Monday, 5 April 2010

For Your Consideration... Freaks

All the world's a stage... the cast of Tod Browning's infamous Freaks (1932)...

Freaks: "We accept you, one of us. Gooble, Gobble."

In 1931 Tod Browning birthed one of cinema's ultimate monsters in Universal's Dracula, kick-starting a production line of horror at the famous studio, which also gave us Frankenstein (Whale, 1931) and The Mummy (Freund, 1932). Pictures of deformity and terror were shipped out on a conveyer belt which eventually ceased to be - there was a dip in production between 1936 - 39 due to financial difficulties - and in the 1940's creativity was at an all-time low. Vs pictures such as Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman (Neill, 1943) were the death knell, and during the depression of WWII audiences needed their escapism to be more romantic, resulting in pictures like The Wizard Of Oz (Fleming, 1939).

Before meeting D.W. Griffith, Browning had worked as a circus contortionist, reportedly performing in an act called The Living Corpse. After meeting one of cinema's earliest pioneers he decided to enter the moving picture industry, endeavoring to deliver true horror to the broadening audience. He succeeded, with an early patron proclaiming "to put such creatures in a picture and before the public is unthinkable." The consensus would have agreed. The film - produced by MGM - was intended to capitalize on Universal's then-thriving production line, and the project was brought to Browning by a midget actor named Harry Earles, who'd worked with the director on a 1925 picture called The Unholy Three (also starring Lon Chaney). The film is based on 'Spurs', a short story by Tod Robbins (who also authored The Unholy Three), which was first envisioned as a star vehicle for Chaney. Unfortunately the actor died of pneumonia before production could begin, and by this time Browning had sought work elsewhere and completed Dracula for Universal.

After his successes at that studio MGM wanted to offer him a big picture where he could have full creative control. The project he was offered was Arsene Lupin, a detective story based on the novels by French writer Maurice Leblanc. Browning was still passionate about Freaks, however, and returned to the horror project immediately. Casting calls went out, hundreds of 'freaks' auditioned, and eventually the bigger roles were cast with Olga Baclanova, Leila Hyams, Wallace Ford, Henry Victor and Roscoe Ates.

San Diego, 1932. The film premiers to public fury. Most reports from the time are so outrageous that they're more likely to be rumor, including one which finds The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald witnessing a scene with the Siamese twins and running to the bathroom to vomit. Everything from people running screaming from the theatre to a woman having a miscarriage have become part of the Freaks legend, but it was negative reviews and poor box office which really damned the picture, as in the 1930's films were turned around at such a furious rate that if they didn't make money the director would struggle to find work again. This was the case with Browning who, as well as struggling with the transition into talkies, failed to bring himself back up from the failure. He directed a few more features until 1939, eventually retiring in 1942 to a reclusive life, and dying of throat cancer on October 6th, 1962.

Back to 1932 and Freaks has been withdrawn from cinemas, in some countries being outlawed altogether. The UK banned the film for 30 years, only revived in the 1960's to a more liberated counterculture crowd. Its ride there was more than a little rough, however, stopping off at grindhouses where it was advertised as a sleazy horror under the title Nature's Mistakes. The film, described by midget actor Mark Povinelli as "a soap opera set in a sideshow", was sold as an exploitation piece, the exact opposite of what it really is. Rediscovered in the 60's, it steadily grew in popularity, screening at midnight movie theaters in the US and having its UK ban lifted. Over time it has become something of a cult classic and one can easily imagine the film fitting in with the flux of experimental 60's and 70's films including Herostratus (Levy, 1967), El Topo (Jodorowsky, 1970), Performance (Cammell, Roeg, 1970) and The Devils (Russell, 1971). In 1994 the film was selected to enter the 'United States National Film Treasury', which preserves films that are deemed culturally or historically important.

The real beauty of the film is in the way it humanizes its stranger, physically deformed characters, and creates a real and believable sense of community. Everyone is looking out for each other - the 'freaks' are all friendly and treat each other as equals. Real-life siblings Harry and Daisy Earles portray Hans and Frieda, the main characters of the piece, engaged to be married. Hans falls for the 'normal' Cleopatra (Baclanova), who learns of his fortune and agrees to marry... with a plan to bump him off and inherit the money. The other freaks discover her plot and in the final scene sabotage her transport. The 'freaks' band together in order to save one of their own, while the 'normal' people are presented as narcissistic, greedy and selfish. To sum it up perfectly, a sample of dialogue cut from the opening scene: "their bodies may be twisted and deformed, but not their souls."

The most famous scene of the film (above) finds the freaks gathered around the wedding reception of Hans and Cleopatra. It's a joyous time for everyone except the bride, who is clearly unnerved and disgusted by her guests. This is where the community of the freaks is represented best, and also where Cleopatra's utter contempt for them is revealed. It's a shocking scene, perhaps all the more so now when we consider that audiences in the 1930's might have shared her attitudes and been on her side. But now we feel for the so-called freaks and are satisfied when they get their revenge. Ultimately it's a film of morals and Browning, in his acceptance of the freaks, was ahead of his time. So if there's one horror film you see from the 1930's, look beyond the Universal stable and savor this masterpiece. Gooble Gobble.

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