Scared to Death and making something of a comeback in the 1970’s. The plot of Freaks deals with the Rollo Bros. circus — a few bits of French on the soundtrack hint that Browning kept the French setting of Robbins’ tale but didn’t stress it — which, as Variety noted, is just a one-ring affair but “carries three times as many high-class freaks as the Ringling show ever trouped in one season.” The story is a romantic intrigue in which the little-person stars, Hans and Frieda (Harry Earles and his real-life sister Frieda), are engaged to be married but are broken up by trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Her real love — or at least sex — interest is Hercules the strong man (Henry Victor). Hercules is a brute who’s just been dumped by nice-girl Venus (Leila Hyams), who’s taken up with clown Phroso (Wallace Ford, top-billed — though, unusually for MGM, none of the actors are credited until the end) on the rebound. Cleopatra sneaks off to have her ashes hauled in Hercules’ wagon every chance she gets, but encourages Hans’ attentions because he loans her money and gives her expensive presents. Frieda pleads with Cleopatra to leave Hans alone, but in the process she inadvertently lets slip that Hans is the heir to a fortune — something Hans himself had been smart enough not to tell her. Cleopatra therefore hatches a plot of her own; she’ll marry Hans, knock him off with poison, grab the money and marry Hercules — only at the wedding banquet, one of the film’s two big highlight scenes, the freaks toast her (using the “gabba-gabba” chant later appropriated by the 1970’s punk band the Ramones) and declare her “one of us.” Her revulsion gets the better of her greed and she takes the loving cup she’s offered, spills it over the freaks, and tells them, “You’re just a bunch of stinking freaks!” — then stalks off.

She goes on with her attempt to poison Hans, but Angeleno (Angelo Rossitto) —who spends so much of his time peering through windows spying on the other characters that if he were alive today he’d probably qualify for a job with the NSA — notices what’s going on, and the other freaks gang up and, on a dark and stormy night, gang up on Cleopatra and Hercules and exact their terrible revenge … Freaks is framed by a sequence in which an unseen hand tears away at the placard containing the film’s title and Browning’s and Robbins’ credits and reveals a carnival barker, promoting the freak show’s latest attraction and saying she was once a beautiful woman; in what was obviously supposed to be a big surprise reveal but won’t be to most modern audiences because virtually every book on the history of horror films in the 1930’s has reproduced the still of it, Cleopatra has been transformed into a “chicken woman,” her head mounted on the body of an oversized chicken. (In the film as it stands, her co-conspirator Hercules is dispatched when a tree falls on him, but Browning had an even nastier fate in store for him; he’s heard singing in a high voice as part of the freak show, indicating that the freaks castrated him as part of their revenge. This isn’t medically accurate — in order for a male to retain his high voice as a result of castration, the deed has to be done before puberty — and in any case it was so brutal a twist, even for the relatively liberal “pre-Code” early 1930’s, that it was cut from the film almost immediately after release and no copies of that footage are known to exist.) According to the commentary during last night’s TCM screening, featuring Robert Osborne and guest programmer Gilbert Gottfried (who picked a really eclectic list of movies, including the 1940 Of Mice and Men, the 1968 film The Swimmer — with Burt Lancaster in a satire of modern suburbia — and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 The Conversation, a tale of a private eye who’s an expert on bugging; because of when it was released it was read as a metaphor for Watergate, but Coppola had conceived the story years before the Watergate break-in occurred), the “chicken” makeup had actually been created by Lon Chaney, Sr. for an unnamed project that was abandoned after his death of throat cancer in 1930.

I first saw Freaks as part of a horror revival showing in San Francisco in the early 1970’s and was blown away by it, though it’s been controversial since it was made and the debate over it in critical circles has always been over whether Browning sincerely wanted to show us the freaks as noble, decent people, morally superior to the movie’s physically normal characters, or whether he was exploiting them as thoroughly as their employers in circuses and carnivals from which he’d hired them. “Freaks is guilty of the crime it denounces,” said Surf Theatre programmer Tom Luddy in his notes on the film, and more recent commentators have suggested that the film comes off more exploitative than Browning intended because many of the lines that made the freaks seem more human were cut out of the final release. Some of the freaks who appeared in the film later denounced it and expressed their shame at having done it, while others were proud of it. The freaks were so disconcerting to others on the MGM lot that — except for the Earleses and the Hiltons — they weren’t allowed in the studio commissary and had to take their lunches during breaks on the set. Browning originally wanted an “A”-list cast for his film, but his first choices for the key non-freak roles — Victor McLaglen as Hercules, Jean Harlow as Venus and Myrna Loy as Cleopatra — all turned him down because they were revolted by the subject matter. I’ve personally blown hot and cold on this movie — when I first saw it in 1971 I loved it, later on I decided Luddy was right and I found it technically accomplished (it’s the only one of Browning’s talkies that’s directed with any real verve and flair; Browning, I suspect largely because the advent of sound coincided with the death of his greatest star and close friend Lon Chaney, Sr., was one silent director who went downhill when talkies took over) but exploitative; this time around I liked it all over again, noting the bits and pieces of dialogue that attempted to humanize the freaks that survived the extensive re-editing, and being amazed that this film even exists, as much as it gets to be slow going sometimes when the freaks (which Browning was smart enough not to give too much screen time to) take center stage — though there are also sequences in which Browning and cinematographer Merritt Gerstad give them an almost beautiful, haunting quality that probably influenced photographer Diane Arbus, who saw this film on one of its earliest revival screenings in 1962 and was inspired by it to take her own famous photos of freaks.