The Sunday Intertitle: Gooble Gobble

We do love the quaint and curious use of intertitles in early talking pictures. And Tod Browning’s FREAKS is a particularly wild and off-kilter movie. It contains precisely ONE intertitle, a fairly unnecessary one from a storytelling point of view ~

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By refusing to repeat the device and make it into an integrated stylistic mannerism, the movie just throws it out there as yet another quirk in a film full of them: physical quirks, acting quirks, narrative quirks, dialogue quirks. The lone intertitle is like the film’s lone “supernatural” intervention (“How she got that way we’ll never know. Some say a jealous lover -” HUH? “Others, that it was the Code of the freaks” Sure, but HOW? “Others, the storm…” WHAWHOWHAWHUH???), an unsettling disruption in a film that makes uneasiness an aesthetic.

Viewing the movie again with students at the beginning of this month, I was struck by how underrated it’s been. It has a solid cult reputation which doesn’t show any signs of slipping, and which would be justifiable even if the film itself weren’t particularly well made. But it’s probably Browning’s most elegant and intelligent work, with, for instance, some amazingly powerful compositions ~

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Not only is this shot beautiful in itself (for sheer architecture I’ll take it over the last shot of THE SEARCHERS), it demonstrates conclusively that all stars of films in a 1:1.33 ratio should be shaped like Harry and Daisy Earles.

Early stuff I read about FREAKS suggested that it was a clunky, awkward film, but although it’s been much hacked-about (censored or at least heavily pruned), it’s full of strong visual ideas and sequences. For an early-ish talkie, it’s far from static. Much of the camera movement centres on the character played by Johnny Eck, the Man With Half a Body. Browning was smart enough to realize that the particular condition suffered by Eck (real name Echkardt, making him also the Man with Half a Name) was one that necessitated showing him in motion. Otherwise he would look like a special effect, like Cleopatra the Chicken Lady. We simply wouldn’t believe what we were seeing.

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The visual high points of the film are the above-mentioned Wedding Feast, and the climax. The feast features not only a commanding sound mix, with the circus performers’ chanting running under the dialogue, building to a crescendo, but effective use of angles looking directly at the singing sideshow people, while they look right back at us. Browning as Ozu. Some of these shots are linked by fast pans, although sadly insensitive editing has slashed many of these while leaving trailing fragments ¬†of a few frames. Another great shot is the one where Angelo Rossitto, seemingly the leader of the troupe, walks across the banquet table from one side to another, carrying the loving cup for the guests to drink from. As he does so, the camera also crosses the table, but in the opposite direction. It’s a strange effect I’ve noted, that when a character’s movement pulls the camera but in a different direction, so that they pass “like ships in the night,” the effect tends to make the character seem more powerful.

vlcsnap-361781As far as seems to be known, the character on the table has no actual medical malformity. She’s NORMAL.

(An exception — in THRONE OF BLOOD, as Mifune backs away from his traitorous men, the camera advances towards them. Having at first been looking past Mifune as the men, it’s now looking AT Mifune WITH the men — the camera has literally changed sides. And when the camera goes over to the enemy, you know you’re in trouble.)

vlcsnap-362472Prince Randian — prince of WHERE???

The main factor that accounts for FREAKS’ devaluing, I think, is the performances, particularly the handling of dialogue. The primitive quality of sound recording technology in 1932 conspires with the thick accents of many of the stars, and the uncertain delivery of some of them, to make FREAKS a strange film in ways not directly connected to its subject. Of course, the variety of accents results partly from Browning’s decision to cast the most astonishing people he could get. If they happened to be from Germany (Harry & Daisy, real-life siblings and part of a troupe called the Doll Family), Austria (Josephine Joseph) or British Guiana (Prince Randian, who has neither arms and legs and wriggles around in a big sock, and whose sole line, the mysterious “Can you do anything with your eyebrow?” really does require the DVD subtitles to understand), then so be it.

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In fact, by setting the story in France (for no obvious narrative reason) and populating the non-freak roles with an ear-defying jumble of accents, Browning makes a virtue of necessity, capitalizing on the punchy sensation induced by his characters’ varied physical appearances. FREAKS is a film that keeps you off-balance, unable to believe what you’re seeing or hearing. As acrobat and strongman, Olga Baclanova and Henry Victor’s respective Russian and German accents, debilitatingly thick, can also be accounted for by the fact that they’d been silent stars (see Olga in Sternberg’s DOCKS OF NEW YORK), but I prefer to see their casting as a deliberate assault on the audience.

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That climactic storm scene also shows Browning in top form, testing our affection for the freaks, built up during the story, by casting them as avenging demons, and allowing them to mirror the insult slung at them earlier by Cleo — “Dirty, slimy freaks!” They crawl through the mud like angry earthworms to get even with their enemies. Prince Randian clutches a blade between his teeth like a pirate, although what he intends to do with it should he catch up with his prey is unimaginable (but we’ve seen him light a cigarette with his mouth, so anything’s possible — maybe he can do something with his eyebrow…). ¬†Notably, in this scene Henry Victor transforms from possibly the world’s most grating ham — explosively bombastic and stilted, pointlessly loud and obnoxious even in his posture — into a very effective physical player, his body contorting to expressionist effect, his panic real and convincing. His sheer terror is the sole foreshadowing of the supernatural conclusion.

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It’s been suggested that Hercules was to have been glimpsed again in the penultimate scene, singing in a high voice, the strongman rendered castrato by the freaks. It’s also been suggested that a car crash that seriously injured Tod Browning earlier in his life (I’m not sure when — was he already a filmmaker, or still a circus performer himself, a contortionist and somnambulist billed as The Living Hypnotic Corpse?), may have left him in the same unfortunate condition.

Poetically, both these Kenneth Angeresque rumours somehow feel like they ought to be true.

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24 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Gooble Gobble”

  1. The entire film is an assault on the audience. Amd its power remains undimished — despite interlopers to the “sensation” throne like Lars Von Trier.

  2. “An assault on the audience” – maybe that’s why it’s such a one-off. Nobody dared follow that. It’s not camped-up or softened, just a straight slug of intensity, without a chaser. It’s one of those films that I show to people who think old Hollywood was all just fun or swoony romanticism.

  3. Arthur S. Says:

    And it was produced by none other than Irving G. Thalberg at MGM.

    It’s probably Browning’s best film. He was a very uneven film-maker with a personal sensibility and in FREAKS he found the form and content for his aesthetic. The only other decent sound film he made after that THE DEVIL-DOLL is good but marred by a conventional story.

    The film’s style is that it embraces these freaks in such a way that the normal people seem to be the strange ones. The climactic mutilating of that woman has the force of a bloody slave’s revolt against it’s enemies.

  4. Christopher Says:

    few things..if ANYTHING..tops the chicken lady fate of Olga Baclanova!

  5. It’s certainly THALBERG’S best film — I think because he gave Browning carte blanche after the success of Dracula.

    Been meaning to write something about The Thirteenth Chair, a 1929 Browning featuring Lugosi which is like a collection of acting styles being tried out for talking pictures — a sort of mass audition. And NONE of the styles in it would ultimately be adopted by screen actors.

  6. David Boxwell Says:

    Mayer, on the other hand, loathed it (not surprisingly), and undermined it at every turn.

    The pinheads and female Siamese twins also should be mentioned. Does Browning exploit them, or dignify them, or both?

  7. THE BIG PARADE is a masterpiece(it influenced practically all of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings) by King Vidor made under Thalberg(as was SHOW PEOPLE if I recall). These two don’t make up for what he did to Stroheim but it’s pretty good for an otherwise overblown mythology surrounding his career.

    I’ve seen THE UNHOLY THREE and found it underwhelming. The Browning that I’d like to see is THE UNKNOWN. DRACULA by Browning is for me, not very good, and since I don’t like Lugosi(save for THE BLACK CAT), it’s not interesting to me.

  8. Louis B. Mayer was determined to wrest power in MGM from Thalberg so that may have influenced him to seize on what was clearly a outre film by their standards. MGM did a lot of boring stuff in the 1930s(save for the occassional exception like the J. L. Mankiewicz produced Lang masterpiece FURY).

  9. The Unknown is a masterpiece. It pops up on cable every now and then.

  10. > THE DEVIL-DOLL is good but
    > marred by a conventional story

    There was a good article in Film Comment in the ’90s, circa ’94, that talked about what happened to the script of DEVIL-DOLL. It was apparently quite strong, but … got amended to death. Guy Endore was among the writers.

    http://fmg-www.cs.ucla.edu/ficus-members/reiher/film_miscellany/devil.doll.article.html

  11. (Clutches tiny furred gonk in hands) “This was once a fully-grown St Bernard!”

    Devil Doll isn’t THAT conventional!

    Harry Earles is the whole show in Unholy 3, his malevolent cigar-chimping baby seems an influence on Baby Herrman in Roger Rabbit.

    If you just summarize the plot of The Unknown to people, their eyes start to kinda bulge, then they get spirally shapes spinning in their retinas.

    Thanks for the Endore info, Chris, I’ll be sure to look into that. Love The Werewolf of Paris (which should be filmed more faithfully).

  12. As for exploitation — the whole film is a high-wire act between exploitation and exploration. The pinheads are the most troubling case because they probably don’t quite know what’s going on. And a male has been put in a dress for added “freak value”. And it doesn’t look right to have one of them crawling in the mud with a knife — he doesn’t look scary, just confused.

    I’m fascinated that they seem to have their own language, like two-year-olds.

  13. Gee, Arthur, I was making that same point on a different blog just yesterday, on how Mayer’s growing control caused much of MGM’s product to turn stodgy.

  14. Harry Earles was also a big influence on Verne Troyer.

  15. I mean the basic story of that movie is very much in the 19th Century revenge melodrama scheme, the weird bits that include the shrinking dolls aren’t integrated completely into the fabric. Whereas with FREAKS, Browning dispenses from that basic schema and lets himself loose.

  16. I don’t know: in a way Freaks is the Jacobean revenger’s tragedy par excellence. That’s the main element it takes from the nasty short story source. The difference is in the bizarre story world and the handling, and these bursts of the irrational.

  17. There was one other film made in 1932 that rivals, if not surpasses, FREAKS in terms of creepiness. Erle C. Kenton’s ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, a Paramount release, benefited from H. G. Wells as source material, Charles Laughton in the lead, and Karl Struss behind the camera. Wally Westmore was responsible (uncredited) for the manimals’ make-up, but it was idiosyncratic enough in presentation to lend to the film a heightened effectiveness (Westmore also did the make-up on Fredric March for Mamoulian’s JEKYLL & HYDE, it’s a wonder he hadn’t done more work in the horror genre). Kenton’s legacy ranks at least a notch or two below Browning, perhaps even lower, but I watched IOLS just recently and it still holds up, Kenton lucked out on this one. It’s been many years since I’ve last watched FREAKS (only seen it once), but your post drives home just how visually striking this film is, I’m motivated now to want to catch it again soon. Wish they’d get around to releasing (and restoring?) ISLAND OF LOST SOULS on DVD, seems it’s long overdue.

  18. oh yes–Island of Lost Souls is amazing (and Bela really distinguishes himself there)

    love Freaks–love Tod Browning in general… Freaks may be his best sound film, but I’m a huge fan of Dracula (and am genuinely puzzled by the recent critical push to elevate the Spanish version at the Browning film’s expense) and also find much to admire in Devil Doll and Mark of the Vampire (this last may actually be the most narratively vexed–and therefore fascinating–film produced by the studio system… every step the movie takes toward a “materialist” explanation of the supernatural storyline actually represents another giant leap into the maw of the absurd

  19. I love Island, and the manimal’s revolt at the end is extraordinary and Romero-esque. Love Laughton’s performance, which strikes me as very modern. But I still don’t think it goes as far as Freaks.

    Kenton does some great stuff, including those repeat track-ins on the advancing manimals. Really strong rhythmic movement.

    The Spanish Drac has a decent Renfield, a sexy Lucy, and a few terrific shots that don’t appear in the Browning. But their Dracula is so inferior that it really makes you appreciate what Lugosi brings to the part. Arguably Bela is just as big a ham as the Hispanicula, but he has a SPOOKY ESSENCE. The other guy is just silly.

  20. I also adore “Island of Lost Souls.” Which is no surprise, what with my being a pushover for ’30s Paramount style.

    I think there are a few more pertinent names, though, that should be mentioned — along with the “studio as auteur” phrase. Since Kenton’s directorial record is, ahem, spotty at best, one might consider screenwriters Waldemar Young (associated with Browning’s “Unholy Three” and “The Unknown,” DeMille’s “Sign of the Cross”) and Philip Wylie (“Murder in the Zoo”).

    Mostly, though, I’m thinking of cinematographer Karl Struss (“Murder by the Clock,” the Mamoulian “Jekyll,” “The Story of Temple Drake,” the ’50s “Fly,” “Kronos”). A man with a gift for creating atmosphere.

    Oh, yes, and IMDb does give Struss co-credit for Murnau’s “Sunrise.”

  21. Struss may in fact be more responsible for those exciting camera moves than the director — he certainly has the more distinguished CV.

    And Waldemar Young’s credits are an enticing range of pre-code peculiarity.

    Laughton of course was a force of nature, and would likely have given just the performance he wanted, although who knows? Some minor directors seem to have had very successful collaborations with him, while some (but not all) great ones struggled.

    Lost Souls was one of the last major 30s monster movies remaining for me to see — I think I finally found a tape about ten years ago.

  22. Elly Annie Schneider is the Chuck Klesath of the little people. Schneider has no family of her own as of 2004, and no record exists of her marrying.

    Explanation:
    Chuck Klesath was a pharmacist, has no immediate family.

  23. I might need an explanation of the explanation!

  24. Well, dcairns, here is the obituary for Chuck Klesath http://admin.steamboatpilot.com/obituaries/2010/jan/26/charles-klesath/.

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