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Freaks, Fiends And Filmstars

by J.

Freaks We deal in myths. At any given moment the world requires one full-bodied blonde Aphrodite (Jean Harlow), one dark siren of flawless beauty (Hedy Lamarr), one powerful inarticulate brute of a man (John Wayne), one smooth debonair charmer (Melvyn Douglas), one world-weary corrupt lover past his prime (Humphrey Bogart), one eternal good-sex woman-wife (Myrna Loy), one wide-eyed chicken boy (Lon McCallister), one gentle girl singer (Susanna Foster), one winning stud (Clark Gable), one losing stud outside the law (James Cagney), and so on. Olympus supports many gods and goddesses and they are truly eternal, since whenever one fades or falls another promptly takes his place, for the race requires that the pantheon be always filled. . . . For instance, since the death of Marilyn Monroe, no blonde voluptuous goddess has yet appeared to take her place... Myra Breckinridge

The nature of Hollywood stardom: filmstars are not actors and actresses, they are the transient avatars of a pantheon of demigods who exist unchanging from age to age, so one of them, the doomed blond Venus, is incarnated for one generation by Jean Harlow and for a later one by Marilyn Monroe. The individual stars come and go, but the platonic ideals remain unchanging. Stardom is clearly something very different from acting talent. The stars tend to have little talent, what stars possess is 'quality', people go to the films to see stars carefully displayed against carefully chosen backgrounds. Fashions in gods change as they do in everything else, so for our times some of the gods lack current incarnations: there is no idealistic inarticulate westerner, played to perfection by Gary Cooper, and by James Stewart. The gods are still there but we no longer value their avatars. In our disillusioned time there is no avatar of the doomed platinum blonde goddess. Perhaps our interests in films have changed, perhaps we go to the cinema for other thrills than the one of seeing Clark Gable or Ronald Colman in anything at all. We might ask: What qualities do stars possess? And to answer that question we have to think about the motives of the film-makers. The making of films is an industry, it is commer cial, and to be successful a film has to recover the costs of its making and a something more for a profit.

The film Freaks was made by Metro-Golwyn-Mayer in 1932. It was directed by Tod Browning and was thought so appalling that it was denied a certificate by the British Board of Film Censors for thirty years. That it was made at all is astonishing, because it is nothing more than the most blatant exploitation film ever to be made by a major studio. The film starred real freaks, people who made their income from displaying themselves in the freak shows that accompanied circuses. The story is very thin. A big beautiful trapeze artist conspires with her strong-man lover to seduce and ensnare a rich midget into marrying her. Once married she tries to poison her husband for his money. Her husband's friends, the other freaks, discover the plan, and take their revenge.

The film begins with a disclaimer (Words set in capitals follow the typography of the original) :

Before proceeding with the showing of the following HIGHLY UNUSUAL VISUAL ATTRACTION. a few words should be said about the amazing subject matter:


In ancient times anything that deviated from the normal was considered an omen of ill-luck or representative of evil. Gods of misfortune and adversities were invariably cast in the form of monstrosities, and deeds of injustice and hardship have been attributed to the many crippled and deformed tyrants of Europe and Asia. HISTORY, RELIGION, FOLKLORE and LITERATURE abound in tales of misshapen misfits who have altered the world's course. GOLIATH, CALABAN [sic], FRANKENSTEIN [sic], GLOUCESTER, TOM THUMB, and KAISER WILHELM are just a few, whose fame is world wide. The accident of abnormal birth was considered a disgrace and malformed children were placed out in the elements to die. If, perchance, one of these freaks of nature survived, he was always regarded with suspicion. Society shunned him because of his deformity, and a family so hampered was always ashamed of the curse put upon it.

Occasionally one of these unfortunates was taken to court to be jeered at or ridiculed for amusement of the nobles. Others were left to eke out a living by begging, stealing or starving.

For the love of beauty is a deep seated urge which dates back to the beginning of civilization. The revulsion with which we view the abnormal, the malformed and the mutilated is the result of long conditioning by our forefathers. The majority of freaks, themselves, are endowed with normal thoughts and emotions. Their lot is truly a heart- breaking one.

They are forced into the most unnatural of lives. Therefore they have built up among themselves a code of ethics to protect them from the barbs of other people.

Their rules are rigidly adhered to and the hurt of one is the hurt of all; the joy of one is the joy of all. The story about to be retold is a story based on the effect of this code upon their lives.

Never again will such a story be filmed, as modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world.

With humility for the many injustices done to such people (they have no power to control their lot) we present the most startling horror story of THE ABNORMAL and THE UNWANTED. The carelessly executed sensationalism of the disclaimer, with its illiterate punctuation and strident patches of capital letters, is typical of the production of the whole film.

Clarens reports that Irving Thalberg supported the making of the film: he may have done, but he obviously didn't want much money spent on it.

The film begins with a single crudely drawn title with no mention of players; its legend is Metro-Goldwyn Mayer presents Tod Browning's production of Freaks suggested by Tom Robbins' story "Spurs". The paper of the title is torn across and there is a cut to a three quarter length shot photographed from about knee level of a man wearing a bowler hat, a carnival barker, who in hectoring tones, against the background music of a steam organ, sets the blatant exploitative mood of the whole film:

We didn't lie to you folks, we told you we had living, ... breathing , ... monstrosities. You laughed at them, you shuddered at them, and yet but for the accident of birth you might be even as they are. They did not ask to be brought into the world, but into the world they came. Their code is a law unto themselves. Offend one and you offend them all. And now folks ... [He steps down, and as the camera pans to the left, he walks to the left, keeping in the shot, the crowd parting and turning to move with him. In the background sitting, passively waiting to be stared at, are some of the freaks who are waiting for their audience.] ...if you'll just step this way, you are about to witness, the most amazing, the most astounding living monstrosity of all times. [He walks behind a small enclosure, so arranged that the camera does not show what it contains. One of the women in the audience looks inside and screams.] Friends, she was once a beautiful woman. A royal prince shot himself for love of her. [Camera tracks in towards him.] She was known as the peacock of the air. Dissolve to a shot of a trapeze artist sitting on the bar of her trapeze, shot from below.

This is Cleopatra, played by Olga Baclanova, a beefy blond wearing a black leotard.

Watching her from the curtains are two midgets, Hans in evening dress and Frieda, wearing a ballerina's tutu, gaudily made up, and with pleated hair, played by Harry and Daisy Earles. In the early part of the film their acting has the stylized quality of well-drilled children. Hans has proposed to Frieda and he still plans to marry her, but he is infatuated with Cleopatra. Shots of Cleopatra are followed by a rather unconvincing sequence of the strong man wrestling with a cow. Then Frieda goes to mount her shetland pony which she will ride into the arena as part of her performance. Cleopatra, having finished her performance, leaves the arena, looking back over her shoulder, at the audience. She passes close to Hans who comes up to her hip. He looks up admiringly at her. Accidentally-on-purpose Cleopatra drops her cape. Hans picks it up, and she ridicules his offer to replace it round her shoulders, before kneeling down, and flirtaciously allowing him to put it back. She then goes over to Frieda, who by this time is mounted on her pony. Their eyes are on the same level, and Cleopatra makes a contemptuous gesture towards Frieda's costume, while saying Nice, nice. Then Frieda makes her entrance and kneeling down to Hans, Cleopatra says You must come and see me sometime. We will drink a little wine together.

The scene changes to a woodland, landowner and factor are walking together. The factor is concerned about a lot of horrible twisted creeping things, trespassing monsters. The landowner has agreed to see for himself. To the music of a mouth organ we see the freaks dancing together. They are people who have the most disabling congenital deformities. Girls with microcephaly, a dwarf, a man with half a torso walking on his hands, and a normal woman, Madame Tetrallini, who is looking after them. As they approach the factor shouts at them and they cluster round the woman, who defends them. They are children, she says When I get the chance I like to take them into the sunshine and let them play like children. That is what most of them are. Shots one by one include Randion, who has no limbs at all and Johnny Eck, with a sharp intelligent face, quite normal, except his body simply stops at the waist.

Cut to an exterior, neighbouring the circus. The morphodite (hermaphrodite), Joseph/Josephine is mocked by labourers.

Then, from an æsthetic point of view, matters take a serious turn for the worse with a comic who stammers: his stammer is not real, and we are meant to laugh at him. It is hard to know if we are meant to laugh at him because people who stammer are supposed to be inherently funny, or whether he is funny because people who pretend to stammer are funny, but whichever way you play it it isn't politically correct. He is a foil for the strong man who is clearly not very strong and is played by a very stagey actor, Henry Victor. Cleopatra appears, meets Hans, and borrows money off him until my money from Paris arrives. Judging from Cleopatra's dialogue, Baclanova must have been learning her lines parrot-fashion.

In the next shot Venus, the strongman's bidey-in, the female juvenile lead, is moving out of his caravan and into the caravan of Frozo the clown. Hard-boiled courtship dialogue, and the new pair bond forms in instants: Goodbye Hercules; Hello Frozo.

The next thing that happens is that Daisy and Violet Hilton, twins, conjoined at the hip, appear, rather pretty young women of a certain age, starkly made up in the kewpie doll fashion. More dialogue in doubtful taste follows about one of them getting married - If you see what I mean, wink, wink - but not the other, to the faking stammerer. (By this time you will be wondering 'What the Hell is he doing watching this? If it's such an incompetent and disgusting film, why doesn't he just stop watching it? But it's like a roller-coaster, once you climb on it's impossible to get off, and after every flat piece of wooden dialogue incompetently delivered, there is another plunging confrontation with existential dread.)

Next the strongman staggers past, he may have been drinking; but it's hard to tell. Cleopatra looks out of her window and asks Where are you going? He turns and his face lights up with a stupid grin. The audience recognizes that it's popcorn time again, and begins to talk as they do in Italy during recitativo secco at the Opera. He goes into Cleopatra's caravan, where they flirt with the delicacy of cows in oestrus, and kiss in the open doorway through which they are watched by Joseph/Josephine, by implication attracted to both of them. The strongman catches and punches h/er/im, while the watching Cleopatra laughs. The next shot shows Hans and Frieda, filmed in isolation, from a vantage point that lacks reference points for scale, so it is not obvious how small they are. Hans is abstracted and Frieda is looking for reassurance.

Cleopatra and Hercules are together in her caravan. Hercules is eating an apple: heavy symbolism - Didn't some dame give some other guy an apple sometime? The fruit has been sent by Hans to Cleopatra. Hans knocks at the door. Cleopatra tells him she is in the bath and asks him to come back later. Then she returns to the bunk where Hercules is reclining and they fall into a fevered embrace. There follows one of the few technically accomplished sequences, an exchange in the exterior between the bidey-in and Frieda. The bidey-in is sitting stage left on the steps of Frozo's caravan, somewhat to the right Frieda is hanging out washing. The camera angle is low and the perspective disguises the fact that Frieda is a midget. She looks almost like any other woman. The bidey-in asks Frieda why she isn't singing as usual, and she asks Frieda what is wrong. Frieda walks towards her and the difference in their sizes becomes clear. Frieda tells her about Hans's infatuation with that Cleopatra woman.

The next sequence shows Hercules and two cronies making ribald remarks about the design of Cleopatra's costume. Hans is also present and gets angry about the lack of respect. Cleopatra is next shown looking on enigmatically. She cries out and Hans goes to her. She says that she must have sprained her should in the previous night's performance and slipping down the shoulder of her blouse invites Hans to massage her back. He does so. Hercules and his cronies look on, laughing silently at the infatuated Hans.

The bidey-in and Frozo are shown flirting, and Johnny, played by Johnny Eck, appears. He is a normal looking young man to the waist, but that is all there is of him. He walks on his gloved hands. His acting is no worse than anybody else's and considerable better than Henry Victor's. There is some comic business that leads to a comment about whether the business is comic or pathetic, and Coo-coo, the bird-girl comes on and whispers to Frozo that the bearded lady's baby has just been delivered. They all go to bearded lady's caravan to pay their respects. With the bearded lady are the microcephalic girls. The human skeleton is the father and hands out the cigars.

The next shot shows Daisy-and-Violet making the bed together. Daisy is asking Violet not to quarrel with her boyfriend any more. The stammering buffoon appears and says that he is the boss of his home.

The next sequence shows an armless woman, played by Frances O'Connor, and one of the dwarfs. Cleopatra ain't one of us. she says Why, we're just filthy things to her. She'd spit on Hans if he didn't give her presents. And the dwarf replies Let her try it. Let her try doing anything to one of us...

The next sequence shows Frozo talking to Randion, the living torso, a middle-aged man, balding, with a moustache, and an earing in his right ear. He is lying on a convenient bench. This sequence is an exhibition of Randion's ability with his lips to open a match box, extract a match, strike it, and light a cigarette. Next, while Frozo is washing outside his caravan one of the microcephalic girls comes timidly to him and touches him coyly on the back. Frozo speaks kindly to her watched without his knowing it by the bidey-in. Twin microcephalic girls join them and speak a little but unintelligibly - the sound of the print I saw was very poor, so perhaps their speech was more intelligible than it seemed. Then the scene changes to Coo-coo the bird girl and Martha, the armless wonder. They are sitting outside beside one of the caravans talking. Martha uses a knife with her right foot and also with her foot she picks up a glass of beer and drinks from it. Next the scene changes to the interior of Cleopatra's caravan, where she and Hans are drinking champagne. There follows another pop-corn-break dialogue between Frozo and the bidey-in which culminates in a tentative kiss followed by a prolonged clinch. (In the cinema derisive slurping noises from the audience provide obbligato accompaniment.)

A sudden plunge into another abyss of bad taste is provided by the proposal of a wavy-haired, Errol-Flynn-moustached lothario to Violet, while Daisy, turned away, busies herself by reading. When the lovers kiss, Daisy, looks up enraptured, sharing in her sister's pleasure. The scene changes and Frozo and the stammerer see Hans leaving Cleopatra's caravan. This is followed by more embarrassing by-play between Violet-and-Daisy and their respective partners. The scene then changes back to Hans's caravan. Frieda is seen slowly and deliberately climbing the steps leading up to the door. She goes in and the action is once again observed from a viewpoint, and within in an environment appropriate to the size of the midgets. Frieda warns Hans that he is a figure of mockery and Hans admits that he is in love with Cleopatra. Frieda then leaves.

Next we see Cleopatra showing off one of her spoils, a platinum necklace, to Hercules. They are both drinking. There is a knock at the door. Hercules, carrying off the bottle, hides himself, and Frieda enters. Out of spite Cleopatra tells Frieda without meaning it that she intends to marry Hans, and Frieda without realizing that she is giving away the secret tells her about Hans's inheritance. Frieda leaves, and Hercules and Cleopatra conspire. Cleopatra says Midgets are not strong.

The Wedding feast is announced with a title. The guests are seated round a long table set up in the arena of the circus, and people are doing their acts as part of the celebrations. A sword-swallower performs, and a fire-eater, and everybody is gay except for poor Frieda. Then one of the dwarfs says Let's make her one of us. Meanwhile Cleopatra and Hercules are both drunk and flirting shamelessly. Frieda leaves the party. Cleopatra mocks Hans who is jealous. She also drugs his champagne. The dwarf prepares a loving cup. Johnny Eck stands on the table on one hand, with his other conducting the chorus that repeats the phrase ... one of us, as in turn, each of the freaks drinks from the loving cup offered by the dwarf. He takes a draught himself and passes the cup to the disgusted Cleopatra, who taking it, draws back from the table, refuses the draught, throwing the contents of the cup over the dwarf. She then turns on the party sending them away, leaving only Hercules, Hans, and herself at the table. Hercules picks up Hans and sets him on Cleopatra's shoulders and she cavorts round the table followed by Hercules who is blowing a trumpet.

Back in Cleopatra's caravan Hans is tottering between Cleopatra and Hercules: the drug is taking effect. Unobserved one of the dwarfs peeps through a window. Hans realises that his mariage is a joke Everywhere they're laughing, laughing, laughing ... and he passes out. Hercules tells Cleopatra that she's given Hans too much; but Cleopatra says, that she knows what she is doing. Hercules picks Hans up, passes him to Cleopatra who carries him like a heedless child carrying a large doll, back to his own caravan. Randion, is watching from between the wheels of an adjacent caravan. From now on Cleopatra will be watched, usually from below eye-level, by the freaks.

In the morning the doctor is called and diagnoses poison. Narrow looks are directed at Cleopatra, but the doctor identifies ptomaine poisoning, and says that the mustard-water administered by Cleopatra probably saved Hans's life. Hercules is by now looking very shifty indeed. The bidey-in asks him what Cleopatra put in Hans's wine. Hercules is about to attack her when he sees the massed freaks just watching him. She tells Hercules not to make her go to the coppers. Hercules is ostracised by the normals as well as the freaks, but the freaks are always there, just watching him, from behind the wheels of the caravans.

Cleopatra is dressed for her performance. Hans, lying in bed, still seemingly infatuated, apologises to her for his behaviour. Unaware that she is being watched by a dwarf she, takes a phial from the waistband of her costume and mixes up poison with his medicine. She gives Hans the spoonful of medicine but instead of swallowing it he spits it into his handkerchief. As she leaves the caravan we see Johnny Eck walking past and beneath the caravan the eyes of two dwarfs can be seen watching her. She goes to her own caravan and notices more eyes watching her between the steps. The dwarf visits Hans and they arrange for something to happen that night.

That night the circus is moving out, and by chance this is taking place in in a torrential thunderstorm. Hans has his friends visiting him. Cleopatra tells them to go back to their own wagons. She goes to mix up the next dose of poison in the medicine, Hans catches her. One dwarf pulls out a flick-knife, Johnny Eck pulls out a pistol. Hercules goes to kill the bidey-in because she knows too much. Frieda warns Frozo, who goes to rescue the bidey-in. There is a ponderous and unexciting fight that ends up outside the caravan in the streaming rain. Just as Hercules is about to finish Frozo off one of the dwarfs throws a knife at him, hitting him in the side, disabling him, and the freaks close in to finish him off. Cleopatra flees through the wood pursued by the freaks.

Cut back to the freak show and the carnival barker and the enclosure, and in one of the shock moments of the cinema we see what has happened to Cleopatra.

After that there is some perfunctory tidying up, Hans marries Frieda in a civil ceremony with Frozo and Venus as witnesses. Lastly there is the cast list that reveals that Frozo is spelt Phroso, was played by Wallace Ford, the bidey- in's name was Venus, and she was played by Leila Hyams, and the freaks who played themselves.

At first sight this film might seem to be a very aberrant exercise in voyeurism, but I shall argue that in some ways it is the perfect example of the Hollywood film, containing almost all of the elements of a typical Hollywood film, but presenting them in an exaggerated way that opens up our eyes to the underlying model of drama as depicted by Hollywood.

What makes Freaks paradigmatic, is the uncompromising presentation of the stars: the freaks. There are three distinct sorts of freak in the film. There are the real freaks, people like Randion and Johnny Eck, whose deformities are profound, and which set them apart from ordinary people. There are the behavioural freaks, like the sword-swallower, people who have acquired by self-discipline and practice exotic abilities not shared by most members of the public. His freakishness is acquired and genuine. In the represented world Cleopatra also is a behavioural freak because she has acquired skills as a trapeze artist very different from the skills of ordinary people. Her act is an entertainment through the display of gymnastic skills in circumstances that appear to be dangerous, and her display of herself as an object of desire, and the display of her skills gives vicarious thrills to her audience.

Both Josephine and Hercules are probably fake within the structure of the narrative, representing themselves, the former as being physically aberrant, being some kind of intersex, the latter as being behaviourally aberrant in being much stronger than the average. A typical feature of the performance of the strong man is the use of illusionistic techniques to make him appear extraordinarily strong while undertaking tasks that require strength only a little greater than the average. In the context of the narrative, Cleopatra is a behavioural-freak, Hercules is a fake-behavioural freak, Josephine is probably a fake physical freak.

There are further intriguing layers of meaning in the representation of Cleopatra. As a filmstar in the context of daily reality Baclanova is a freak. In contrast, within the narrative of the film she is a fake-behavioural freak, because she is never shown doing any stunts on the trapeze, and if it had been thought necessary that Cleopatra should be shown doing exotic things on the trapeze an appropriate stunt double would have replaced Baclanova for the filming of the sequence, Henry Victor is a fake-fake-behavioural freak, but it is possible that Josephine really does usually earn h/er/is living as a carnival freak and is probably a fake- physical freak. This complicated digression indicates the complexity of the intermingling of levels of meaning in the films, with freaks acting, actors acting as freaks, actors acting as fake-freaks, that is actors acting as actors acting as freaks and so on.

At first sight this film appears to be very different from every other Hollywood film, but my thesis is that every Hollywood film contains a subset of the same contradictions of reference to actors and to freaks. This thesis will be developed through the consideration of another unusual film, but one much more in the mainline of film productions than the aberrant Freaks. The film Frankenstein is structurally much simpler than Freaks because none of the portrayed characters is a performer, thus there can be no ironical counterpoints of actor acting the character of an actor, or freak of freak acting the part of freak. The story of the film, based loosely on the novel by Mary Shelley is well-known. Henry Frankenstein assembles pieces of corpses into the semblance of a man, and vivifies it using electricity. The creature kills a couple of men on purpose, though in one case it is cruelly provoked, and in the other it kills in self-defence; it also kills a little girl, possibly by accident, and as a consequence is hunted by a mob of vengeful peasants who pursue it at night with flaming torches. It takes shelter in a windmill. The mill is set on fire by the mob and the monster is destroyed.

Like Freaks, Frankenstein begins with a prologue. This is delivered by Edward Van Sloan who is filmed wearing evening dress, standing in front of a curtain, as though making an announcement from the stage in the theatre. He addresses the camera directly. As he speaks the camera tracks in towards him, so that by the end of his speech the top two thirds only of his body are in the shot. He clasps his hands in front of him and speaks:

How do you do. Mr Carl Laemmle feels that it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning. We are about to unfold a story of Frankenstein, a man of science, who sought to create a man after his own image ... without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest stories ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation, life and death. I think it will thrill you; it may shock you ... It might even ... horrify you. So then, if you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain ... now is your chance to ... Well, we've warned you.

The titles follow, and these include a cast list notable for the fact that the actor playing the monster is identified by a question mark only. The two freaks in the film are both fakes, one, Fritz, Frankenstein's assistant, a hunchback, who is a malicious simpleton, is played by Dwight Frye, the other, Frankenstein's creature, by Boris Karloff. Frankenstein himself is played by Colin Clive, a juvenile lead, of conventional good looks, who had recently had a big success in the West End as a neurotic army officer in Journey's end.

The cinema provides every generation with different shocks. I lied my way, under-age, into the cinema to see Psycho on its first release and was rewarded with the real frisson of horror at its climax when Vera Miles encounters the embalmed corpse of Mrs Bates in the cellar. Fifteen years or so later I was surprised by the parasitoid bursting out of John Hurt's chest in Alien, but I imagine that these thrills were as nothing compared to the first appearance of Frankenstein's creature, seen by the contemporary audience, in 1931, on the first release of the film.

After a marvellous scene in Frankenstein's laboratory involving the connexion of the monster to a lightning conductor during a thunderstorm, and culminating in the movement of the monster's right wrist, Frankenstein repeats It's alive. It's alive. in an increasingly frenzied pæan of triumph. Even Colin Clive's ludicrously dated English stage diction (It's alave. It's alave.) hardly detracts from the power of the scene.

The next scene is comic relief, when Frankenstein's father, the baron, played by Frederick Kerr as a silly-ass of the Nigel Bruce school, dressed elaborately, in smoking jacket, and braided cap, with tassle, smoking an elaborate pipe, converses with Elizabeth, Frankenstein's fiancée and Victor, his best friend. We are all waiting to get back to the laboratory to have a look at the creature. There is some tedious business where the old man misunderstands the reason for Frankenstein's long absences from home, and consequent neglect of Elizabeth, seeming to construe the word 'experiment' to be some kind of euphemism for 'a bit on the side' but his misapprehension is soon corrected. Then the forehead-knuckling burgomaster visits to ask about the impending mariage of Frankenstein and Elizabeth. The merry peasants are all primed and ready to do merry-peasant style celebrations for the mariage of the young master, but they are ready for the off, and are getting restless because it seems to be postponed indefinitely. The scene finishes, at last, and we dissolve back to the laboratory where Frankenstein is leaning back in his chair, smoking a self-congratulatory gasper, looking like Bertie Wooster relaxing after having been extracted by Jeeves from some particularly glutinous soup. Professor Waldman, Frankenstein's former teacher, played by Edward Van Sloan, is also present and to the surprise of every eight-year-old in the audience is maundering on about social responsibil ity in science, and foreseeing disaster.

Frankenstein stands up, and there is cut to a doorway, through which, in shadow, the outline of something manlike can be made out. In a series of shorter and shorter shots, the monster is seen half length from behind, then the camera closes a little and we see a quarter profile, with a pronounced brow ridge, and the neck with a bolt or electrode apparently sticking out of it. Next shot, the camera is closer still, and the creature is seen in full profile, dead, white, a cliff of forehead above the shelf of brow ridge immediately above heavy-lidded eyes, a fringe of lank hair. The eyes partly rolled up in the sockets, give an unconscious, automaton's gaze. Closer still, the next shot is almost full-face, and we see sunken cheeks a long chin, the scarred forehead, the half-closed eyes, with clear rims of white showing beneath the irises. Close-up full face, and close close-up, just the scarred forehead, the corpse-like eyes, the bolt-electrodes, the climax of one of the great emotional accelerandi of the cinema. The inanities of the silly-ass baron are forgotten and we are left contemplating the greatest fake-freak of the history of the cinema.

The creature has become an icon and we no longer look at it with innocent eyes. It is very large, Karloff himself was a tall man and his size is exaggerated by built-up shoes, and by the shortened legs of his trousers and sleeves of his jacket, which together imply that the creature is, or has grown to be too large for his clothes. The physical exagerrations of the make-up all amplify male sexual characteristics. Men are on average bigger than women, the creature is bigger than most men. Men, on average, have bigger eye-brow ridges than women, the creature has larger eyebrow ridges than most men. The men have larger heads than women, and the creature, with its huge flat-topped cranium, has a bigger head than most men. Part of the fascination of the creature is due to its being an extreme variant of the stereotype of a man. As well as fear it elicits attraction from both sexes, for women, as an extreme of masculinity, from men, as a member of a sex with respect to which their own natures are feminine. There is added to the sexual ambiguity the ambiguity of the creature's nature. The creature is another example of something in the world that cannot be assigned unambiguously either to the category of natural things or the category of artifacts. Right-angles are rarely encountered in natural objects, but the forehead of the creature, seen in profile, joins its cranium in a right-angle, also there is a right-angle at the crown of the creature's head, so that the overall impression of a cranium made by a carpenter out of pieces of plywood. The feet too give the same impression of rectilinearity partly because of the thickened soles, but also, I believe to emphasise the artificiality of the creature. The most impressive effect of the make-up, the one which stunned the contemporary audiences is the provision of the electrodes in the creature's neck. They look as they are the two ends of a bolt which passed through the neck.

Schechter and Everitt remark that the scars produced by the fixing of the electrode took years to disappear from Karloff's neck. The electrodes are artificial, and are the strongest signal of the creature's ambiguous nature.

The make-up took six hours to apply. It was invented by Jack Pierce who explained that the idea for the electrodes arose out of thinking about the process of vivifying the assembled parts. It had been agreed that the vivifying force had to be electricity, and the electrodes were connected to the creature's spinal column, down which the electricity would be conducted to the rest of the body.

The creature was so potent an icon that despite its apparent destruction at the end of Frankenstein, it was revived, to be apparently destroyed in the sequel The bride of Frankenstein (1935), revived, even less credibly, in The son of Frankenstein (1939) a film which included the most god-awful cute American brat in the history of the cinema, who to the disappointment of the entire audience is no more than kidnapped by the creature which is - yes - apparently destroyed at the end of the film to be revived and apparently destroyed in The ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Franskenstein meets the wolf man, (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and the nadir of the whole series Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein (1948). The fact that such a sequence of increasingly cynical exploitation films could be made at all is surprising, and the only explanation for their success, the one thing they all have in common is the exhibition of Pierce's Frankenstein make-up, worn by, or rather inflicted upon, Glenn Strange and also on Belà Lugosi, when Karloff dropped out of playing the monster after The bride of Frankenstein. Karloff's name appears in the credits of some of the later films, but in these he has been promoted to play whichever member of whichever cadet branch of the Frankenstein family who has picked up the family scalpel.

The creature is an extreme example of the filmstar as freak. In Freaks people who were freaks were simply displayed within the pretext of a contrived plot. In Frankenstein and its sequels the central freak provides the inspiration for the increasingly feeble plots which provide the pretext for the monster's attributes to be displayed. People did not go to see these films for any reason other than to see the monster pick up and walk off with screaming women, to knock men over, to be killed in some spectacular way.

These films demonstrate more transparently than almost all Hollywood films the underlying assumption of the film industry for most of its history. The drama, the production, were all subordinate to the presentation of stars all of whom were freaks of some kind. The expected answer to the question: 'What's on at the pictures this week?' was along the lines of 'I don't remember what it's called, but it's got Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in it, shall we go and see it?

The freaks involved, include Humphrey Bogart, who was well below the average male height (He was about 5'4" tall,) Claude Rains, about the same height, Peter Lorre, even smaller, Ingrid Bergman, about 5'10" and therefore much taller than the average woman, and Sidney Greenstreet, a monstrously fat man. It, of course, is Casablanca.

Notes and references

Tod Browning (1932)
Details of the film can be found on the Internet Movie Database.
The cast of characters of "Freaks" is detailled, with pictures and bios, at the Missing Link website
James Whale (1931)
Details of the film can be found on the Internet Movie Database.
A photographic transcription of Frankenstein has been published in the form of a book:
James Whale's Frankenstein
Richard Anobile (1974)
Pan Books Ltd, London, UK.
Horror Movies: An illustrated survey
Carlos Clarens (1971)
Panther Books, London.
Film tricks: Special effects in the movies.
Harold Schechter and David Everitt (1980)
Harlan Quist, New York, USA.
...He was about 5' 4" tall...
Flesh and fantasy
Penny Stallings (1978)
Macdonald's and Jane's Publishers Ltd, London.
...about 5' 10"...
Ingrid Bergman
John Kobal (ed.) (1985)
Pavilion Books Ltd, London, UK
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