Thursday, November 8, 2007

Tod Browning: Gifted Hack or Clumsy Maladroit Genius?

Watched “Freaks” last night, along with the DVD extras, like the 'making of' documentary. I'm a sucker for those DVD added features. Todd Robbins from Coney Island was one of the commentators, along with Jennifer Miller, the bearded lady from Circus Amok. Lots of historical background on the freaks in the movie, which was very interesting. I’ve seen several of Browning’s movies – “Dracula,” - who hasn't? - “The Unknown,” “The Mark of the Vampire,” “Freaks.”

They talked in the doc about Browning’s rocky relationship with talkies. He never really adjusted to them and was inept at directing dialogue. He was used to silents, where he could talk to the actors the whole time they were shooting. Unfortunately, most of his silents - like the Chaney "London After Midnight" - are lost.

I don’t know if Browning was a sloppy genius, or an incredibly gifted hack. There are always parts of his movies that just seem…bad. Parts of “Dracula” are bad. “Mark of the Vampire” is lame from start to finish. In parts of “Freaks,” the acting is atrocious and the script is feeble.

And yet, “Dracula,” “The Unknown,” and “Freaks” are movies I adore. There are moments in all of them that are so startling, so weird. The wedding feast scene, for example. That’s something you never forget - all of them banging on glasses with cutlery, chanting 'One of us! One of us! We accept you, one of us!" And then Olga Baclanova snaps the tether, throws wine at a dwarf and screams, "Freaks! FREAKS!"

And the final scenes of the freaks crawling, squirming through the mud, with knives in their teeth, creepy little eyes glinting under wagons, chasing Olga Baclanova through the rainy night. I mean, that’s intense stuff. The film is over 70 years old, and those scenes still unnerve me. It is definitely one of the strangest films ever made by an American studio.

Interesting bit of trivia in the documentary - Myrna Loy was supposed to play Cleopatra, the scheming femme fatale. She got the script and was horrified - begged Thalberg to release her from the job. Which he did.

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