Director: Tod Browning
Writer: Willis Goldbeck & Leon Gordon, suggested by the story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins
Cast: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Roscoe Ates, Henry Victor, Harry Earles, Daisy Earles, Rose Dione, Daisy Hilton, Violet Hilton
Plot: Filmed with circus performers rather than professional actors, this film smacks of classic Greek tragedy. A circus midget named Hans (Harry Earles) falls in love with a beautiful trapeze artist named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). The other circus performers discover she only wishes to marry him for an inheritance that’s waiting for him, and decide to seek retribution for their friend in a horrific fashion.
Thoughts: This is one of those films whose name I’ve always heard whispered, but didn’t really know much about. For that matter, I don’t know that I’ve ever talked to anyone who’s actually seen it. But the fact that everyone seems to know about it definitely suggests that it’s worth delving into for this little project of mine. As it turns out, it’s one of those movies responsible for stuff that’s become so pervasive that people don’t even know the origins of it anymore. (Check out the initiation scene – suddenly you’ll start to get pop culture references you never understood before.)
The structure of the film is fantastic, beginning with a carnival barker leading a crowd of onlookers to some horrifying (but yet unseen) exhibit, then cutting away to the main story. Hans is already engaged to another performer, Frieda (Daisy Earles), and initially denies that he is infatuated with the lovely Cleopatra. Cleo is already involved with the circus strongman, Hercules (Henry Victor), and with him hatches the scheme to bilk Hans out of his money.
This is one of those films that’s particularly difficult to judge, thanks to the prism of modern experience. My own gut reaction is surprise at how the story is pieced together. Although the characters, the titular “freaks,” aren’t necessarily brilliant actors, I’m intrigued at how human their depiction is. Although there are a few things played for laughs (a stutter, for example) that would seem cruel today, many of the freaks are shown displaying very normal emotion and desires, which I find surprising in a film made in 1932. I’m not sure that’s really fair of me, though. I don’t know exactly what the expected reaction would have been at the time. Certainly, we tend to think of a period nearly 80 years ago as being a less permissive, less inclusive time period, but is that the same thing as saying that a 1932 audience would have expected a group of circus sideshow performers to be less than human? Just because they were alive in the 30s? Seems rather intolerant of me, doesn’t it?
One thing that’s undeniable is that director Tod Browning – who also directed Dracula and several silent films starring Lon Chaney – places his allegiances firmly with the freaks. The members of the circus sideshow have a code of conduct and honor, particularly when it comes to how “normal” people interact with their clan of outsiders. Those “normal” people – Cleopatra and Hercules in particular – are the real monsters of the film. The horror doesn’t originate with the abnormal in this movie, but from the way ordinary people choose to treat those they view as less than human. The freaks do wind up doing some pretty nasty things, but in retaliation. Cleopatra attempts to slowly poison Hans, but with the help of his friends he grows wise to her scheme and, together, they find a grotesque retribution. Overkill, perhaps, but it’s hard to feel bad for their victim, whose own actions were just as damning emotionally as any physical torment she was put through.
The final scenes, admittedly, are hard to watch. One of the few sympathetic “normals” – a circus clown – is shoved against a burning stove by Hercules as he tries to defend Hans. Of course, what happens to ol’ Herc makes any injuries the clown gets seem almost bearable by comparison. As for Cleopatra herself, we see her flee just before we go back to the barker from the beginning of the film and see the end result of Cleopatra’s greed, a poetic justice imposed by the freaks.
Browning, from what I’ve learned, actually grew up working in a circus, so it’s quite possible that the things he saw and experienced at the time influenced this film greatly. Sadly, it seems the film influenced his career in a negative way. Audiences at the time were so horrified by it that his booming career fizzled, and he only directed four more films in his life, two of them uncredited – having directed sixty-seven previously. (And I doubt it was a question of just easing into retirement – he lived until 1962, 23 years after his final film, Miracles For Sale.) Were people that horrified? Did they find the film that threatening? One woman even sued Browning, claiming the film shocked her into having a miscarriage… not because of the human horror of the things Cleopatra did, but because of the shock of seeing the freaks in action. The film was actually changed several times, toning down some of the final scenes, cutting out nearly 30 minutes of footage (the final film’s running time is a brisk and all-too-brief 62 minutes) and grafting a happier ending that very, very much feels tacked-on. Had they left things with Cleopatra’s fate, it would have been a gut-wrenching final image that would linger with you. Instead, they drift back to Hans and Frieda one last time, evidently attempting to give the audiences some sort of good vibe to go out on. But this isn’t a movie that really suits a “good vibe.” It’s about horrible people and the horrible things they do, and leaving it on an up note weakens it.
Should you happen to get your hands on the DVD, make sure to watch the alternate endings. It’s more powerful, and considerably creepier.
We’re leaving the 1930s behind now, leaping forward in time. Join me tomorrow as we travel to 1942, and the horror classic The Cat People.
Director: Tod Browning
Writer: Hamilton Dean & John L. Balderston, based on the play by Garrett Fort, based in turn on the novel by Bram Stoker
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Solan & Francis Dade
Plot: The mysterious Count Dracula and his unwitting slave, Renfield, travel to England. When the ship is arrived, the entire crew and passenger manifest is dead, save for Renfield, who has gone mad. Dracula takes up residence in an abbey near Renfield’s sanitarium, and mysterious sightings and deaths occur, spurring the noted professor Van Helsing to confront the Count, and expose him for what he truly is – a vampire.
Thoughts: I’ve been waiting for this one. The Bela Lugosi version of Dracula, more than any other film or piece of pop culture, is what has helped to inform our current perception of the vampire. (Because the things in Twilight are not vampires, damn you Stephenie Meyer.) A lot of people don’t even realize how many of our current tropes come from this film or its sequels or imitators – the explicit connection of the vampire to bats, for example (where in the past – and even in this film – vampires could transform into bats, wolves, mist, and other things), or their aversion to sunlight. As important as those things are to current vampire lore, they didn’t come from the classic lore. (Which raises the question – if the Universal pictures depiction of the vampire hadn’t made him allergic to sunlight, would Meyer still have felt the urge to make Edward Cullen sparkle as an aversion to that trope? Hmm. Okay, I think I need to stop talking about Twilight now.)
Lugosi pops in with his tuxedo, his cape, his pendant, and those convenient beams of light that always seem to fall across his eyes and he absolutely owns the room, mesmerizing whoever’s on screen with him and whoever happens to be watching him. He may not be overtly sexual in the way that writers have tried to make vampires since the rise of Anne Rice, but he’s clearly seductive in a way that defies explanation. Even without the supernatural powers of the vampire, Lugosi’s presence would command anybody.
Other classic horror character tropes appear to be in their infancy here as well. Renfield, once Dracula has possessed him, is extremely effective. Dwight Frye has a madness in his eyes that spreads throughout his entire face. As he smiles and peers up the staircase of the ship at the camera, you find yourself absolutely chilled to the bone – he’s a madman, and he’s coming after you next. The Renfields of this world may come second to the Igors as the horror movie second bananas, but when played right, I’d be more scared of a Renfield any day. The atmosphere of the film is powerful as well – the scenery is fantastic, and the scenery is the stuff of every classic haunted house.
As masterful as Lugosi and Frye’s performances are, however, some of the other elements of this 80-year-old film just don’t hold up as well. Granted, you’ve got to make allowances for the special effects limitations of the time, but the scene towards the beginning where Renfield leans out of his carriage to see a bat flying in front just yanks a modern audience out entirely – it looks as though someone is dangling a rubber bat from a fishing pole, which probably isn’t that far from the truth.
You can’t blame age on stale performances, though, and Lugosi and Frye are really the only memorable actors in the film. The women are mannequins, and Edward Van Solan’s Van Helsing is forgettable at best. David Manners as Jonathan Harker is just plain bland, vanilla, and utterly unexciting.
The climax of the film, however, is what really hurts it. After so much tension and so much buildup, the ending just doesn’t excite. Van Helsing simply marches into Dracula’s lair and stakes him – off-camera at that. Again, I’m trying to make allowances for the time period. There wasn’t going to be any gory close-ups or a fountain of blood (like in the painfully weak Mel Brooks comedy, Dracula: Dead and Loving It), but at the same time, I can’t help thinking there could have been more. In truth, I think it speaks to how the still-evolving language of film hadn’t really been solidified yet. The film is based on the stage play based (legally, unlike Nosferatu) on Bram Stoker’s novel, and in 1931 they were still filming movies as if they were stage plays. I actually worked backstage on a production of this play several years ago, and I know how effective the final scene can be when done properly, but film is an entirely different medium with different demands.
The same goes for the novel – in the book, a great deal of the tension and fear is internal. It’s a lot harder to do that in a movie. You need to give the audience something to look at, something to see and fear. This is one of the reasons I’m not a purist when it comes to film adaptations. Sometimes, what works great on the printed page just doesn’t work on film. This is a case where the screenwriters should have found a more dramatic way to stage that final moment between Van Helsing and Dracula, some way to get the audience more engaged, than just waltzing in and driving in the stake.
I look back at these comments and I start to feel a little worried about myself. This film is a classic of the genre, isn’t it? I sure as hell haven’t endured for 80 years, do I really have the right dismiss something that millions have found frightening? Worst of all, what if I’m falling victim to the same mindset that I so often accuse my high school English students of having? What if I’m unable to divorce myself from my modern mindset and appreciate the film for what it was when it was created?
A terrifying thought.
But then I look at the next film on my list, a film released in the same year as Dracula, and one that I do consider a masterpiece of cinema. And I think, “Maybe Dracula simply doesn’t hold up the way Frankenstein does.”