The Elephants Men

We marked the passing of the great Freddie Jones by rewatching THE ELEPHANT MAN. Exploring the DVD further we found the only real extra, a trailer.

It’s pretty bad! But it see-saws between hopeless and passable-but-embarrassing. Then we found another trailer. Let me talk you through the pair of them.


This starts like a horror movie, which is awkward. A shot from the film which, in context, portrays in a perfectly sensitive way, the anxiety of Nurse Nora upon being sent to bring Mr. Merrick a meal. Here, horror movie music has been added for suspense and Dr. Treves’ dialogue (“He won’t hurt you,… he won’t hurt you… he won’t hurt you…”) has been turned into a V.O. Implication: he definitely WILL HURT you. Maybe he’ll toss you on his tusks.

Nora’s scream segues quite skillfully into a sideshow tracking shot with a narrator: “You will feel the chill of horror… but this is not a horror story.” Well, I’m glad they cleared that up. “You will feel the warmth of love… but this is not a love story.” The narrator is creepy. But this is the most successful bit, telling us what the movie ISN’T. Since it’s sui generis, a kind of nightmare about innocence, a Dickensian disease-of-the-week movie, a corporeal divine comedy, none of which are recognised film genres, alas, it makes sense to close off bad readings of what the film is, rather than thrusting forward a good one. “You will see men in hats… but this is not a cowboy story.” No, he doesn’t actually say that.

“…the story of a very real monster… who was also a very real human being.” He was a bee-yoo-tiful poysson. But he wasn’t a monster, so this attempt at telling us what the film IS about in an interesting way is pretty indefensible.

Then we get Freddie’s carnival spiel, which tells us what territory we’re REALLY in — movie trailer as come-in, as sideshow barker’s invitation. A trailer for THE ELEPHANT MAN is inevitably going to end up saying, in effect, “Come and see the elephant man.”

“Paramount had no idea how to sell it,” recalled John Hurt. One exec told him, “Well, John, a monster movie is always going to be difficult to sell.” Hurt just stared, aghast. I don’t think a film this good ought to be a hard sell, but the question of ta s te doe s come into it, which is less of an issue if you’re selling GOING APE! with Tony Danza, another Paramount pic from the same era.

Essentially, THE ELEPHANT MAN’s audience is going to come to gaup and stay to emote, and in that way can reassure themselves they’re (a) physically normal, at lea s t compared to this guy, and (b) good, caring people. The trailer has to work on Motive B, to give the audience a good excuse to buy tickets, while making it clear that the more immediately obvious Motive A will indeed be satisfied.

Because Motive A dominates, THE ELEPHANT MAN MUST NOT APPEAR IN THE TRAILER. If he did, Motive A would lose all box office power.

As Paramount didn’t know how to sell this one, and as they were, apparently, cheapskates, we now get several shots, exchanges and line readings not in Lynch’s film. This is terrific — no way these things would have survived otherwise — but they’re only here because the studio didn’t want to spend money duping negative. And so we get to hear Freddie say the lost lines, “He’s a freak. That’s how they live. We’re partners, he and I.”

We see the camera push in on Anthony Hopkins getting his first look at Merrick, but we don’t see the teardrop fall — surely, the money shot. Cinematographer Freddie Francis nicknamed his director “Lucky Lynch” because the tear fell just as the perfect closeup was achieved. But I bet that only happened once.

Then THE ELEPHANT MAN in a disconcertingly Woody Allenish font comes flying out at us. “A shattering experience,” says the VO guy, which is a fairly clever way of putting Motives A and B together in three words, and then they ruin all their good indifferent work by having Michael Elphick delivering his carnival come-on down the boozer. I mean, of the three showmen portrayed, Freddie, Tony and Mike, surely Mike is the one your 1980 audience wants LEAST to do with?

That’s the trailer on the DVD I own. There’s also THIS, on the Youtubes:

Freddie J.’s great “Life! … is full of surprises,” monologue is recut into a patchwork, but it’s a strong start anyway, and I guess they would have to reduce it (but a great trailer could have been made using mainly this scene alone). You know what? It just struck me that “Life! … is full of surprises,” is a fantastic bit of bathos. It starts dramatic and then descends into a commonplace platitude. And Freddie’s genius is both to play that crapness to the hilt, and to make it still, somehow, work.

“At first, you will want to turn away,” says voice-over guy, telling us how we’re going to react. Psychologically, he’s trying to get us past our possible resistance to seeing a film whose title character does not outwardly resemble Farrah Fawcett. Then he reassures us that we’ll want to kick Merrick in the face, which is a reason for seeing a film we can all relate to.

“Stan’ up!” yells tiny Dexter Fletcher. I like to think this is the directorial approach he used to guide Taron Egerton through ROCKET MAN. Well, it would work for the “I’m Still Standing” number.

“But if you come to know him…” Hilariously, the film does not bring this idea to life by allowing us to hear Merrick speak, but continues to show him as a placid dummy with a bag on his head.

“And perhaps for the first time, you will understand the true meaning of courage, and human dignity.” Voice-over guy is making some pretty brassy assumptions about his listeners.

“You’re not the Elephant Man at all,” says Anne Bancroft.

Seconds later, voice-over guy tells us, “…and John Hurt as the Elephant Man.” So she’s wrong. He bloody is.

Thought you could put one over on us, eh, Mr. Merrick?

THE ELEPHANT MAN stars Hannibal Lecter; Winston Smith; Mrs. Robinson; Lord Raglan; Major Barbara Undershaft; Thufir Hawat; Ken Boon; Hyzenthlay; Lilliman; Gargoyle Reggie; Sister Ruth; Maggy – Little Dorrit’s Protegee; Fidgit; Sir Anthony Mount; Jemima Shore; Gordon Cole; and Sir Elephant.

13 Responses to “The Elephants Men”

  1. Loved this. And I love this film, but I would also love to see another film give a more accurate picture of Merrick’s showbiz career. One of the best things about Year of The Rabbit on Channel 4 was the inclusion of Merrick as a Huggy Bear type informer, chiefly because it shows him a lot more in control over his “Freak Show” persona, as he was in real life – a proper impresario, a regular Richard Kiel.

  2. The BBC is at work on a two-parter. Fiona is excited about it, as the only good reason for remaking a masterpiece would be to be more true to the facts. I certainly hope that’s the way they go.

    Yeah, the extraordinary thing about Year of the Rabbit’s comedy Elephant is that’s NOT offensive, and is quite empowering.

  3. ehrenstein47 Says:

    You forgot “Produced by Melvin Kaminski”

    (Mel called David Lynch “Jimmy Stewart from Mars”)

  4. ehrenstein47 Says:

    When Warren Beatty got Pauline Kael a job as a reader for Paramount this was the script she was most enthusiastic about.

  5. ehrenstein47 Says:

  6. There was a comedy, “The Tall Guy”, with Jeff Goldblum as a sad sack American actor in London. He starts out as sidekick to a mean comedian (Rowan Atkinson) and is cast in a pretentious musical spectacle as John Merrick, largely because the show’s director views him as a sublimely pathetic loser. This movie is probably why nobody has done an Elephant Man opera.

    And then there’s this:

  7. Brooks is essential to the film getting made, and therefore to Lynch’s entire subsequent career.

    Fiona claims there IS an Elephant Man opera:

    Since there’s also an opera of The Fly, maybe Brooksfilms had some kind of affinity for the medium.

  8. Fiona Watson Says:

    It seems to be the Year Of The Elephant Man never mind Rabbit, what with The Beeb’s mini-series and David Dawson’s extraordinary performance as Merrick.

  9. “A laugh is a eulogy for the death of an emotion,” wrote Nietzsche. I dislike the SNL sketch because it seems to be reassuring us that it’s OK, we don’t need to feel anything. Whereas Year of the Rabbit’s comedy Elephant gives him agency and inspires a kind of awe rather than pity. The Lynch film arguably hits the pity switch too consistently, but Lynch isn’t, apparently, going to change his take on disability and deformity (or sex and race).

  10. Fiona Watson Says:

    We have to bear in mind that he didn’t originate the script although he contributed to it later. And it’s based on Treves very biased account. One of my favourite moments in the film strikes me as the most ‘human’, precisely because there’s humour. When Joseph asks for (I think the ‘request’ scene was cut) and is given a vanity set, he then gets worried and says, “You don’t think it’s too gaudy do you?”

    It’s a masterpiece, but it could have done with more stuff like that. The REAL Merrick would darkly joke about what he’d look like floating in a giant bottle of alcohol after his death, and comment on his inability to sleep lying down with, “If I did that I’d risk waking up in the morning with a broken neck.” A remarkable man given his circumstances.

  11. Fiona Watson Says:

    Oh, and another thing…*gets into grumpy old woman mode*. I’m sick to death of practically every film director being described as a ‘visionary’ these days. Very few are. Lynch definitely is. So was Ken Russell, but please world, STOP throwing that word around so carelessly.

  12. The Royal Television Society called Cry For Bobo “visionary” when they gave me and Nigel Smith a prize for it. I hope that’s still OK.

  13. Fiona Watson Says:

    Well, I kind of have to give you free pass on that one. (also, I’m in it, along with the rest of the Cairns clan) Going back to The Elephant Man, since we watched it, memories have been resurfacing about how it affected me at the time.

    I recall that when the film was over, you could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium. COMPLETE silence. No-one knew how to react to what they’d just seen, probably because they’d never seen anything like it at the time (unless by some miracle they’d seen Eraserhead) and were in a state of shock.

    Also, for a few nights afterwards, all my dreams were in black and white, extremely detailed, and deeply disturbing in a way I couldn’t put my finger on.

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