Tod Browning’s most famous film is undoubtedly Dracula, which kickstarted the original Universal Monsters cycle in 1931 (the 1923 The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera in 1925 came earlier, but in terms of what we now generally call the Universal Monsters films, Dracula was the first). However, he’d been in the film industry for a long time prior to this and, surprisingly, his career fizzled out soon afterwards.
Browning was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1880. When he was 16, he ran away to join the circus and had several jobs there, moving into performing as he got older.
He eventually transitioned to Hollywood. He started out acting but, by 1915, Browning was directing short films, and he soon transitioned to features. His early films were mostly comedies and melodramas, but he gradually began to make a name for himself by making dark tales of criminals and outcasts, often delving into his past as a circus performer for the latter.
After finding great success with Dracula at Universal, Browning was lured back to MGM, with whom he’d worked prior. They offered him a generous contract to produce his passion project, Freaks, and he leapt at the chance.
However, after a test screening resulted in people running out of the theatre and one woman threatening to sue MGM, claiming the shocking film caused her miscarriage, executive Irving Thalberg promptly cut around half an hour out of the film, without Browning’s consent. The now-butchered version of the film bombed on release and, whilst he still directed a few more films following this, Browning’s career was severely curtailed due to the failure of and backlash from the film.
Over the years, audiences and critics have re-assessed Freaks though (aided by a resurgence of popularity in the film during the 60s). Now, Criterion are releasing it on Blu-ray alongside a pair of similarly themed titles from his silent output, The Mystic and The Unknown. I got hold of a copy and my brief thoughts on the films and set itself can be found below.
Director: Tod Browning
Screenplay by: Waldemar Young, Tod Browning (story)
Starring: Aileen Pringle, Conway Tearle, Mitchell Lewis, Robert Ober, Stanton Heck, David Torrence, Gladys Hulette, DeWitt Jennings
Running Time: 74 min
In The Mystic, Aileen Pringle plays Zara, a phoney psychic in a Hungarian carnival, working alongside Zazarack (Mitchell Lewis) and Anton (Robert Ober). She is approached by Michael Nash (Conway Tearle), an American conman, who persuades her and her crew to come to the United States to help him gain control of the fortune of Doris Merrick (Gladys Hulette), a beautiful and unsuspecting heiress.
Nash introduces Zara to Doris as a genuine psychic, and she quickly gains Doris’s trust. Zara uses her tricks to convince Doris that her father’s spirit is trying to communicate with her through her. She tells Doris that her father wants her to give her fortune to Nash, who he claims is her rightful guardian.
Meanwhile, a local police inspector (DeWitt Jennings) is suspicious of the group but can’t figure out their tricks. Can he unveil them before it’s too late?
The Mystic is a film with some standout aspects but, overall, I found it a little unfulfilling. Whilst only 74 minutes long, I felt it was a little padded out. There isn’t a lot to the story, other than the main scam and some barely developed romantic entanglements.
However, the story works as a skeleton on which to display the seance set-pieces. These are fantastic, with Browning showing he’s a master of creating atmosphere. Some very effective practical and special effects are used to make Zara and her team’s scams rather convincing. This is all supported, in this presentation, by a wonderfully unusual score (with additional muted sound effects) by David Lynch collaborator, Dean Hurley.
Also impressive is Aileen Pringle herself, who delivers a deeply alluring central performance. This is aided by some gloriously lavish costumes, courtesy of the famous artist and designer Erté (a.k.a. Romain de Tirtoff), who was uncredited on the film, due to falling out with Browning.
So, whilst I found The Mystic, overall, to be a little slight and slow-moving, it rides on its set pieces, atmosphere and lead performance to become a solid silent melodrama.
Director: Tod Browning
Screenplay by: Waldemar Young, Joseph Farnham (titles), Tod Browning (story)
Based on a Novel by: Mary Roberts Rinehart (uncredited)
Starring: Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry, Joan Crawford, Nick De Ruiz, John George, Frank Lanning
Running Time: 68 min
In The Unknown, the great Lon Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless, a circus knife-thrower who, as his name suggests, has no arms, so uses his feet in his eye-popping act. However, we learn that he, in fact, has both his arms and hands (plus an extra thumb). His persona is just an act to hide his criminal activities from the police.
Alonzo is secretly in love with Nanon (Joan Crawford), the daughter of the circus ringmaster. She has a phobia of being touched by men, so Alonzo is the perfect companion for Nanon, since he cannot manhandle her. She feels safe with him, though she doesn’t yet seem to show true love for the man.
Alonzo gets himself into trouble, however, when Nanon’s father, Zanzi (Nick De Ruiz), discovers his true identity. Zanzi threatens to expose the criminal to the police, so Alonzo kills him. Nanon witnesses the crime but in the darkness can’t quite make out the assailant’s face, only the fact he has two thumbs on one hand.
This scuppers Alonzo’s hopes to one day tell Nanon the truth about his arms and marry her.
Whilst Alonzo ponders what to do, further trouble comes in the form of the circus strongman, Malabar (Norman Kerry). He loves Nanon too. Nanon seems to feel the same, but her fear of being touched holds her back. For how long can she hold back from his advances before overcoming her fear?
I enjoyed this one more than The Mystic. It’s a dark and twisted melodrama where everything is amped up to eleven. Fizzling with sexual tension and violent urges, it’s a wonderfully lurid tale.
As before, Browning shows he has a keen eye for atmospheric visuals and these are aided by some impressive sets. A doctor’s surgery looks particularly stylish, as does the setting for the film’s spectacular strongman show finale.
Chaney was well-known for putting himself through great pains to deliver his very physical performances. Here is no different, with his arms being pinned back by a tightly fighting leather girdle (though a body double does all the amazing tricks performed with his feet). The pain likely helped with his intense portrayal of the film’s antagonist. Also, despite his character committing some horrific acts, Chaney manages to create just enough sympathy for the character to keep the audience gripped by his story. In particular, one can easily feel sorry for him during a brutally ironic twist that occurs in the final act.
Crawford also impresses in what she considered a turning point in her career. It wasn’t her first film, but it was one of her first truly meaty starring roles, where she could show what she could do as an actress. She’s magnetic here, helping the audience buy into the astonishing lengths the two male leads go to woo her.
So, The Unknown results in a deliciously macabre love story that’s handsomely mounted and performed with gusto.
Director: Tod Browning
Screenplay by: Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon
Based on a Short Story by: Clarence Aaron ‘Tod’ Robbins
Starring: Harry Earles, Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Daisy Earles, Roscoe Ates, Henry Victor, Rose Dione
Running Time: 62 min
Freaks is set among a travelling circus, delving into the lives of its acts, particularly the so-called ‘freaks’ in the sideshow.
The core narrative concerns Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a beautiful and conniving trapeze artist, who learns that Hans (Harry Earles), a little person who performs in the circus sideshow, has a large inheritance. He is attracted to the statuesque woman, so she decides to capitalise on this, seducing Hans and convincing him to marry her, much to the dismay of his former girlfriend Frieda (Daisy Earles).
Cleopatra is actually in love with Hercules (Henry Victor), the circus strongman, and they conspire to kill Hans after the wedding so that they can inherit his fortune. However, Hans’s friends and fellow performers grow suspicious and band together to help their cohort.
It’s hard to discuss Freaks without addressing the question of whether or not it should be considered exploitative of its largely disabled cast. It’s a difficult question to answer but, in my mind, the opening scene addresses this quite effectively. It sees a landowner and his caretaker discussing the ‘horrors’ the latter had seen on the other’s land. However, when we meet these ‘freaks’, they’re playing joyfully in the woods like children (indeed, their ‘caretaker’ calls them that). The landowner promptly changes his tune, realising they are innocents, whilst the caretaker maintains his disgust. This suggests it’s the audience that is the problem in creating these labels and misconceptions.
Of course, the issue is a little more complicated than that though. It’s still hard to argue that the disabilities and abnormalities of many of the actors are not being used to market the film as a sort of sideshow attraction. However, the ‘freaks’ are clearly the sympathetic heroes here. The villains are physically ‘normal’. Also, in terms of disability representation, there was nothing like this out there at the time and, even now, I’d be hard-pressed to think of a film with this level. So, it’s swings and roundabouts really, but I prefer to see Freaks as a surprisingly progressive film, despite any questionable motives on behalf of the studio.
Away from its more controversial aspects, I find the film a little hit-and-miss though. Like with The Mystic, you could say there’s a lot of padding again, with a fair amount of run time made up of minor dramas concerning the other members of the travelling circus (reportedly, much of the 30 minutes trimmed from the film expanded on these). However, these scenes are what make the film special in my mind and where the more positive view of disability comes across. That said, the occasional gag built around the characters’ disabilities could be seen as being in poor taste.
I also felt the lead performances weren’t wholly successful. Whilst Harry and Daisy Earles (who were brother and sister off-screen) deliver emotionally effective physical performances (particularly Daisy), their line deliveries are pretty clunky. This might be a mean-spirited comment, given English wasn’t their first language, but their stilted speech is a little distracting.
Once again, Browning impresses with his visual style. The film’s shocking climax is particularly well-shot and conceived, shifting the tone from melodrama to horror. With some graceful camera moves and striking use of darkness, rain and lightning, it’s an eye-popping sequence.
So, whilst the soapy melodramatics might turn some off, Freaks remains a surprisingly sympathetic story of disabled circus performers and their camaraderie. Its intentions may be questionable but it’s hard to argue that this isn’t a truly bold and unique film to come out of the golden age of Hollywood.
Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers is out on 23rd October on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The Mystic has some frame judder and isn’t particularly sharp but, considering the age of the film, it looks otherwise impressive. The Unknown also shows signs of age but the contrast is spot on and the level of detail is high. Freaks looks the best of the bunch, with a rich tonal range, sharp details and little damage or wear. The scores on the two silent films are nicely presented and, whilst Freaks shows the limitations of sound recording back in the 30s, it’s a fine restoration.
TWO-BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
– New 2K digital restoration of Freaks, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
– New 2K digital reconstruction and restoration of The Unknown by the George Eastman Museum, with a new score by composer Philip Carli
– New 2K digital restoration of The Mystic, with a new score by composer Dean Hurley
– Audio commentaries on Freaks and The Unknown and an introduction to The Mystic by film scholar David J. Skal
– New interview with author Megan Abbott about director Tod Browning and pre-Code horror
– Archival documentary on Freaks
– Episode from 2019 of critic Kristen Lopez’s podcast Ticklish Business about disability representation in Freaks
– Reading by Skal of “Spurs,” the short story by Tod Robbins on which Freaks is based
– Prologue to Freaks, which was added to the film in 1947
– Program on the alternate endings to Freaks
– Video gallery of portraits from Freaks
– English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– PLUS: An essay by film critic Farran Smith Nehme
Disc 1 contains The Mystic and The Unknown, as well as a few extras.
David J. Skal delivers a relatively short but valuable whistlestop tour through The Mystic’s background and qualities. He also provides a commentary for The Unknown. Skal has certainly done his research and provides a wealth of information about the cast and crew, as well as discussing the production and release history.
Megan Abbott talks about Browning as an auteur in her interview and discusses his work within the world of pre-code horror. She provides a rich and fascinating analysis of the films in the set. She talks in detail about the issue of disability representation in Freaks too, making some strong points on the subject.
The Freaks’ disc is where we get the greatest wealth of extras.
David J. Skal appears again, with a commentary for Freaks. This appeared on the older DVD release. It’s a well-researched account of the background of the film and those involved in making it. A particularly fascinating aspect of the track is Skal’s description of scenes that were removed from the film by MGM, as well as some scripted segments that were excised before production. I also appreciated hearing excerpts from reviews written at the time of its release.
The Ticklish Business podcast, led by Kristen Lopez and featuring Drea Clark and Samantha Ellis, provides a deep analysis of the film. Once again they spend a lot of time discussing the representation of disability in the film, more effectively than any other contributor here, in my opinion.
Skal crops up again, presenting various alternative endings for Freaks. The original, darkest ending, which was tested but never released, is only described, whilst some alternative cuts of what we were left with are shown as well as discussed.
We also get a prologue that accompanied some later releases of Freaks. It attempts to cast the film in an important light, suggesting it’s making an important message about the value of the lives of the disabled and abnormal characters on screen. It’s a nice idea on paper but the blurb overbakes it somewhat and uses regrettable language to describe the film’s protagonists.
Added to the package is the short story ‘Spurs’ that formed the basis for Freaks, as well as a short introduction. It’s very similar to the core narrative of the film, to begin with, but takes a sharp turn and ends very differently. It’s great to have the story available on the disc.
There’s an archival ‘making of’ included too (which originally appeared on the old DVD release). Running for a little over an hour, it provides quite an in-depth look at the production. It’s a little dated in some of its language and attitudes but is largely a valuable piece. Particularly interesting is hearing about the lives of the film’s cast. The documentary, like many of the pieces here, also discusses the exploitation question surrounding the film.
I didn’t receive a copy of the booklet, unfortunately.
So, Criterion have put together a fantastic package for three eye-opening examples of the bold and controversial films made by Tod Browning. Lovers of classic Hollywood should certainly pick it up.