Irish Film Institute -Freaks + The Devil-Doll

Freaks + The Devil-Doll

Director: Tod Browning

One of the most unlikely talents to work for a major Hollywood studio, Tod Browning had a macabre vision and a thematic obsession with human deformity that led to one undisputed masterpiece, Freaks (1932). Made for MGM, the home of all things glamorous and beautiful, Freaks couldn’t be dismissed as just another horror picture and was banned in many countries before being re-released to considerable acclaim in the 1960s. What unnerved audiences in the 1930s was not so much Browning’s very typical tale of sexual humiliation and revenge, but his inspired decision to use real circus freaks in the sympathetic roles. This casting coup was the ultimate indictment of the cult of physical attractiveness that mainstream Hollywood exploited and perpetuated.
As in many of Browning’s films, physical beauty in Freaks is a mere façade that masks truly despicable human traits. The circus midget Hans falls in love with the normal-sized trapeze artist Cleopatra, unaware that she plans to poison him after their wedding and team up with the strongman Hercules. When the close-knit group of freaks learn of the plan, they exact a terrible revenge whose sexual connotations are both horrific and darkly humorous. Far from being exploitative or voyeuristic in its use of real-life dwarfs, pin heads and limbless people, Browning’s extraordinary film forces us to confront some deep-seated fears and prejudices.
The revenge theme is also central to The Devil-Doll (1936), in which Lionel Barrymore plays a French banker who is framed by his business partners. On escaping from Devil’s Island, Barrymore disguises himself as a female doll-seller whose creatures are in fact miniaturised people that can be controlled by telepathy to carry out the banker’s murderous plan. After Freaks, Browning was required to lighten the tone of Devil-Doll. This is still a wholly characteristic offering, with Barrymore’s female disguise and deadly dolls making for some bizarre sights that combine the malevolent and the benignoqualities that are always in conflict in Browning’s protagonists.
Both ‘Freaks’ and ‘The Devil-Doll’ will be shown in new 35mm prints released by the British Film Institute. Total running time: 140 mins.

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