Tod Browning celebrated the “freaks” in his subversive silent and early sound cinema

“The Unknown” (1927) and “Freaks” (1932) screen in new restorations at UW Cinematheque on September 16 starting at 6 p.m.
A basic collage shows two images. The top features Lon Chaney as Alonzo the Armless, who drinks tea with his feet in "The Unknown" (1927). Below, the sideshow performers celebrate the wedding of Hans and Cleopatra in "Freaks" (1932). Minnie Woolsey aka Koo-Koo the Bird Girl dances on the table.
Alonzo the Armless (Lon Chaney) drinks tea with his feet in “The Unknown” (1927). Below, the sideshow performers celebrate the wedding of Hans and Cleopatra in “Freaks” (1932).

“The Unknown” (1927) and “Freaks” (1932) screen in new restorations at UW Cinematheque on September 16 starting at 6 p.m.

Director Tod Browning began his career as a teenager working various roles in traveling circuses. Before becoming a carnival barker, Browning started as a “roustabout,” a circus term for someone who handles materials and construction. Both roles perhaps prepped him for (and foreshadowed) his eventual career in cinema.

Browning’s prolific time in silent film culminated in The Unknown (1927), one of two Browning features UW Cinematheque is screening on Saturday, September 16, starting at 6 p.m. This film is one of many collaborations between Browning and actor/makeup artist Lon Chaney, the “Man of A Thousand Faces” himself. As a child of deaf adults, Chaney used his ability to convincingly convey emotions through facial expressions, enhancing every silent film he’s a part of.

The Unknown stars Chaney as Alonzo the Armless, a knife thrower who uses his feet instead of hands. In her first starring role, Joan Crawford plays Alonzo’s assistant in the act, who has a fear of men and the violence that they can achieve with their arms. It would seem that Alonzo would be the perfect match for her, until his terrible secret is revealed! Prior to this screening—which features live piano accompaniment by David Drazin—Anthony L’Abbate, Preservation Manager of George Eastman Museum, will introduce the latest restoration of this film—which includes 10 minutes of long-buried footage.

Following the success of Browning’s version of Dracula (1931), MGM wanted Browning to create another horror film to rival the entries coming out of Universal at the same time. Freaks (1932) is the apogee of Browning’s early career in the circus and silent films, and shows a better use of sound than in Dracula, which you can hear for yourself during this UW Cinematheque screening at 7:45 p.m. While Dracula was a slow-moving experience as an early “talkie” without a properly integrated score, Freaks feels more thrilling and modern than its release year would suggest.

The film’s plot hinges on Hans and Frieda, an engaged couple with dwarfism, portrayed by actual siblings Harry and Daisy Earles—also known as the Doll Family. While Hans is engaged to Frieda (in the film), an average-size trapeze artist named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) learns of Hans’ future inheritance, and contrives a plan to seduce, marry, and kill him to gain his fortune. 

For a film that’s more than 90 years old, Freaks is incredibly subversive. Many members of the sideshow troupe are played by various actors with disabilities and deformities. The film portrays them as sexual beings with autonomy, which is a wild concept in our current sanitized cinematic landscape. One of the circus’ conjoined twins, Daisy (Daisy Hilton), is married to Roscoe (Roscoe Ates), a clown; and her twin (Violet Hilton) seems to derive pleasure from her sister kissing her husband. The Bearded Lady (Olga Roderick) is in love with the Human Skeleton (Peter Robinson), and gives birth to their baby.

Many of these storylines don’t really pertain to the main plotline, but nevertheless create a rich tapestry of characters and the community. In an infamous scene, the members of the sideshow (the “freaks”)’s celebratory dinner in honor of Hans and Cleopatra’s recent nuptial turns into an initiation of Cleopatra. They all drink from a loving cup chanting, “We accept her, one of us! Gooble-gobble!” Instead of feeling honored at this affectionate gesture, she becomes terrified and runs away, disrespectfully declining this welcoming assortment of folks. The intersection of disability and queerness in this film are worthy of deeper readings, especially for the intersex character, Josephine-Joseph. For a deeper examination of these themes, the podcast Girls, Guts, And Giallo‘s recent episode that dissects Freaks does them justice.

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