Release Date(s)1932/1927/1925 (October 17, 2023)
Studio(s)Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Warner Bros. (The Criterion Collection – Spine #1194)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: See Below
- Audio Grade: See Below
- Extras Grade: A+
- Overall Grade: A+
Tod Browning is best known today as the director of Dracula (1931), the film that started a series at Universal featuring all types of monsters, from mummies to wolfmen. His background working in sideshows, circuses, and vaudeville was instrumental in other pictures he directed, collected in The Criterion Collection Blu-ray release of Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers. Disc 1 contains the film Freaks (1932) and related extras. Disc 2 contains The Unknown (1927) and The Mystic (1925) with related extras.
The most notorious of the three is Freaks, set in a small traveling circus whose performers include human oddities. We see these individuals engaging in everyday activities, having overcome physical limitations to become self-sufficient. The midget Hans (Harry Earles) is enamored of the beautiful, normal-sized trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), much to the chagrin of his midget girlfriend, Freida (Daisy Earles). Cleopatra initially regards Hans’ affections as a joke. But she changes her attitude on learning that Hans is wealthy. She and boyfriend Hercules, the strongman (Henry Victor), hatch a plan for her to marry Hans and gradually poison him to death. She will inherit his money and live happily ever after with Hercules.
In a festive wedding celebration, the performers gather around a table to welcome Cleopatra into their community. The guests include Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton; Josephine/Joseph, Half Woman, Half Man; Johnny Eck the Half Boy; Prince Randian, the Human Torso; Human Skeleton Pete Robinson; Koo Koo the Bird Girl; Frances O’Connor, the Living Venus de Milo; and various Pinheads. As they chant, “We accept her, one of us,” and drink from a communal loving cup, Cleopatra’s mood changes from joy to horror and she angrily yells at the well-meaning celebrants, “Dirty, rotten freaks!”
The film takes a dark turn as the freaks, relying on the Code of the Freaks, discover Cleopatra’s nefarious plot and band together to protect Hans.
Director Tod Browning portrays the freaks as honorable people and Cleopatra and Hercules, the “normal” humans, as monsters. It’s this approach that makes Freaks such an interesting film. Browning isn’t showing these deformed individuals as horrific creatures, but as kind innocents who will come together when harm is visited upon one of them.
Freaks faced many problems with the censors, and scenes in the original shooting script were either never filmed or were cut after adverse initial public reactions. Even in its current form, however, the film is still quite powerful.
Freaks was shot by director of photography Merritt B. Gerstad on black & white 35 mm film with spherical lenses and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. According to information in the enclosed booklet, the new digital master was created from a 35 mm nitrate dupe negative and a 35 mm safety print, both of which were scanned in 5K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner. The early part of the film is lit traditionally, while the second half is filled with deep shadows, night scenes in a rainstorm, and low-angle shots of the freaks planning their revenge, turning a film about day-to-day life in the circus to one of genuine horror. The soundtrack is English LPCM Mono. English SDH subtitles are an available option. The original monaural soundtrack was restored by the Criterion Collection from an archival two-inch magnetic soundtrack.
FREAKS (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): A/A-/A
Browning and Lon Chaney made ten films together. The Unknown stars Chaney as Alonzo, an armless knife thrower in a circus who has become the confidant of his assistant, Nanon (Joan Crawford). Secretly, Alonzo loves her. Circus strongman Malabar (Norman Kerry), in contrast, is direct and blunt with Nanon about his affection for her. Knowing that Nanon has come to find the touch of a man frightening and repulsive, Alonzo encourages Malabar to take her in his arms and make love to her. He does, and she recoils in disgust.
As in Freaks, the story turns quite dark. Alonzo has a sordid past and has found the circus to be the perfect hiding place from the authorities. But an altercation with the circus owner turns violent. Alonzo’s desperation to elude the police and his sadomasochistic obsession with Nanon lead to deception, blackmail, murder, and disfigurement.
The Unknown is one of Chaney’s best films. Although he became famous for his character make-up creations, he doesn’t wear much facial make-up here. It’s the way he bounds his arms tightly against his body that makes the armlessness of his character believable. In some scenes, he wears a cloak to hide his arm bulges, but most of the time, he convinces us that his character’s disability is real.
Though Chaney was known for putting himself through physical discomfort for his roles, the knife throwing with his feet was accomplished by an actual armless knife thrower serving as a body double. Other feats, such as lighting a cigarette, playing guitar with his toes, pouring and drinking tea from a cup, and picking up a shawl, were also performed by the double.
Joan Crawford, who would go on to become one of MGM’s biggest stars of the 1930s, does a fine job as Nanon—sexy with a good deal of bruised innocence, repelled by the touch of men’s hands, and unafraid to be the human target for Alonzo’s knives. She adds a nice touch of glamour to the tawdry sideshow milieu.
The Unknown offers an ironic denouement in its circus melodrama. Browning and Chaney obviously had an excellent working relationship. Under Browning’s direction, Chaney was at his peak.
The Unknown was shot by director of photography Merritt B. Gerstad on black & white 35 mm film with spherical lenses and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1. According to on-screen information, The Unknown reconstruction and restoration were undertaken in 2022 by the George Eastman Museum from the only two surviving nitrate prints, a French-language version and a Czech-language version in Prague. The film was restored in 2K resolution. The English titles have been re-created based on the original cutting continuity. Ten minutes of footage has been restored, bringing the film close to its original length. Of the three films in the set, The Unknown offers the most challenges. There’s considerable emulsion clouding and light scratches on both left and right running the length of the film. A heavy black scratch appears at the 33:10 mark. Philip Carli’s new score adds considerable atmosphere.
THE UNKNOWN (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): A-/C+/A
The Mystic, unavailable up until now, takes place in a small Hungarian circus sideshow. Zara (Aileen Pringle) is a phony psychic who easily fools the locals. Con man Michael Nash (Conway Tearle) has been following the traveling sideshow. He admires the scam of Zara and two associates and convinces them to go to America, where the big money lies. His plan is to bilk the wealthy by playing on their emotional attachment to deceased loved ones, using an assortment of mechanical, electrical, and lighting effects to “conjure” spirits of the dead.
Seances and psychics were popular after World War I. Many people had experienced losses and longed to reach out to those taken from them. Browning was fascinated with unmasking the devices employed by such psychics and has created some eerie, atmospheric moments. Though we know there’s nothing actually supernatural about the seances, it’s nonetheless intriguing to see how expert Nash, Zara, and company are at making their tricks seem authentic. Much depends on the subject’s desire for communications from their dear departed for the orchestrated illusions to convince.
The Mystic was shot by director of photography Ira H. Morgan on black & white 35 mm film with spherical lenses and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The new digital master was created from a 35 mm safety fine grain, which was scanned in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner. Picture quality is sharp with deep, rich blacks and an overall silvery tone, making this a visual delight, especially for such an old film. The original score by Dean Hurley contributes tension and helps build suspense. In addition to the music, sound effects have been added, including crowd applause, wagons rattling along, a curtain being pulled open, and knocking on a door.
THE MYSTIC (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B/A/A
Bonus features on the 2-Disc Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection include the following:
- Audio Commentary by David J. Skal (Freaks)
- Audio Commentary by David J. Skal (The Unknown)
- Introduction by David J. Skal (The Mystic) (9:24)
- Interview with Megan Abbott (32:14)
- Archival Documentary (Freaks)(63:30)
- Kristen Lopez Podcast Excerpt (51:54)
- Reading by David J. Skal of Spurs (47:44)
- 1947 Prologue to Freaks (2:36)
- Alternate Endings (Freaks) (6:08)
- Video Gallery (10:34)
Audio Commentary (Freaks) – Author David J. Skal reads several excerpts from the shooting script of Freaks. Myrna Loy was the first choice to play Cleopatra, but she was put off by the story and asked not to do it. She was replaced by the lesser-known Olga Baclanova. MGM’s Irving Thalberg wanted to capitalize on Tod Browning’s success with The Unholy Three and the surprise hit of Dracula, and asked Browning to make a horror film. A brief biographical overview of Browning’s career is provided. He was difficult to work with, often abrasive and very demanding of his crew. Details are provided about the lives of the actors with disabilities featured in Freaks. The film is filled with double entendre and ambiguous references to sexual performance. With a free hand in making Freaks, “Browning was given a long leash.”
Audio Commentary (The Unknown) – With additional footage restored, the film has a more leisurely opening and there are more audience reactions. David J. Skal reads an extensive section of the film’s detailed scenario. Lon Chaney spent years at Universal learning the art of make-up. He was established as a major actor with The Miracle Man and The Penalty. These films provided a template for films to follow about characters who suffered. Alonzo’s disguise covers his past crimes. A popular phrase of the time was, “Don’t step on it; it may be Lon Chaney.” Chaney presented a grotesque exaggeration of the Puritan work ethic. His most famous features are The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. Browning grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and visited gypsy encampments. At 16, he became fascinated with a dancer and ran away with her traveling show. He traveled up and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and became adept at flimflamming audiences, once presenting a Black man from Mississippi as “The Wild Man of Borneo.” Browning became a carnival barker, ballyhooing the attractions to be seen inside the circus tents. The Unknown was a hit with audiences, though critics weren’t impressed.
Introduction (The Mystic) – Once again, David J. Skal provides background on this obscure Browning film. In the 1920s, ghosts and entities that appeared to be of supernatural origin were usually given grounded explanations. The grief of World War I set off an explosion of interest in seances. The costumes for The Mystic were created by Erte, who had originally been hired by MGM to design two prestige pictures that were never made. He designed his costumes in color but checked them through a filter to see how they would photograph in black & white. Browning and Erte clashed and Browning chased the designer off the set when one of his costumes ripped just before a take. Before the establishment of unions, MGM’s grueling 12 to 14-hour days allowed a picture to be made every week, 52 per year. The director called all the shots. The Mystic foreshadows Nightmare Alley due to similar plot points.
Interview with Megan Abbott – Tod Browning worked for major studios and is most famous for Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. In Freaks, the normal start to look freakish, and the freaks—apart from their physical appearance—are normal. Browning has a fascination with outsiders and outliers of traditional society and wanted to invite audiences into their world. In each of the three films, there’s a moral order in the universe. Browning’s experiences working in various roles in circuses and sideshows gave him firsthand knowledge of that milieu. The circus created its own sense of family. His darker themes include dangerous desire, desire of the body, and masculinity under duress. The director is interested in what lurks in the shadows. The Mystic is the most traditional film in the set, and was likely influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Browning is fascinated by tricks, illusions, and the mechanics of how they’re created. The Unknown is a tale of obsessive love. Abbott poses the question, “Is Freaks an exploitation film?” The message is, if you’re seeing these people as disgusting, you are the problem. The “normal” people in the film treat those with disabilities cruelly. The first half portrays the freaks in everyday activities. They are congenial, upbeat, and self-sufficient. The women in the film—Madame Tetrallini, Freida, Venus—are morally centered but can be villainous (Cleopatra).
Archival Documentary – Freaks is described as a “soap opera set in a sideshow” and an “undiscovered masterpiece.” The film capitalized on the popularity of horror films. There’s an extensive discussion of the collaboration of Tod Browning and Lon Chaney in ten motion pictures. MGM was eager to get in on the public’s interest in horror. Though he was offered the prestige picture Arsene Lupin, Browning turned it down to do a circus picture. The major aim of this piece is to provide background on the unusual supporting cast members, including Olga Roderick (bearded lady), Frances O’Connor (lady with no arms), Schlitze (pinhead), Daisy and Violet Hilton (Siamese twins), Prince Radian (human torso), Pete Robinson (human skeleton), Johnny Eck (half boy), and Josephine/Joseph (half woman/half man). In the 1960s, the film was rediscovered and embraced by the counterculture. It was popular on college campuses. Today, it’s viewed as a compassionate picture. After Freaks, Browning’s career went into decline. He retired as a wealthy man and never gave a post-career interview. Freaks, made by a cynical director, is an ugly film not only for what’s in it, but for what we bring to it.
Podcast Excerpt – In this Ticklish Business podcast from 2019, Kristen Lopez, film editor of The Wrap, talks about disabled representation in Freaks with independent producer Drea Clark.
Reading of Spurs – Spurs by Tod Robbins is the short story on which Freaks is based. The story is read in its entirety by David J. Skal.
1947 Prologue to Freaks – In 1947, exploitation filmmaker Dwain Esper (Maniac, Sex Madness) obtained the rights from MGM to exhibit Freaks for a 25-year period. Since Esper often presented his films as educational, he added this prologue, which portrays those with physical disabilities as normal in every other way. This opening crawl refers to Freaks as a “Highly Unusual Attraction” and goes on to note that there is an unspoken bond that draws them together—the hurt of one is the hurt of all. The crawl concludes with, “We present the most startling horror story of the ABNORMAL and THE UNWANTED.”
Alternate Endings (Freaks) – David J. Skal discusses several different endings. One was deemed too intense for the public: Cleopatra and Hercules, reduced to freaks themselves, have become attractions at another circus, run by Madame Tetrallini. Another has Hans and Frieda reuniting to be together as they had originally planned before Hans was dazzled by Cleopatra’s beauty and blinded by her motives. A third ending is a longer version of this, with Venus (Leila Hyams) and Phroso (Wallace Ford) bringing Frieda to talk to Hans. In still another ending, we see Cleopatra in a pen, reduced to a freak by the very people she rebuked.
Video Gallery – In a slideshow format, a series of photos, portraits, production stills, and scene stills shows the cast of human oddities both in character and on the set.
Booklet – The 36-page enclosed booklet contains a cast listing and synopsis for each film, the five-part critical essay Tod Browning’s Ballyhoo Art by Farran Smith Nehme, 16 photos, and detailed information about the films’ restorations.
The three films in Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers are all set in a circus or sideshow, a milieu well known to Browning. They all portray the underbelly of what is traditionally a place for entertainment and good times, and reveal deceit, greed, cruelty, and the dark side of human nature. Browning directed many films of various genres between 1915 and 1939 but he’s best known for horror, though relatively few of his films can be truly classified as horror. Most deal with those apart from society’s norms, such as criminals, the disabled, scam artists, and exotic foreigners. The films in this set showcase the work of a man who dared to deal with material beyond the mainstream.
- Dennis Seuling