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16. Freaks (1932), dir. Tod Browning

IMDb page here. Seen round at Daz Towers with big_daz and gillywoo.

This was part one of a double-bill film evening we had last night, which somehow worked itself out so that it centred around the theme of people with severe physical deformities: Freaks followed by The Elephant Man. I'm not sure how that happened, because we'd collectively decided to watch these two films together ages ago, and I can't remember our reasoning now - but I suppose we decided on one and were reminded by it of the other. It made for quite a harrowing evening - but well worth it.

Freaks is mainly famous for being banned in the UK for 30 years after its release. I expected it to be pretty morally repugnant for that reason, but actually it's not. The story in fact has a quite straightforward and uncontroversial moral line, which I think ought to have gone down palatably enough in 1930s Britain. Prejudice against the 'freaks' is portrayed as unenlightened, they themselves are shown as having both very human feelings and a strong moral code, and the true villains of the piece turn out to be a trapeze artist and strongman, who have no physical deformities, but are morally corrupt. I presume that the reason for the ban, then, was less that the film was considered actually unethical and more that it simply turned over too many stones, and brought audiences face to face with things (the censors thought) they preferred not to know about.

Meanwhile, for the modern viewer, there are definitely some uncomfortable aspects. Despite the "good looks != good morals" message, the deformed characters are still very much portrayed as Others, and with an associated underlying malevolence. Their being called 'freaks' is obviously part of that - but they're also shown as having their own very close-knit and generally exclusive community, and as being very ready to take violent vengeance on anyone who hurts a member of that community. It's the sort of tale that's been told a thousand times about gypsies, Jews, slaves, aborigines, immigrants, barbarians, etc. etc., ever since human beings learnt to write - but something we're more consciously aware of as unhelpful today.

It does have to be added, too, that the acting throughout is abysmal. Obviously, for most of the deformed characters, this was their first and often only film, so some haltingly-delivered lines can be forgiven. But the four lead able-bodied characters (two nice, two nasty) don't have that excuse. They just suck. So it's always going to be a film that's watched for its historical interest and the issues it touches upon - not because it's actually a cinematic masterpiece (despite claims to the contrary on the back of the video box).

Finally, I was really struck by how much the heroine, Venus, and / or the young lady who played her, Leila Hyams reminded me of the character of Tallulah in Daleks in Manhattan. I mean, I'm not saying Tallulah was consciously based on her, because I think what's really going on is simply that actresses of that kind were ten-a-penny in this era, being churned out by the dozen from acting academies. (I read a short story to that effect once, although I can't remember who it was by or what it was called). But it's another testament to how right the Doctor Who team got that character, anyway.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 9th, 2007 05:09 pm (UTC)
BBC7 has broadcast an adaptation of The Elephant Man recently - very moving indeed, more so than the film I thought.
I think you're right about the reasoning behind the banning of Freaks - a case of 'out of sight, out of mind' if you ask me.
Jun. 9th, 2007 05:48 pm (UTC)
Argh, I wish I'd known! I remember hearing an adaptation of it on Radio 4 about 10 years ago, and I'm betting it's the same one being repeated. I would have loved to hear it again. I don't suppose you know by any chance who played Merrick in it? I remember thinking it was an excellent performance, but never seem to have found out who it was.
Jun. 10th, 2007 09:56 am (UTC)
No idea who the actor was I'm afraid, but BBC7 does seem to have lots of things on a very long repeat loop - the Sherlock Holmes dramatisations have been on at least 3 times since 2005. I reckon it will be round again before too long.
Jun. 10th, 2007 01:06 pm (UTC)
Righty-ho - I shall keep my ears open!
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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