RE: 1927 Tod Browning film. I was informed before ever watching my first Tod Browning film that, "he's pretty Freaky." There's good freaky, there's bad freaky... And this film was. Here are some thoughts I'd jotted from that time:
As a viewer who has never particularly liked silent films (edit: up to a finite time in my development), I must say that this one was utterly interesting, even uncomfortably entertaining. A problem with silent film, for myself who relies on sound sensitivity 'reading', has always been ... there's no audible dialogue! "No kidding", one may immediately respond. But because there is no actual talking, the actors often over-act by providing ridiculous, even grotesque (when they are not trying to) facial expressions. This done, obviously, in an effort to portray as much as possible sans voices, with the only dialogue appearing in script on the screen, creating an almost out of body experience. And that, only intermittently and fairly briefly ... likely to keep the movie-goers 'with' the characters and action on the screen as much as possible. Too much dissociation with the film could lead some viewers astray. Or, at least, that may have been the early film industry's, and young Hollywood's, attitude towards their audiences. An attitude much as it is today, namely that viewers are too stupid to follow closely the action on screen.
At any rate, grotesquerie, in this and other silent films, is a pronounced additive in this, what has become, particular 'genre'. It should be pointed out, given the nature of this director's work (bizarre circus and carnival settings, and all the attendant oddities associated with such places), certainly this film was going to be weird. And Lon Chaney, I have to say, is forsooth creepy in his contortions, but even more so, again, in his facial expressions, visage-contortions. That talent cannot be overstated. And -Joan Crawford- is one who did not ever afterward, as her scrimpy-doff character is secreted over by Chaney's Alonzo the Armless knife-thrower.
The musical score(?), it did seem, could have done more to work the atmosphere of the film. I'm not sure where the musical numbers (if #s and not shards, they be) for our specific viewing came from, if it was original or a later addition, but this is a central element of silent films that, if done properly, could to some degree mitigate the need for actors to make their expressions so very outlandish (eyes popping from their sockets & etc..) in order to convey what are really quite simple emotions. This area has always constituted the great divide between silent films and my ability to fully invest in them. Oh, he is spoiled, you will say-- but, oh, maybe I am so! I will reply.
Having said that, this director is someone whose work I have definitely come to see more of as an illustration of one artist's ability to turn said 'genre-tic' into fantastic works due to the nature of his projects. Perhaps a conversion has taken place, perhaps not, but freakishness provides a relentlessly spooky trip. More so than what went on in this film, you will find particularly intriguing further info concerning another of Browning's works called 'Freaks' [not provided here, sorry].
It is not surprising, if one gives it a moment, that this was not originally received well by critics upon completion, and for some time, since those were the days of supposed intolerance and insensitivity. There is a touch of surprise that some of the films, like this one, were even bankrolled by studios as they were cutting over the edge for their day. Today such a film would be on the market immediately. So much for our own sense of 'superior' values; but why is this? We have lost a more, grounded, even (for lack of a better word right off) dirtier, certainly grittier Life-- which was lived much more in the fashion of struggle/hardship 'back then,' unlike now-of-days when we take our very existence so much more for granted. Our Health, something that is a God-given right, our non-
Nonetheless, I am sure that by using real carnival folks, Browning was doing nothing more than bringing to real life that which he has tried to recreate using artificial actors. And it should not seem strange that he would make films such as this, considering that from a rather young age he spent his early working and living life with circus' and carnivals. To him, such folk no doubt seemed perfectly natural, even if he recognized the differences between these circus folk and the 'regular folk' who attended carnivals. And thereby developed his own kind of creepy circus freak genre, because he knew he could, at the least, sell it to the ever curious public. Rather, that he could sell most of it, at least that which the studios and censors would allow.
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