Freaks (1932)

Freaks

Freaks – 1932

Director – Tod Browning

Starring – Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, and Harry Earles

Traditionally in most movies, especially within Hollywood, the portrayal of a group of people with extreme differences (read: Freaks),  is usually done in one of two ways.  Either they are depicted as terrible abominations not capable of human compassion and understanding, or they are misunderstood and extricated by the so-called decent “normal” people of the story.  One paints a portrait of fear, desperation, and anger, and the other, one of an almost saintly devotion to decency, virtue, and humility.

Tod Browning’s appropriately titled film, Freaks, utilizes both the fear and the somewhat more humanistic approach to paint these rather misunderstood characters in a much more three-dimensional way.  Each of the so-called freaks operates on the same instincts and motivations that any of the other characters might, rather than being simple plot modifiers and footnotes.  Jealousy, anger, love, friendship, and loyalty not to mention a good old desire for revenge all come into play in this rather straight forward, yet effective story.

For a film that does seek to humanize it’s characters regardless of their disabilities or handicaps, it also tends to overly rely on the circus sideshow type shock factor of it’s stars.  Even the film’s poster asks “Can a full-grown woman truly love a midget?”, and while the plot of the film makes a bit more headway in making them relatable, it certainly doesn’t forego the sensational nature of the subject matter entirely.

The story is simple enough.  Hans a man of diminutive proportions (or a midget), has fallen in love with Cleopatra, the beautiful trapeze artist who is more than happy to lead him on, all the while plotting just how to get his forthcoming inheritance   Cleopatra’s thinly veiled disdain is clear to all the rest of the circus’ performers, freaks and normies alike, but despite their objections Hans refuses to see her for what she is and asks her to marry him.  In the spirit of giving her the benefit of the doubt, the “freaks” hold a dinner officially welcoming her into their private circle of friends.  When Cleopatra drunkenly laughs at and tells this close-knit group just exactly what she thinks of them (negative stuff!), they hatch a plan to take their revenge.

The acting, plotting, and cinematography on display here is all fairly standard for the time, with nothing extraordinary on display. The difference, and what sets this film apart, comes in the realization of the characters, and the juxtaposition of their visible flaws with the internal flaws of the vain shallow “beautiful” people.  Though that doesn’t remove their desire for fair and equitable treatment.

It’s not that the ending, or the actions taken by the “freaks” was too shocking, or unwarranted, quite the contrary actually.  It was just odd to see from a film that came out in the time frame that this film does.  Once again, like His Girl Friday, Detour, and She Done Him Wrong, I find my conceptions of what to expect content-wise from films of the 30’s and 40’s can be drastically different from what I get.  At this point I don’t think I can pre-judge any of the films from that rather tumultuous time frame in America’s history.

Often times I forget that these years aren’t as homogenized as  early television, and some popular films would have us believe.  For every Jimmy Stewart-esque character, or idyllic suburban homestead on display, there are hundreds of characters who lived through the great depression, watched the buildup to and the active fighting of World War II, and eventually had to deal with the financial and emotional effects of both.

The means and method by which our “freaks” take their revenge may be harsh and  more than a little cold-blooded, but you’ll have to admit, it is overwhelmingly fair at the same time, and it rather accurately paints them as, well, people.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

The most unsettling images in the film come out of the last reel of the movie, where Cleopatra is dragging herself backwards through the rain and mud while upwards of fifteen different attackers stalk closer, each with a knife, gun, or blunt instrument.  In the end, it’s really a toss-up whether or not the audience will consider it a happy ending.  Thanks to the care taken in the writing and the time spent getting to know each character, I did.

(***End Spoilers***)

Though it wasn’t my absolute favorite film on this list so far, it is solidly somewhere in the middle, and as such is pretty deserving of its ranking as one of the 1001 films you should see.  Though I think director Tod Browning’s film Dracula is my favorite between the two, Freaks is a really solid film and totally worth checking out!

“In the end, aren’t we all freaks?”  –  Ashley

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She Done Him Wrong (1933)

She Done Him Wrong – 1933

Director – Lowell Sherman

Starring – Mae West, Cary Grant, and Owen Moore

Growing up, my window to the greater world was through cartoons.  Through this window, I was able to get a handle on how people interacted with one another, the attraction of the sexes, and I was given a clear visual definition of the difference between good and evil, hero and villain, right and wrong.  It wasn’t until my exposure through daycare, and school that I learned that people don’t really act like that.  There is no man in a top hat, twisting his mustache, plotting the destruction of someone else, no luscious club singer that men are willing to cheat, shoot, and destroy each other for just so they might possess her…at least not that I’ve ever seen.

Apparently in 1933, when She Done Him Wrong was released, cartoons actually were real, or so this film would have us believe.  In the thirties, everyone is larger than life, uses zero subtlety,  and schemes as easily as the people of today breathe, check their emails, or text.  Mae West is the most broadly painted caricature of them all, and functionally plays the same role as she does in every movie she has ever done.  That voice you get in your head when you think the line “Oooh, big boy, why don’t you come up and see me some time!” isn’t an exaggeration.  That’s how she actually sounds.

The story behind the movie is ludicrous enough that there is really no reason to explain it except to say that the local vampy nightclub singer (West), who inspires such jealousy in all the women, and equal amounts of lust in all the men, manages to find her way into and then out of a lot of mad-capped trouble with a rogues gallery of supporting characters.  One of those characters actually does have a top hat, twists his mustache, and plots the downfall of some of the other characters.  Needless to say the plot, if you could call it that, is just a dab of glue that holds a bunch of set-piece performances together.  Comedic bits, singing and dancing numbers, and an action packed finale come together just as if it were released as a Looney Tunes cartoon featuring the original Daffy Duck, the one who was crazy, not the one who was mostly angry.

Now you may have noticed that one of this film’s stars is the very famous, very popular star of numerous Hollywood classics, Cary Grant, and you’d probably think, “Great!  I love Cary Grant’s charm and charisma”.  In fact, he only makes a handful of appearances in this film, and when he does he is almost instantly blocked from the spotlight by the film’s real star, Mae West.  As Lady Lou, as with every other character she’s ever played, she spends the entire movie strutting around with her trademarked walk, spouting bawdy one-liners, singing, and luring men in by the boatload, and we love her for it.

She sneers out raunchy, suggestive, innuendo in between costume changes from one low-cut, spangly gowns, and an enormous, feather laden hat, to another.  Painted just shy of being a criminal herself, she effortlessly steals other women’s men, leads on and strings along still more men, and tries her damnedest to corrupt any other men who don’t know any better than to avoid her.

Behavior, that would in most other circumstances, annoy the hell out of me, instead has me rapt with attention.  The fact that none of the other characters get much screen time or leaves any impression at all, is actually more of a testament to Mae West’s magnetism, and screen presence, than it is to the quality of the other actor’s performances.  Each of the other actors plays the part they are required to, but it is all in service of the centerpiece that is Mae West.  So much so, after the movie is over you’ll probably say…”Oh, yeah.  I guess Cary Grant was in that.”

Since the film is so heavily based on the performance of its lead actress, the cinematography, directing, screenwriting, and other acting performances cannot be accurately judged or critiqued without diminishing the impact of the film such that it is.  None of these elements is particularly special, or worthy of critique or praise, if it’s even there in the first place.

Enjoy this movie for what it is, a great piece of funny, sexy, escapist comedy in the vaudeville tradition.  See where the cartoons got their inspiration and their flavor, however prepare yourself for the limited depth that’s in store for you with She Done Him Wrong.  A great watch and completely different from anything else you’re likely to see from this time period.