Love, life, and revenge, sideshow-style

Director Tod Browning’s legendary Freaks premièred 20 February 1932, at 90 minutes. Sadly, it was cut to just 64 minutes for the general release, since many scenes were deemed too shocking for public consumption. The original version is lost.

Freaks is based upon horror and mystery author Tod Robbins’s short story “Spurs,” published February 1923 in Munsey’s Magazine. “Spurs” is set in a travelling French circus, where dwarf Jacques falls in love with bareback rider Jeanne Marie.

Jeanne marries him to get his inheritance. She truly loves her partner Simon, and plans to marry him after she offs Jacques. By the wedding feast, Jeanne gets drunk and insults Jacques, calling him a little ape whom she could carry on her shoulders.

A year later, Jacques is retired and living on an estate with Jeanne. She escapes to Simon’s doorstep and begs him to protect her from Jacques, who’s forcing her to make good on her threat to carry him the width of France on her shoulders.

Jacques then appears on a wolfhound, with a sword, and takes his revenge.

Browning convinced MGM to buy the rights, and began working on a screen adaptation in 1927. In June 1931, wonder boy Irving Thalberg gave permission for him to direct. The final script (by primary writers Willis Goldbeck and Elliott Clawson) bore little resemblance to the source material, outside of the basic premise and the wedding feast.

Prolific character actor Victor McLaglen was considered for the role of strongman Hercules; Myrna Loy was cast as evil trapeze artist Cleopatra; and Jean Harlow was chosen as sympathetic “normal” performer Venus. Ultimately, Thalberg decided not to cast any big stars.

Given when Browning began planning this film, plus his long history of collaboration with Lon Chaney, Sr., it’s a given Lon would’ve been in this film had he lived. It’s so painful to think about all the great early sound horror films Lon should’ve left his mark on!

The film opens with a circus barker introducing the most horrifying monstrosity of all time, formerly a beautiful trapeze artist. A woman screams when she sees this creature, whose reveal is saved for the end of the film.

We then enter flashback mode.

Engaged dwarves Hans and Frieda (real-life siblings Harry and Daisy Earles) watch trapeze artist Cleopatra performing. Hans is quite transfixed, so much so Frieda questions if he still loves her. He insists he does, but he quickly begins getting more and more flirtatious and personal with Cleopatra.

Hans asks Cleopatra if she’s laughing at him, and she says no. Many people don’t realize he’s a man, with the same feelings they have.

Before long, Hans and Cleopatra are having a less and less secret affair, and the entire circus is laughing at them. Frieda is humiliated, and confides in Venus for help and comfort.

Cleopatra’s affair with Hercules also becomes less and less secret, to everyone but Hans. When Frieda confronts Hans, he apologizes for not telling her sooner. She wouldn’t care if Cleopatra made him happy, but he only thinks he’s happy.

Frieda delivers the powerful line, “To me, you’re a man, but to her, you’re only something to laugh at.”

Cleopatra and Hercules plot to murder Hans after Frieda mentions his large inheritance.

Other sideshow performers we meet are:

Conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton
Madame Tetrallini, who takes care of the freaks
Half Boy Johnny Eck (sacral agenesis)
Armless Frances O’Connor
Human Skeleton Peter Robinson
Pinheads (microcephalics) Schlitze (a man in real life), Elvira Snow, and Jenny Lee Snow
Bird Girl Elizabeth Green (a large nose and thin bone structure giving a stork-like appearance)
Half-Woman Half-Man Josephine Joseph
Stuttering clown Rosco (Daisy’s husband)
Kind-hearted clown Phroso (Venus’s love interest)
Bearded lady Olga Roderick (the Human Skeleton’s wife)
Dwarf Angeleno (Angelo Rossitto) and his armless wife (Martha Morris)
Sword swallower Delmo Fritz
The Rollo Brothers, Edward Brophy and Matt McHugh
Living Torso, Prince Randian (tetra-amelia; married and the father of four kids in real life)
Koo-Koo the Bird Girl

By the wedding feast, Cleopatra poisons Hans’s wine. When the freaks famously chant, “Gooba-gobble, gooba-gobble, we accept her, one of us,” Cleopatra snaps. During her tirade, she reveals she’s been having an affair with Hercules.

Hans is humiliated, and realizes he’s been played for a fool. He pretends to apologize to Cleopatra and to take her poisoned medicine, while plotting revenge.

During a night thunderstorm, the freaks carry out payback.

Audiences were horrified, and many reviewers expressed revulsion and outrage. It took a $164,000 loss, and Browning had difficulty finding work afterwards. Freaks was the only MGM film pulled from release before finishing its planned run, and it was banned in the U.K. for 30 years.

Today, it’s a cult classic, and garners much more positive reviews.

In that era, a sideshow was just about the only place these people could find work and protection. Mainstream society wouldn’t accept them, and the alternative was life in an institution.

The freaks in this film are the ones with humanity, kindness, decency, loyalty, and morality. It’s the “normal” people who are the villains, with deformed hearts and souls.


Lon’s Legendary Lost London

Released 3 December 1927 and directed by Tod Browning, London After Midnight is among the Holy Grail of lost films. It was last known to have been screened sometime in the 1950s. Like hundreds of other silents (and some early sound films), its last known surviving print was destroyed in the horrific fire in MGM’s Vault #7 on 13 May 1967.

LAM was filmed in a record 24 days, with a budget of $151,666.14, making it the cheapest and quickest of Lon’s MGM films. While the U.S. gross was $721,000, its international earnings were below par. Overall, it turned a profit of $540,000, and ranked as MGM’s #4 film of the 1927–28 season. It was also the tenth-highest earner  of 1927 overall. This was one of Lon’s highest-earning films ever.

But was it really that good?

Contemporary audiences, critics and laypeople alike, weren’t particularly impressed. Even those who were among the very last to see it in the 1950s were underwhelmed. Lon’s incredible acting talents were highly praised, as usual, but the actual story was widely panned.

A frequent point of criticism was that the story was nonsensical and incoherent. Other reviewers called it boring, trying too hard, lacking characters the audience could connect with, lacking the weird atmosphere of The Cat and the Canary, and a wasted effort.

A rare, consistently positive review came from The Film Daily, which found the film marvellously creepy and unsettling.

Roger Balfour (Claude King) is found dead from a suspected shooting suicide. Though his friend and neighbor Sir James Hamlin (Henry B. Walthall) insists Roger couldn’t possibly have killed himself, Inspector Edward C. Burke of London Yard (Lon) officially rules the death a suicide.

Five years later, a creepy man with pointed teeth and black clothes (Lon in a dual role) arrives at the Balfour home, accompanied by a woman who looks like a corpse and also dresses all in black (Edna Tichenor). These two strangers’ arrival inspires Hamlin to call Scotland Yard.

Inspector Burke discovers three of the people in the house were the only three present when Roger died. These are Roger’s daughter Lucille (Marceline Day), his butler Williams (Percy Williams), and Arthur Hibbs (Conrad Nagel). Hibbs is the nephew of the man who made the call to Scotland Yard.

At first, Burke doesn’t believe any of them were involved, but then Roger’s body disappears from his tomb. Even weirder, his dead ringer appears in the house. Other creepy happenings include gunshots heard in Roger’s old bedroom when Burke is there, bats flying around, and the creepy visitor terrifying everyone.

Burke finds the killer by recreating the crime scene and hypnotizing the guilty party into re-enacting the murder.

In 1928, Marie Coolidge-Rask published a novelization of the film. In 1935, Tod Browning remade LAM as The Mark of the Vampire, with Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi.

A man who murdered a woman in London’s Hyde Park in 1928 claimed LAM made him do it, by driving him temporarily insane. He supposedly didn’t remember taking out the razor or using it on his victim. His plea was rejected, and he was convicted.

LAM has been referenced in popular culture a number of times over the years. These references include the name of a card game with the theme of classic horror movies, the name of an industrial-goth-rock band, and the lyrics of the song “Bodom After Midnight.”

In 2002, film preservationist and scholar Rick Schmidlin produced a 45-minute stills recreation. I’ve counted this on my list of silents seen, making note of the fact that it’s a recreation and not the actual film. I always note if something is a home movie, stills recreation, trailer, advertisement, newsreel, or surviving reel of a lost film.

In spite of LAM’s lackluster reviews, I’d still love to see it as an actual moving picture. Given Lon’s incredible acting talents, I can’t imagine it’s worse than some of the awful doozies on my list. I keep hoping all these famous lost films are found someday.

A circus of horrors in Madrid

Released 4 June 1927, The Unknown is one of ten films Lon Chaney, Sr., made with director Tod Browning. It’s so deliciously macabre, and features Lon’s specialty, a character who’s outside the norm in some way. Lon usually played social outsiders, people with great emotional pain and/or traumatic pasts, people who were physically disfigured, anything that made them different from the others.

In The Unknown, he plays armless knife-thrower Alonzo. Or is he really armless?

Alonzo keeps his arms tightly-bound to his torso, something only his friend Cojo knows. Because Alonzo has a double thumb on his left hand, displaying his arms would mean giving away his true identity as a criminal.

There’s also another reason he keeps his arms hidden—he’s in love with his partner Nanon (Joan Crawford), who’s terrified of being touched by men. She only loves and trusts Alonzo because he doesn’t have any arms and hands to hold and paw her. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to read between the lines and guess the reason for this fear.

Also in the circus is Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry), a rival for Nanon’s affections. He’s extremely determined to win her affections, but Nanon’s fear of men and Alonzo’s equal determination to win Nanon are working against him.

Alonzo turns Nanon against Malabar by telling him he has the strength and arms Nanon loves. Alonzo urges him to take Nanon in his arms and confess his love, which produces anything but the desired reaction.

Alonzo gets into a fight with Nanon’s father Zanzi, the head of the circus, and kills him. Nanon sees this from her window, but only sees the murderer from behind.

The authorities realize Zanzi’s strangler was the same man who committed other crimes, but since Alonzo has no demonstrable hands to take fingerprints from, he escapes suspicion.

The rest of the circus leaves town after Zanzi’s demise, but Alonzo stays in town with Nanon, Malabar, and Cojo. Alonzo says he wants to take her away from everything she hates.

Alonzo has new hope after Nanon hugs and kisses him, but Cojo warns him to not let that happen again. The next time, Nanon might feel the arms under his shirt.

Alonzo insists Nanon would forgive him, even if she saw his arms on their wedding night, but Cojo reminds him she’d still see that double thumb.

Cojo laughs at Alonzo for smoking with his feet when he has arms, and a macabre revelation hits him. His body language gives his thoughts away, and Cojo warns him not to do it, but Alonzo is determined to have Nanon.

The horror only increases from there.

Lon often put himself through grueling physical pain to convincingly play his characters, in an era before CGI. This film was no exception. However, while his arms really were bound to his torso, real-life armless sideshow performer Paul Desmuke was the one really doing things with his feet.

In some shots, Desmuke doubled for Lon; in others, he perfectly synchronized his legs with Lon’s body.

While The Unknown is widely praised today, and considered one of Lon and Tod’s best collaborations, contemporary reviewers were much less impressed. We often can’t predict which films will stand the test of time, quickly become dated, or be rediscovered and re-evaluated decades later.

For many years, the film was lost, until its miraculous 1968 rediscovery in the Cinémathèque Française archive in Paris. Its rediscovery may be an important clue in finding other lost films. Then as now, most films’ titles were translated for foreign markets, and this film’s French title is L’Inconnu. Hundreds of other films in the archive were labelled as such too, because their contents were unknown.

Might there be other films hiding in plain sight with unexpected titles?