Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tod Browning - Gateway to the Freaks!

Tod Browning was the director of Bela Lugosi's Dracula (1931), but is also known for a 1932 movie that he directed, entitled Freaks. says the following about the movie:

Among classic horror films, FREAKS stands alone as one of the most grotesque and the most controversial. Rarely seen since its 1932 release, and banned in Britain for thirty years, it hasHans from FREAKS achieved cult status as the masterpiece of the macabre.

The film features a cast of actual sideshow freaks, human-beings of every conceivable physical aberration. yet the film soon reveals that the normal members of the traveling carnival are the true monsters; pitiless, conniving and murderous! When one beautiful trapeze artist discovers one of the freaks has a small fortune, she lures him into marriage.

IMDB plot summaries are here (including the ending).

Here is an excerpt from the screenplay:

But Monsieur Dubois, at first, I could not believe my own eyes. A lot of horrible, twisted things crawling, whining, globbering.

Really, Jon, what were you drinking last night?

Nothing, monsieur, I assure you. (We see what appears to be a family group in the distance.) Oh, monsieur, there must be a law in France to smother such things at birth, or lock them up.

All right, Jon, if there's anything like you say on my grounds we'll have it removed.

They suddenly freeze and stare at what is ahead. A group of circus "freaks" are singing and dancing in a circle, while one lies on the ground playing a harmonica. There are four "pinheads," a "half-boy," a "human skeleton," a "human worm," and a dwarf. When they see the two men approach, they run to their mistress, a normal woman, for protection, as Jon yells at them.

Go away all of you! Don't you know tresspassing's the same as stealing.

Oh, I'm sorry, monsieur. I am Madame Tetrallini. These are children of my circus.

Children! Monsters!

Here's a clip from later in the movie:

But the movie that was shown to the public was not the original version:

By the time Freaks was finally unveiled for a public preview, it had already gone through numerous changes. For one thing, the studio insisted on a macabre ending and rejected Browning's more melancholy fadeout, which sympathized with the plight of these much-maligned social outcasts. But after the horrified response to the preview screening of Freaks, the studio drastically cut the film from a length of around ninety minutes to just over an hour. According to the authors of Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, "The truncated version jettisoned the horrifying details of the mud-dripping freaks swarming over the tree-pinned Olga Baclanova and pouring into a circus wagon to castrate her lover. Several comic scenes were eliminated, including one of the turtle-girl being amorously pursued by a seal. A rambling epilogue set in a second-story London dime museum called Tetrallini's Freaks and Music Hall...was completely discarded, save for the final shot of Cleopatra quacking; a new prologue was added, featuring a spieling barker....who introduces the "most amazing, the most astonishing human monstrosity of all time." And finally, a second epilogue, evidently intended as a happy....ending, depicted the reconciliation of the midget lovers in Hans' palatial estate, approvingly played by Phroso and Venus."

And when the movie was finally released, reaction was...well, it wasn't good:

When this new version of Freaks finally went into national release, it was not only savaged by most critics (The New York Times suggested that it should be screened at a medical center instead of a theatre) but also attacked by civic groups and the spokeswoman for the National Association of Women who pointed to it as a further example of Hollywood's collapsing moral standards.

And Tod Browning himself was tarnished by the experience:

The film was highly controversial, even after heavy editing to remove many disturbing scenes, and was a commercial failure. Browning's career was derailed.

Browning found himself unable to get his requested projects greenlighted....

In 1942 he retired and moved to Malibu. He became such a recluse that soon after his wife died in 1944, Variety accidentally published an obituary for him. Even his neighbors rarely saw him. In the late 1950s he developed throat cancer, necessitating tongue surgery. When his brother Avery died in 1959, he attended the funeral from a private room and would not let family members see him. On October 6th, 1962, he was found dead in the bathroom of some friends.

But now everyone loves the movie and thinks it's wonderful, and the portion of the movie shown in the YouTube sequence above was reborn several decades later:

Even the punk rock group, The Ramones, lifted their rallying cry of "gabba-gabba-hey" from the bizarre wedding sequence in Freaks where the sideshow oddities chant a strange toast to the newlyweds Hans and Cleopatra.

The whole series: sneaks | beaks | teaks | reeks | freaks | geeks

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