(This column originally ran in the Standard-Examiner newspaper)
By Doug Gibson
To enjoy great films, think of them as samplers of genres, directors or stars. You like Bela Lugosi, (I do), Check out “Dracula,” “The Black Cat,” “The Raven” and “Son of Frankenstein.” You like Vincent Price? Try “The Tingler,” “Tower of London” and “The Conqueror Worm.” I favor the older films but I don’t discriminate against new films. Watch Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” and then rent his earlier films “Army of Darkness” and “Dark Man.”
This year I hope people will discover, or re-discover Tod Browning, a director whose popularity peaked during the silent era. Although he directed Lugosi in “Dracula,” his career declined in the ‘30s and by 1939 it was over. As a boy late in the 19th century, Browning ran away from home and joined the circus. He was a contortionist and lived closely with the carny lifestyle. Later he was a fairly successful early silent movie actor before gaining fame as a director.
Always fascinated with the circus lifestyle, Browning cultivated the talents of a young actor named Lon Chaney. Dubbed the man of a thousand faces, Chaney was the biggest star of the late silent era. The actor was an incredible physical specimen, and a perfectionist. He created faces in two films, “The Phantom of the Opera,” and the now-lost “London After Midnight,” that have not been matched in fright value. Chaney died just before he was to film “Dracula.” His death opened the door for Lugosi and Boris Karloff (Frankenstein’s monster) to achieve stardom.
In 1927, Browning directed Chaney in the silent film “The Unknown.” It is my first selection for a Halloween evening. Set in a circus, it stars Chaney as circus attraction, “Alonzo the Armless,” who shoots arrows safely at a pretty circus girl, Nanon, played by a very young — and gorgeous — Joan Crawford. Chaney really isn’t armless, he’s a violent criminal on the lam. With a trusted assistant’s help, he wraps his arms to his sides to escape detection. Chaney is in love with Nanon. With his eyes and facial grimaces, he lets us know what a possessive, frustrating, tinder-box love it is. He can’t bear the sight of the circus strongman, Malabar the Mighty, who admires Nanon, and he encourages Nanon to distrust Malabar.
Chaney’s obsessive love for Nanon leads him to really remove his arms in an operation. When he returns weeks later, expecting to pursue Nanon and find his love requited, he discovers Nanon and Malabar have fallen in love and will be married soon. In my opinion, the two minutes of Chaney’s reaction to the news, bewilderment, frozen smile, pantomime of maniacal laughter and threatening glare, is the finest acting of the silent era. This is a tight, 50-minute film (some inconsequential scenes are lost).
Besides “Dracula,” the film Browning may be best known for is the 1932 “Freaks.” It is a masterpiece of surreal horror. The plot involves a selfish, beautiful trapeze artist (Cleopatra) who marries a little man (Hans) for his money. With her strongman lover (Hercules), she plots to kill Hans. Their big mistake is that they assume the circus “freaks” are little children, rather than adults capable of retribution. What they learn too late is that the “freaks” — and the actors really were such — act like children as a defense mechanism. They want to be left alone. But threatened in their environment, they draw strength from numbers.
For 40-plus minutes of this slightly longer than an hour film, we are not scared. Instead, we learn about life in a circus, and we view the “freaks” as human beings. The last 20 or so minutes are horrifying as the “freaks” gain revenge on two who would falsely request their trust and then try to kill one of them. The scenes of the “freaks” with knives and guns, peering through windows and under wagons, slithering, hopping, sliding and pursuing Hercules and Cleopatra through a dark rainy night are frightening. For years, the fim ended with a brief, jarring shot of what the “freaks” had done to Cleopatra. It’s one of the most shocking finales in film. But I recently saw “Freaks” on Turner Classic Movies and the print added an epilogue with Hans and other characters that diminishes the impact a little.
“Freaks” was ahead of its time. The suits at MGM hated the film and barely distributed it. More than any other film, it damaged Browning’s career. In fact, it was banned in Britain for 40 years. See it for yourself: it’s a masterpiece that draws on Browning’s love and respect for carnival life.
One more Browning film worth seeing is the 1936 “The Devil-Doll.” It stars Lionel Barrymore as Paul Lavond, a framed banker who breaks out of France’s Devil’s Island prison with a mad scientist who can turn people into doll-sized humans who can be manipulated by human masters’ thoughts. It’s a wild plot. Outside Paris the mad scientist dies. Lavond’s and the scientist’s widow — who is as crazy as her husband — continue the experiments. She wants to turn the whole world little; Lavond just wants to gain revenge on his ex-partners who framed him and also help his blind mother and daughter, who were impoverished by his imprisonment. He uses the “devil dolls” to get his revenge on his ex-partners and clear his name.
Watch this film for the special effects and Barrymore’s performance. He’s great as a mostly decent man who can’t control his thirst for revenge and knows it.
All these films are inexpensive, pop up on Turner Classic Movies and can be rented. Trust me, they are far better than “Saw VI,” or any of the “Saw(s)”.