This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.
In many ways, the circuses of the early 20th Century have a similar allure to pre-Code Hollywood cinema; lawless, illicit, and exotic in spite of their appearing on home soil. That sweet spot between the introduction of sound in 1927 and the enforcement of the Hays Code in 1934 (a self-imposed rule set that banned profanity, sexual innuendo, and interracial relationships, amongst many other bigoted moral edicts) runs firmly against perceptions of older American cinema as stuffy and tight-lipped. With Criterion's latest box set, Tod Browning's Sideshow Shockers, they bring three pre-Code classics back to the public eye, each of which in some way pulls back the veil on the lives of circus entertainers.
Our compère for the evening, director/writer Tod Browning, was himself a circus performer, a vaudeville man who actually lived out that old wives' tale of running away to join the circus aged just sixteen. Starting out as a roustabout (an odd jobs labourer), he accumulated an impressively diverse resumé over the next 13 years, working as a barker (a semi-literal moniker for the salesmen-cum-announcers who bellow, “Step right up, step right up”), clown, contortionist, and magician's assistant, even developing his own live burial act in which he was billed as “The Living Hypnotic Corpse”. His move to Hollywood in 1909 was merely a logical next step for a lifelong entertainer, turning quickly from acting to directing in a career that spanned the silent and sound eras. But he never left his life at the circus behind.
The Mystic (1925)
The first of the three films assembled here, The Mystic (1925), is a great entry point for those unfamiliar with Browning's work. One of his rarer silent-era films till now, The Mystic centres on the titular phoney psychic, Zara (Aileen Pringle), who falls under the sway of con man Michael Nash (Conway Tearle). Running away from the Hungarian carnival with some other greedy accomplices, the pair stage fake séances for the American elite, swindling them out of their fortunes through a delightful series of macabre schemes—parallels with Browning's own manipulation of his audience through some fairly spectacular special effects abound. Of particular note in Criterion's new 2K digital restoration of The Mystic, is the new score by composer Dean Hurley, a windingly melancholic accompaniment that draws out the undercurrents of loneliness and desperation behind the spritely magic of each new ritual. Like most of Browning's work as a director, it's a melodrama through and through, hinging on sensationalist tales of the other, but such titillations only obscure the genuine compassion Browning clearly has for this cadre of fringe criminals.
Next up is another silent-era classic, The Unknown (1927), perhaps Browning's most well-loved work with ten-time collaborator “Man of a Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney. In another tale of thwarted affections, Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless, a carnival knife thrower who flings blades with his toes and pines endlessly for his beautiful assistant/human target, Nanon (Joan Crawford), a woman who—wait for it—cannot bear to be touched by a man's hands. It's such a delightfully silly premise and one that Browning pushes to its limits, whether Alonzo is using his toes-turned-fingers to fire rifle shots, make himself a dainty cup of tea, or taunt the police by blowing raspberries. At one point as Alonzo glowers at his love rival, strongman Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry), he even darts a quick glance of exasperation at the camera. At a time when cinematic language was still in a somewhat molten state, Browning's approach feels incredibly modern in its quirks, despite its relatively static formalism.
The final film in the collection—and its unmistakable crowning jewel—is Browning's sound-era masterpiece, Freaks (1932). In what marks a crucial framing device, the film opens on a child, later mostly irrelevant to the story, being encouraged to run down to the carnival and soak in the sights and sounds—a direct entreaty from Browning, it would seem. And while Browning's camera works in the same manner as the corny carnival worker we see leading a crowd of entranced revellers into the depths of the tent, Browning goes one step further by inviting his audience out the other side, straight into the intimate personal lives of the titular sideshow “freaks”. Initially billed as a horror, in part due to the horrified reactions of contemporary viewers upon seeing people with deformities and disabilities so front-and-centre, the only horror modern audiences will likely find is in the pervasively cruel treatment of those deemed different by society at large, made all the sharper by casting real life sideshow performers. However, this is far from a morbid piece—indeed, Browning's eye is so empathetic and unflinchingly warm that it actively startles, a far cry from the rigid normalcy of the ensuing decades.
Taken as a whole, this collection from Criterion is often more touching than it is shocking, a series of films that grasp at the tragedy of people occluded by society on the basis of shallow preconceptions. In what amounts to an unintentionally stark indictment of the censorship that plagued Hollywood for years after (and is barely being righted to this day), Tod Browning's work highlights that any crusade to limit subject matters instead limits personhood and representation. And yet unlike the Hollywood of today, where diverse representation feels producer- and profit-driven, you can feel Browning's connection to the material in each film, whether it's Alonzo's final turn for some measure of good in The Unknown, or the screen time given to mundane everyday chatter between circus workers in Freaks. A fitting tribute to one of cinema's greatest outsiders.
- New 2K digital restoration of Freaks, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- New 2K digital reconstruction and restoration of The Unknown by the George Eastman Museum, with a new score by composer Philip Carli
- New 2K digital restoration of The Mystic, with a new score by composer Dean Hurley
- 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
- Episode from 2019 of critic Kristen Lopez's podcast Ticklish Business 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
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by film critic Farran Smith Nehme
Tod Browning's Sideshow Shockers releases in the UK on October 23rd