Blu-ray Review: Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Tod Browning | CAST: Aileen Pringle, Conway Tearle, Mitchell Lewis, Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry, Joan Crawford, Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Roscoe Ates, Harry Earles
RELEASE DATE: 10/17/23 | PRICE: Blu-ray $48.99, DVD $27.99
BONUSES:  Audio commentaries on Freaks and The Unknown and an introduction to The Mystic by film scholar David J. Skal; new interview with author Megan Abbott about director Tod Browning and pre-Code horror; archival documentary on Freaks; podcast episode about disability representation in Freaks; reading by Skal of “Spurs,” the short story by Tod Robbins on which Freaks is based; prologue to Freaks, which was added to the film in 1947; program on the alternate endings to Freaks; video gallery of portraits from Freaks
SPECS: NR |  203 min. | Drama/Horror | 1.37:1/1.33:1 | monaural

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

Criterion slated Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers to be released before Halloween, and the connection is very clear. For Tod Browning’s work can be labelled as horror, even though he rarely ever crossed over into the realm of he supernatural — and when he did, he jumpstarted the Universal monster cycle with Dracula (1931), which is still copied today.

Browning’s films are often about emotional torment — thus his bonding with a master of onscreen suffering, Lon Chaney — and frequently involve outsider communities, including those in the crime world and the traveling carnival business. Browning knew the latter very well and thus knew how to make his carnies three-dimensional and sympathetic (yet still hardboiled).

The three films in this package all concern the issue of (to quote the poster for Freaks) “the love life of the sideshow.” They also reflect Browning’s taste for the grotesque and the ways in which he opened up the standard melodrama to include stories of heartbroken outcasts.

The Mystic (1925) is the least known and the least successful of the three films. It tells the tale of a trio of Hungarian carnies, led by a fake psychic (Aileen Pringle), who are flown to America by a suave crook (Conway Tearle) to conduct fake seances in order to fleece high-society rubes.

The Mystic (1925)

The first half of the film is wonderful, as it outlines the scams pulled off by the quartet of con artists, with Browning indulging in one of his favorite narrative “hooks,” depicting show business scams in detail and revealing how they are executed.

Unfortunately, the second half of the film dilutes the action to mere melodrama, as we see the crisis of conscience undergone by Tearle’s character, which may or may not affect the psychic as well. Browning often had to provide these near-tearjerking endings for his plots, as Hollywood didn’t approve of films ending unhappily.

Until Lon Chaney, that is. The “man of a thousand faces” had such an overpowering talent as both a make-up wizard and an actor that he basically created his own genre in Hollywood in the Twenties. His characters were most often misfits who would struggle with their crippling emotions — and would in nearly every case end up sad and alone (or dead) by the final fadeout.

Chaney found in Browning his finest director, as the two worked together on a series of ten features that combined the director’s bleak view of the world with Chaney’s ability to play characters who punished others (and, ultimately, themselves). The Unknown (1927) stands as arguably the best of the Chaney-Browning films (of which two are lost, including the infamous London After Midnight) and is certainly representative of both artists at their most extreme.

For, unlike Chaney’s Hunchback and Phantom, his character in The Unknown is a self-made “monster” whom we identify with, thanks to Browning’s fine touch with tales of outcasts and Chaney’s masterfully schizo performances. The character’s unrequited love drives him mad and is destined to ruin his life.

The plot, based on a novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart, is willfully perverse: Chaney plays Alonzo, a crook on the run, hiding out in a circus. He has hidden an identifying characteristic — a double-thumb on one hand (Freudian themes abound in Browning’s best films) by hiding his arms and performing a knife-throwing act with his feet. He falls for a young circus performer (Joan Crawford) with a strong phobia about being hugged. Alonzo thus decides to have his arms amputated, and the plot gets even weirder (and more Freudian) from there.

The best thing about The Unknown is the sincere way that the bizarre plot is acted out — at no point are Chaney’s decisions depicted as evil; crazy, yes, but evil, no, thanks to Chaney’s ability to convey Alonzo’s lovesick passion for Crawford.

Browning’s box office success with the Chaney vehicles led to his making the Lugosi Dracula, which was a major hit (but which did suffer some edits, reducing its length by 10 minutes). He was thus granted carte blanche to direct whatever he wanted, and so he made Freaks (1932), one of the most unique and disturbing films of all time (and one that is surprisingly sentimental, up to a point).

The plot, taken from an imaginatively nasty short story called “Spurs” by Tod Robbins, is about betrayal and vengeance in a carnival community. A regular-sized performer (Olga Baclanova) seduces a little man (Harry Earles), intent on marrying him and taking the fortune he has inherited. The little man’s friends are angered by the humiliation their friend is enduring and decide to enact their revenge on her. And what a revenge it is — once seen, it is never forgotten.

The most important thing about Freaks is the fact that Browning directed it in two modes. In the first three-quarters of the picture we find a most sympathetic portrait of the community of deformed performers that is unlike anything else in cinema up until then (and for decades to come). The second mode begins in the last quarter when the die is cast and the vengeance plot is carried out. At this point the “freaks” become truly terrifying, morphing from a sympathetic family of outcasts to a fearsome band of killers.

Thus, one can say that Browning concluded the film by dehumanizing characters he spent so long humanizing, but that would only be maintained by a critic who forgets that Browning’s assignment from MGM was to make a horror film to equal (or better) Dracula. So the ending, in which we are meant to be scared of the sideshow performers, might be seen as Browning “betraying” his cast, but it is nothing of the sort.

In the horrifying conclusion, Browning is continuing (albeit in a different mode, one dark and Expressionist) his tale of how the “freaks” handle their own problems and are as tribal and supportive a community as when we saw them earlier on in a happier, quotidian mode. That particular aspect of the film, showing average occurrences in the lives of those performers —  gossiping, wisecracking, flirting, being engaged to be married, even giving birth — establish that the performers are indeed average people who happen to be odd-looking to the outside world.

Joan Crawford in The Unknown (1927)

It also has to be noted when interpreting the film that Freaks was edited down by MGM from its original length of 90 minutes to 62. Thus, the version that has come down to modern-day audiences is missing more sequences that belonged in both the “community” section of the picture and the horrifying revenge climax.

Whatever one makes of the film, it’s no exaggeration to say that it is a foreshadowing of the work of many modern filmmakers. One can’t imagine Lynch, Jodorowsky, Cronenberg, and many other surrealist thriller auteurs existing without Freaks coming decades before them, lighting the path to truly mind-altering cinema.

The supplements supply a great deal of historical information about the trio of films. Naturally enough, Freaks has the lion’s share of extras, but there are some informative items included for the two silent films, most of them hosted by David J. Skal, the coauthor of the invaluable Browning biography Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning (sadly out of print for some time).

The Mystic is presented here with an original score by Dean Hurley, who has worked on projects with David Lynch. Hurley’s music is very good, but the audio track also contains isolated sound effects that are jarring in this context.

Skal narrates a short video introduction to the film, which includes much information about the costumes designed for star Aileen Pringle by the famed artist “Erté.” Browning didn’t get along with the designer and thus barred him from the set and made no special showing of the dresses — the image of Pringle seen on the Criterion box, in an eye-catching nun’s habit dress, is barely seen in the film proper.

The image of Browning as a workaholic boss is rendered by Skal from an interview he had with Willard Sheldon, an assistant cameraman on The Mystic. The film’s failure, especially in comparison with its predecessor, Browning’s The Unholy Three (starring Chaney and future Freaks star Harry Earles), is also discussed.

As presented here, The Unknown has an original score by composer Philip Carli. Skal’s commentary for this film provides context on the carnival sideshow in general and Chaney, Browning, and costar Joan Crawford in particular.

Here Skal trumpets that this package sees the debut on disc of a newly rediscovered print of the film that includes 10 minutes of footage unseen in decades. He reviews Browning’s pre-film career (he debuted onscreen as an undertaker in a 1913 comic short) working in carnivals and vaudeville as a front-talker, a comedian, a singer, a dancer, “an acrobat, an aerialist, and an illusionist.” (Thus, his fixation with giving away magicians’ tricks in his films.)

The most interesting topic pursued in the commentary is undoubtedly the amount of Freudian references, in particular castration metaphors, found in The Unknown.

Another original item shot for this package is a half-hour interview with thriller writer Megan Abbott, exploring the three films. She speaks about Browning’s fascination with outsiders and the way in which his “weird” plots actually serve as moral tales.

She also discusses the central topic of masculinity in The Unknown and Freaks. (Both male protagonists want to be loved despite being viewed as an “other.”) Browning’s glee at showing “the mechanics of the illusions” carried off by carny acts is also stressed as common to all three films.

Abbott also speaks about the issue of how the “freaks” are viewed in the 1932 film. She emphasizes that the notion of exploiting the cast is countered by scenes in which we see “normal” characters being repelled by them — thus probing the issue of how the sideshow performers disturb the average person, but in fact are shown to lead normal, almost banal lives.

An episode of the podcast “Ticklish Business” that is present on the Freaks disc contains a similar argument, with one of the hosts declaring Browning’s film to be “one of the most progressive films about disability.”

The other supplements for Freaks all contain Skal, who speaks in a featurette (from the 2004 Warner release) about the film’s alternate endings. For this release, he recorded an audio-only reading of “Spurs,” the short story that inspired the film and is indeed much crueler in its outlook than Browning’s film.

Skal also distinguishes himself as one of the few film historians to have done two separate audio commentaries for the same film. He did the first for the 2004 DVD release of Freaks from Warner Home Video and recorded a different one for this release.

Here he provides background information on the cast and crew, and details how venomous the contemporary reviews were for the film, but most importantly he supplies readings from the script of the scenes that were cut when MGM sliced the film down to 62 minutes.

Of particular note is his recounting of a scene that Browning never shot but was in one version of the script — an extremely unusual beginning to the famous “wedding banquet” scene in which Alonzo the knife-thrower from The Unknown would make an appearance, as a tribute to Lon Chaney. (The role was most likely to be played by Chaney’s double from the original film.)

Among the raft of details that Skal dispenses in the commentary, this reviewer (having seen the film countless times) is glad that he includes a little exploration of one the oddest throwaway comic lines in the film — when the sympathetic clown lead character responds to a compliment from the female lead with, “You should’ve caught me before my operation!” (Skal attributes it to the fact that men in the early Thirties were still haunted by the many injured soldiers who came back from “The Great War” missing parts of their bodies.) Also, he deciphers a bizarre insult line that Harry Earles says, which is loaded with venom but is buried by Earles’ German accent. (“What do you have for heads — SWILL PAILS?”)

Freaks (1932)

The supplement that is the most rewatchable is the delightful 63-minute “Todd Browning’s Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema,” made for the aforementioned 2003 Warner DVD of the film. Produced by Taylor Made Entertainment and Warner Home Video (with no director credited), the doc features a trio of engaging talking heads — Skal, sideshow historian Johnny Meah, and sideshow performer/historian Todd Robbins — as well as veteran little person Jerry Maren (who worked with Earles in The Wizard of Oz) and two younger, current-day performers.

The three historians move through the inspiration for the film and its eventual production. Among the details dropped here are Browning’s original choices in the late Twenties for the starring roles (Lon Chaney and Harry Earles) and the major MGM talents who were originally considered for leads in the film. (Jean Harlow, Victor McLaglen, and Myrna Loy; Loy so loathed the script she begged producer Irving Thalberg to remove her from the cast.)

The real joy in this documentary, though, are the mini-biographies provided for just about every sideshow performer seen in the film. Meah notes that there was indeed “an environment of acceptance” among carnies and that the so-called “freaks” had good attitudes about themselves offstage. Robbins adds that these performers worked on the carnival circuit for most of those lives, making a decent living (especially during the Depression).

Skal and Robbins refer to the “gaffed freaks” Browning used in the film (a carny term for a person who was peculiar-looking and had turned themselves into a “human oddity” for the money). A foremost example is “Josephine/Joseph, the half-man, half-woman” who was, as Robbins puts it here, “a wonderfully glorious fraud” (being a biological female who emphasized her femininity on one side of her body, while working out the other side with free weights and tanning beds to look “masculine”).

The end of the documentary covers the “rehabilitation” of Freaks in the Sixties, when it was resurrected by the Venice Film Festival and then shown at colleges as a cult film, in an era when “freak” was no longer a pejorative term.

It should be noted that a disclaimer has been added to this documentary in its transition from the Warner DVD to this Blu-ray package. There now appears the disclaimer “This documentary includes some derogatory terms that may be offensive. Viewer discretion advised.” This is particularly interesting, in that Skal, Robbins, and Meah take time out in their celebration of the sideshow performers’ lives to discuss the changes in language over the decades as regards the disabled.

It is rightly pointed out that in Freaks Browning made sure we understood that the only actual “freaks” are the people who make fun of the sideshow acts, not the acts themselves.

Buy or Rent Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”