… Old Movies? Disability Studies? The state of being flabbergasted?

I just watched potentially the weirdest movie ever.

I honestly don’t know how I feel about this. Here’s what Netflix said it was:

423px-freaks

“Director Tod Browning cast authentic circus folk, not actors, in this Greek tragedy about sideshow “freaks.” Normal-sized trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) marries diminutive Hans (Harry Earles) with plans to poison him, take his inheritance and marry the brute Hercules (Henry Victor). When the freaks uncover Cleopatra’s scheme and Hercules forces himself on an innocent girl, they gang up on the two miscreants. Wallace Ford also stars.”

For those of you who were wondering, Tod Browning also directed “Dracula” with Bela Legosi, of “Ed Wood” fame. According to multiple online sites, this is a horror movie cult classic. Weird cult classic movie legend has it, the producers at MGM saw how well Frankenstein (Paramount) did at the box office, and so they told Tod Browning, their resident Dracula-guy, to “out-Frankenstein Frankenstein.” This is what he came back with. It was marketed as a horror movie, but audiences were so disturbed by it that MGM pulled it from circulation. The film ruined Tod Browning’s career.

It was bought by someone who took movies around on a circuit (old-school porn, other “oddities” of the film world), who marketed it very much like Netflix did. I’d hazard a guess that these audiences were people in the back woods, that couldn’t afford to drive in to a bigger town to see the real hits, so they were stuck with the traveling circuit of oddities. Not having much to compare it to, it did decently.

I don’t really think it’s a horror movie – more of a love story/revenge plot. Weird combination of gags about deformed people, a truly awful person making fun of/taking advantage of Hans (the midget), and really horrific revenge. And the revenge was maybe 6 minutes of an hour-long movie. But it was seriously disturbing.

And, according to Wikipedia, a lot of scenes were deemed “too disturbing” by MGM and cut from the film. Perhaps why it’s only one hour and two minutes long? To this day, an uncut version of the film doesn’t exist – it’s lost to history.

To a modern audience, this film seems like it could be a celebration of diversity, but at the same time, it’s also definitely exploiting the people with disabilities to make a profit. Disabilities studies are close to my heart (mom is a special ed. teacher, dad had been at one point), and so I’m intrigued by the mixed feelings this movie pulled out of me. I really, really want to analyze it further, but am too tired.

I did manage to find a blog post by someone else who taught this film in their college course. Quite interesting, here’s the link. Y’all should really check it out, it’s a really good analysis of how students reacted to the film.

I definitely need to tell my 21st-Century Novel prof. about this. He’s doing a senior seminar in the English department on Disabilities studies next semester (which I’m going to try to get into), and … if he doesn’t already know about this film, I think he’d go to town analyzing/teaching it.

Much too late for me to still be awake. Time for sleeping!

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2 thoughts on “… Old Movies? Disability Studies? The state of being flabbergasted?

  1. Yeah, definitely the movie I was thinking of. This is crazy, I don’t know if I’d be able to stomach it.

    However, maybe it’s possible that they *meant* it to be a celebration of diversity – but in 1932 filmmaking, modern audiences view it as being full of prejudices and stereotypes?

    I don’t know. Thanks for posting about it, though…

    • I know! I just honestly don’t know how to take it. The biggest thing that gets me (will edit post to include this) is that the producers told Tod Browning “We want you to out-Frankenstein Frankenstein.” And this is what he came back with.

      So … it’s supposed to be a horror movie. He had produced rather a lot of movies in the 20s starring people he rigged up to look like they had disabilities, too. So … he’s sympathetic, or at least fascinated by, people with disabilities.

      It makes me feel all kinds of mixed-up and weird. Sending it the hell back to Netflix today.

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