Pre Code Confidential #16: Gable & Harlow in RED DUST (MGM 1932)

(Hello, all! I haven’t been able to do much posting this week due to a severe bout of sciatica. I’m starting to feel better, and have watched tons of films while recuperating… stay tuned!)

  

Rising young MGM stars Clark Gable (31) and Jean Harlow (21) were red-hot in 1932, and the studio teamed them for the first time in the steamy romance RED DUST. Actually, Gable and Harlow had acted together in the previous year’s gangster epic THE SECRET SIX, but as part of the ensemble. RED DUST marked their first pairing as a screen team, and the duo make the film burn as hot as the sweltering jungle setting!

He-man Gable plays he-man Denny Carson, owner of a rubber plantation in French Indochina (now known as Vietnam). Denny’s a no-nonsense, tough taskmaster, as hard on his foremen as he is on the coolies. Into this manly milieu steps Vantine (Harlow), a platinum blonde Saigon hooker who travelled by supply boat looking for a place to lay low for a while. Denny’s originally against the idea, but Vantine’s playfulness soon cracks his macho armor, and the two become more than just friends.

Vantine’s about to leave on the return trip (Denny tells her, “Goodbye kid, nice having ya!”), when new engineer Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) and his refined bride Barbara (Mary Astor ) come ashore. The happy hooker notices that certain look on Denny’s face when he spots Babs, and gets jealous, hoping to rekindle things with Denny down the road. Gary has developed “fever” (malaria?), and reluctant Denny helps nurse him back to health, hoping to score points with beautiful Barbara.

Guess who drops back in – it’s Vantine, after the old scow gets disabled chugging down the swamp. Denny warns her not to interfere as he sends Gary and his men out on a month-long surveying mission, making sure Barbara stays behind. Monsoon season is about to arrive, but there’s also a storm brewing  between Denny, Barbara, and Vantine…

RED DUST has the justly famous scene with a nude Harlow bathing in a rain barrel, a sequence where she’s flirty, flippant, and a whole lot of fun as Gable tries to keep her from Astor’s prying eyes. Gable and Harlow have such great chemistry together, calling each other ‘Fred’ and ‘Lily’, and their sex appeal is still heating up viewers 80+ years later. The suggestive dialogue is hot as ever, and that final scene where Harlow’s reading Gable a children’s story while he’s recuperating from a gunshot wound (“Hippity-hop, hippity-hop”, she coos while Gable tries to get frisky) is a Pre-Code classic. It’s easy to see why RED DUST put them both in the upper echelons of MGM stardom.

Stereotyped but wonderful Willie Fung

There’s chemistry and sexual tension too between Gable and costar Mary Astor. The film gave an added boost to her career as well, and Astor went on to become one of Hollywood’s finest actresses. Gene Raymond, as the cuckolded husband, was known primarily as a song-and-dance man, but here the only song-and-dance he gets is from Gable! Familiar Faces slogging through the brutal swamp include Donald Crisp, Forrester Harvey, and Tully Marshall. Comic relief of a sort is supplied by Willie Fung, a Chinese actor relegated to stereotyped servant roles. Some may view Fung’s movie parts as being racist (and they were – times were different), but Mr. Fung managed to make quite a good living in Hollywood, appearing in 138 films, from 1922’s HURRICANE’S GAL to 1944’s THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN. Though many times he went uncredited, movie buffs all know it’s Willie whenever he pops up!

John Lee Mahin delivers a rugged script, and director Victor Fleming was an MGM workhorse whose credits include THE WIZARD OF OZ, GONE WITH THE WIND, and tons of classic films you’ve all seen. RED DUST was a sizzling success, raking in over a million dollars in the midst of the Depression Era, and made both Gable and Harlow forces to be reckoned with in Hollywood. 21 years later, John Ford directed a remake, MOGAMBO, with a now 52-year-old Gable reprising his leading role, and co-starring Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly (Jean Harlow having died tragically of kidney disease at age 26). The story scorched the box office once again, but as much I love Ford, I prefer the original, where Clark Gable and Jean Harlow simultaneously seduced us all, and soared their way into the Hollywood stratosphere.

More ‘Pre-Code Confidential’!!:

1. James Cagney in LADY KILLER

2. Walter Huston in KONGO

3. Joan Blondell in MAKE ME A STAR

4. Boris Karloff in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU

5. The All-Star HOLLYWOOD PARTY

6. Gable & Harlow in THE SECRET SIX

7. Loretta Young in PLAY-GIRL

8. Barbara Stanwyck in BABY FACE

9. Cagney & Blondell in BLONDE CRAZY

10. Claudette Colbert in DeMille’s CLEOPATRA

11. 1931’s THE MALTESE FALCON

12. Joan Crawford in DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE

13. Wallace Beery in John Ford’s FLESH

14. Lee Tracy & Lupe Velez in THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH

15. Cagney (again!) in THE MAYOR OF HELL

 

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Pre Code Confidential #15: James Cagney in THE MAYOR OF HELL (Warner Brothers 1933)

The Brothers Warner never shied away from social issues of the Depression Era in their films, from bootlegging gangsters (LITTLE CAESAR, THE PUBLIC ENEMY) to “yellow” journalism (FIVE STAR FINAL, PICTURE SNATCHER) to  rampant illicit sex (BABY FACE, CONVENTION CITY)… even the musical GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 featured an ode to the unemployed and destitute, “Remember My Forgotten Man”. THE MAYOR OF HELL tackles the juvenile justice system, as a gang of slum kids get tossed in a reform school run by a crooked superintendent and suffer extremely harsh conditions, until a political hack takes over and implements change. The hack… why, it’s none other than Jimmy Cagney !

Cagney bursts on the scene in typical Cagney fashion about a third of the way  into the movie, pulling up to the prison gate as the guard demands to know who goes there: “Gargan, the new deputy commissioner, ya screw!”. Patsy Gargan may be a ward heeler and got his job through political patronage, but he was a slum kid himself once, and when he witnesses the brutality going on, he tells Superintendent Thompson, “I’m gonna run this racket my way from now on!”. Of course, Patsy’s not totally altruistic; he’s hot for prison nurse Dorothy Griffin, whose ideas to make the school a better place (like the kids self-governing, better food, no more whippings) he helps implement.

Patsy’s got other problems on the outside, and when he goes to deal with a crook trying to muscle in on his voting racket, he winds up accidentally shooting the thug and has to take it on the lam, leaving the school back in Thompson’s hands. The old way of doing things return, but when one sickly youngster ends up dying in the ‘cooler’, the kids take matters into their own hands, starting a riot and putting Thompson on trial, finding him guilty of murder. Thompson jumps out the window and is chased to the top of a barn, which the kids set afire, causing Thompson’s death! Patsy returns just in the nick of time, before the kids raze the school to the ground.

 

Though Cagney’s the nominal star here, the spotlight falls on the street punks, a wild bunch of boys if there ever was one. Frankie Darro , soon to star a few months later in William Wellman’s WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, is ringleader Jimmy, a cocky kid with a bad attitude that no one can reach… until Cagney comes along. The early scenes of the kids depict their hardscrabble lives, raising hell on the streets, and being sentenced in court.  Though they come from differing (and, admittedly, stereotyped) ethnicities, they share a common bond of poverty and lack of education, learning crime as a way to make a fast buck. Among them are Our Gang’s Allen “Farina” Hoskins, outstanding in a dramatic role for once; Raymond Borzage (son of director Frank) as the sickly, doomed ‘Skinny’, former silent child star Mickey Bennett as Jimmy’s tough rival Butch, and future TV director Sidney Miller as Izzy, the comic relief Jewish kid.

The adults in the cast include Madge Evans as nurse Dorothy, sympathetic to the boys’ plight and working for change, Allen Jenkins as Patsy’s sidekick Mike (who cringes whenever the kids call him ‘Uncle Mike’ at Cagney’s request!), and Dudley Diggs as the rotten, corrupt Thompson. Harold Huber plays the hood who tries to take over Patsy’s turf, and after getting punched goes after Patsy with a hearty “Dirty son of a…”. Robert Barrat, Arthur Byron, Edwin Maxwell, Sheila Terry, and Fred “Snowflake” Toones are among the other Familiar Faces in the cast. THE MAYOR OF HELL was retooled and remade twice by Warners as vehicles for The Dead End Kids : 1938’s CRIME SCHOOL (with Humphrey Bogart in the Cagney role) and 1939’s HELL’S KITCHEN (this time with Ronald Reagan!), but neither can hold a candle to this underrated  little film. Frankie Darro and his wild boys make The Dead Enders look like a bunch of cream puffs, and I’m pretty sure they’d mop up the floor with Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, and company in a street fight!

Happy Birthday Boris Karloff: THE OLD DARK HOUSE (Universal 1932)

William Henry Pratt was born on November 23, 1887, but horror movie icon Boris Karloff was “born” when he teamed with director James Whale for 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN. The scary saga of a man and his monster became a big hit, and Universal Studios boss Carl Laemmle Jr. struck while the horror trend was hot, quickly teaming the pair in an adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel THE OLD DARK HOUSE. This film was considered lost for many years until filmmaker and Whale friend Curtis Harrington discovered a print in the Universal vaults. Recently, a 4K restoration has been released courtesy of the Cohen Film Collection, and a showing aired on TCM this past Halloween. I of course, having never seen the film, hit the DVR button for a later viewing.

THE OLD DARK HOUSE has not only been restored to its former glory, but is a delightful black comedy showcasing Whale’s macabre sense of humor. Karloff gets top billing for the first time in his career as the brutish mute butler Morgan, though he’s not the “star” in the true sense of the word. Instead, he’s part of an ensemble of actors who’re engaged in a mission to send a shiver down the audience’s collective spine. Whale, screenwriters Benn Levy and R.C. Sheriff, cinematographer Arthur Edeson, art director Charles B. Hall, and Universal’s make-up genius Jack Pierce all collaborate to create a memorable mise en scene inside the creepy old Femm house of horrors.

The story: it was a dark and stormy night (as Snoopy would say), and bickering couple Philip and Margaret Waverton, with their wayfaring travelling companion Roger Penderel, get stranded deep in the Wales countryside. They seek shelter at a gloomy mansion, where they’re greeted at the door by the mute, horribly scarred butler Morgan. Entering the foreboding domicile, the three are introduced to brother and sister Horace and Rebecca Femm, he a gaunt looking weirdo with a fondness for gin, she a half-deaf religious fanatic. To say the siblings are lacking in the social graces is an understatement!

During the bizarre supper ritual, two more wanderers knock at the Femm door, boisterous Sir William Porterhouse and his “friend” Gladys DuCane (formerly Perkins). The storm outside rages on, and then a storm front moves indoors as Morgan gets “at the bottle again”, attempting to rape Margaret, and releasing brother Saul Femm from his locked room, a milquetoast looking pipsqueak who turns out to be the biggest maniac of the bunch…

Boris is menacing as Morgan, aided by Jack Pierce’s make-up job, but isn’t given much to do in the acting department. His is a mostly physical role, threatening Margaret Waverton in his drunken stupor, needing three men to subdue him. It’s Morgan who lets loose the psychotic Saul, putting things in motion that lead to the film’s conclusion. Morgan may not be the focal point of THE OLD DARK HOUSE, but it’s an important film in the Karloff canon. It’s his first top-billed role, and the movie’s posters herald him as only KARLOFF, the last name alone now recognized by audiences of the day as the last word in terror! Boris would have many more opportunities to show his acting skills in the horror genre (and others), thanks in large part to his popularity in FRANKENSTEIN and this, his second Universal Horror.

“A Universal Cast is Worth Repeating”, and this one’s a doozy! Let’s start with Melvyn Douglas , just beginning his film career in the part of Penderel. His character’s from ‘The Lost Generation’, a disillusioned WWI vet whose aimless life contains no meaning, until fate steps in. Raymond Massey (Philip) was already an established star, with his iconic role as Abraham Lincoln waiting in the wings. Gloria Stuart (Margaret) was a WAMPAS Baby Star and Universal contract player just getting started; modern audiences fell in love with her as the elderly Rose in TITANIC. Charles Laughton (Porterhouse) makes his American film debut here, bringing both humor and pathos to his role. Lilian Bond (Gladys) never quite made the impact her costars did, but she’s more than good as the ex-chorus girl, and had a long career.

The family Femm are certainly a grotesque lot, with marvelous Ernest Thesiger as the emotionally dead Horace and Eva Moore his completely creepy sister Rebecca. Thesiger, known to horror fans as the sinister Dr. Pretorius in Whale’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, is perfect as the cadaverous Horace, so uncomfortable around people he can’t connect with anyone, except his palpable hatred for sister Rebecca. Moore is a revelation as the  religious nut, obviously sexually repressed, especially when talking about her late sister (“She was a wicked one… with her red lips and her big eyes and her white neck”). In a scene that’s pure Pre-Code, Margaret gets out of her rain-soaked clothes, stripping down to her slip. Rebecca feels the smooth fabric, stating, “That’s fine stuff, but it’ll rot”. Then, placing her hand on Margaret’s breast, says “That’s finer stuff still, but it’ll rot too, in time”, causing Margaret to withdraw in repulsion, the vanity mirror behind them distorting both women’s faces. It’s a frightening scene, beautifully staged by Whale and acted by the two ladies.

Brember Wills is Saul Femm, who is feared by his siblings, but looks harmless at first. But as the cameras roll, we see his demeanor change before our eyes, and this little man becomes a psychopath of the first order, obsessed with flame and fire, and determined to burn the family homestead to the ground. Wills was primarily a stage actor, with only six film credits, but this movie elevates him to the pantheon of Universal Monsters! As for 102 year old patriarch Sir Roderick Femm, confined to bed and looking like he’s already past his expiration date, actor John Dudgeon is credited. Only there’s no such person… Sir Roderick is played by 61-year-old actress Elspeth Dudgeon, a Whale in-joke. Loaded up with Jack Pierce’s old age makeup, Elspeth does a gender-bending splendid job. If I hadn’t known beforehand that it was a woman behind all that makeup, I never would’ve guessed it!

James Whale seems to have had a good time experimenting with oddly tilted camera angles and moody lighting on this, a warm up perhaps for his THE INVISIBLE MAN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. He certainly leaves his stamp on the film, with its expressionistic look and warped sense of humor. THE OLD DARK HOUSE, unlike some films I’ve long heard about, did not disappoint me upon my first viewing, and I’d highly recommend anyone with a Blu-Ray to purchase a copy pronto. Boris Karloff may not be the star of the show, but his Morgan is suitably gruesome enough to satisfy die-hard horror fans, as is the movie as a whole. Happy birthday King Karloff; long may you reign in the nightmares of monster lovers everywhere!

Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (Universal 1932)

We can’t have a proper ‘Halloween Havoc!’ without inviting Bela Lugosi to the party, now can we? After all, his 1931 hit DRACULA practically invented the horror movie as far as ‘talking pictures’ go. Both Bela and director Robert Florey were slated to work on producer Carl Laemmle’s next horror opus FRANKENSTEIN, but Laemmle wasn’t satisfied with their version, handing it over to James Whale, who hired a bit player named Boris Karloff to portray the monster of science, and the rest is history. Lugosi and Florey were instead given MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tale, to bring to screen life. This was the first of Bela’s “mad doctor” role, a part he would essay twelve more times in films of varying quality.

It’s Carnival Night in 1845 Paris, and med student Pierre Dupin takes his girlfriend Camille L’Espanaye to make merry watching exotic belly dancers, “wild” American Indians, and other ‘oddities’. Oddest of all is the grotesque Dr. Mirakle and his ape Erik, “the monster who walks upright… the beast with a human soul”. The sophisticated, imperious Mirakle espouses his theory that  man is descended from apes, leading to cries of “Heresy!” from the gathered masses. Erik seems to take a shine to Camille, grabbing then caressing her bonnet, and gripping Pierre by the throat in a jealous pique. Mirakle apologizes to the mademoiselle, yet sends his henchman Janos to follow her.

Later, Mirakle’s carriage comes across a knife fight by two ruffians over the affections of a prostitute. Both men die on the fog-shrouded, dimly lit waterfront, and the frightened hooker is scurried away by Mirakle, taking her to his hidden lair, where he puts her in bondage on a makeshift tilted cross, determined to make her “the bride of science”, mingling Erik’s blood with her own to see if she’s worthy. Under the microscope, Mirakle screams the prostitute has “rotten blood” (what did he expect?), and she dies on the cross, a martyr to mad science, released through a trap door into the River Seine.

Pierre, besides being a med student, is also an amateur sleuth, and has been investigating the murder of the girl and two other “ladies of the evening”. He discovers a mysterious “foreign substance” in their blood samples, and learns it is ape’s blood. He tracks down Mirakle at the carnival, who answers curtly to Dupin’s questions, telling Pierre he’s about to leave for Munich. Pierre discovers this to be a lie, and follows Mirakle and Janos to an abandoned warehouse down by the docks.

Soon Mirakle comes calling on Camille, only to be rebuffed at the door. Never one to take no for an answer, he sends Erik to kidnap the girl, killing her mother in the process and stuffing her up the chimney. Pierre happens to be in the vicinity, and hearing the screams, he rushes upstairs. The police prefect conducts an inquiry, receiving three different answers from three different witnesses (and an excuse for some ethnic comedy relief). Pierre is exonerated when Madame L’Espanaye is found up the chimney, her hand clutching ape hair, and they race to Mirakle’s secret lair. He’s about to inject Erik’s blood into Camille when the simian escapes his cage and throttles his master to death, scooping up Camille and escaping via the rooftops of Paris, where brave Pierre finally shoots the beast and saves his lady-love from certain doom.

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE has it’s good and bad points. The best is obviously watching Lugosi at the height of his acting prowess, his continental charm not quite masking his unibrowed, demonic countenance. Bela’s startling performance as Dr. Mirakle ranks among his finest film roles, and you’ll be mesmerized once again by his talent as an actor. Karl Freund’s cinematography is a marvel of nourish lighting, accentuating the eeriness of the expressionistic sets. A scene set with Camille on a swing pushed by Pierre, the camera positioned in her lap, is quite innovative, and that aforementioned scene involving the prostitute (who’s played by Arlene Francis, later of TV’s WHAT’S MY LINE? fame) is one of the darkest in early horror cinema, a scene that could only be made during the Pre-Code era, as is much of the material here.

Among the film’s bad points, holding it back from being a true horror classic, are the cloyingly sweet lovers Pierre and Camille. Their romancing is sickeningly sappy to behold, and Sidney Fox (Camille) has such a squeaky voice you wonder what Pierre sees in her. Leon Waycoff was just starting his film career, and quite frankly he isn’t all that good; the actor got better as time went on, after changing his name to Leon Ames . The rest of the cast is hit and miss; Noble Johnson and D’Arcy Corrigan among the hits, Bert Roach, Torbin Meyer, and Herman Bing the misses.

Charlie Gemora once again donned his “gorilla suit” to portray Erik, as he did in countless other films: SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, BLONDE VENUS, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, SWISS MISS, ROAD TO ZANZIBAR, WHITE WITCH DOCTOR. I’ve no complaints about Gemora; however, close-up stock footage of Erik features different species of apes at different times, negating the effect. MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE didn’t do well at the box office, as apparently audiences were turned off by all the talk of evolution and interspecies mating. Florey went on to an interesting career as a ‘B’ auteur, while Lugosi… well, we don’t have to rehash his descent into lower-case pictures again. We all know whatever script he was handed, Bela gave his all for his art. That’s why, 86 years after beguiling the world in DRACULA, Bela Lugosi still reigns supreme in Hollywood’s Horror Valhalla!

Halloween Havoc!: THE DEVIL DOLL (MGM 1936)

Producer/director Tod Browning’s THE DEVIL DOLL is a film reminiscent of his silent efforts with the great Lon Chaney Sr. This bizarre little movie doesn’t get the attention of Browning’s DRACULA or FREAKS ,  and the ending’s a bit on the sappy side, but on the plus side it features Lionel Barrymore dressed in drag for most of the time, some neat early special effects work, and a weird premise based on a novel by science fiction writer A. Merritt, adapted for the screen by Guy Endore, Garrett Ford,  and Erich von Stroheim (!!).

Barrymore stars as Devil’s Island escapee Paul Lavond, and he pretty much carries the picture. Lavond and fellow con Marcel (Henry B. Walthall ) make it to Marcel’s home, where wife Melita (a pop-eyed Rafaela Ottiano) has been keeping the faith on her hubby’s experimental work… turning animals miniature, to solve the coming food shortage and better mankind. But their brains shrink too, and the critters can only act when a human imposes their will on them (by thinking real hard, apparently).

Servant girl Lachna (Grace Wood), an “inbred peasant halfwit”, is next in line for testing, but when things go awry, Marcel dies of a heart attack. Lavond takes this opportunity to travel with Melita and (now) tiny Lachna to Paris, to exact revenge on the three banking partners who framed him for embezzlement and murder. Posing as the elderly dollmaker “Madame Mandilip”, Lavond goes after his crooked former friends, hoping to win back the love and respect of daughter Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan ), who grew up hating her convicted criminal father.

Like Chaney Sr. in Browning’s THE UNHOLY THREE, Barrymore is more than convincing as the old woman, and seems to be having a field day all bundled up in ladies’ garments. His tour de force performance is what makes THE DEVIL DOLL worth watching, as sadly the rest of the cast is lacking. Ottiano overacts as Melita, Frank Lawton is bland as Lorraine’s cabbie beau Toto, Walthall is wasted (and looks terrible; he died a month before the film’s release), and bad guy bankers Robert Greig, Arthur Hohl, and Pedro de Cordoba are stereotype villains. Only O’Sullivan as Barrymore’s daughter and Ford as the shrunken Lachna shine in their supporting roles. Look real quickly for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit by comedian Billy Gilbert as a butler… I’m wondering if he originally had a bigger part that got cut from the movie. Any film fans know the answer to this mystery?

The special effects can best be described as “early Bert I. Gordon“, done with superimposing and rear projection. No doubt cutting edge for their time, they don’t stand up nearly as well as John P. Fulton’s work for Universal or Willis O’Brien’s marvelous KING KONG . THE DEVIL DOLL isn’t on a par with the best horrors of the 30’s, but curious fans of Tod Browning and/or Lionel Barrymore will want to take a look. Browning would make one more film, 1939’s MIRACLES FOR SALE , before retiring. Barrymore continued his thespic career as cranky Dr. Gillespie in the ‘Dr. Kildare’ films, and he’s fondly  remembered for his role as mean Mr. Potter in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Now Henry Potter… that was one really scary dude!

Halloween Havoc!: Tod Browning’s FREAKS (MGM 1932)

Ex-carnival and sideshow performer Tod Browning had combined his love for the macabre and carny life in films before in two silent films with the great Lon Chaney Sr (THE UNHOLY THREE, THE UNKNOWN), but with FREAKS Browning took things to a whole new level. The cast is populated with genuine “abnormalities of nature”, legless and armless wonders, bearded ladies and skeletal men, a crawling human torso and microcephalic pinheads, parading across the screen to shock and frighten the audience. Yet it’s not the “freaks” that are the monsters in this movie, but two specimens of human physical perfection, their healthy bodies hosting malice and murder.

The film opens with a sideshow barker drawing a crowd to a horror hidden in a box, victim of what happens when you dishonor the code of the freaks – “offend one and you offend them all”. A flashback introduces us to the members of this dark carnival, beginning with midget performer Hans, who has an insane crush on big person Cleopatra, a trapeze artist dubbed “the peacock of the air”. Cleo plays along, toying with Hans’s affections and making his fiancé Frieda extremely jealous. Beautiful young Venus, meanwhile, is about to leave her abusive lover, the strongman Hercules, and is taken in by nice-guy clown Phroso.

Hans showers Cleo with gifts, and she soon discovers the dwarf has inherited a fortune. The scheming siren conspires with the strongman to marry Hans and do away with him. “Midgets are not strong”, she tells her musclebound lover. “He could get sick… it could be done”. Browning takes us to the famed ‘Wedding Feast” scene, in which the freaks are partying hardy. A chant begins among them in Cleo’s honor: “Gobba gabba, gobba gabba, we accept her, one of us”, and a goblet of wine is passed around. Cleopatra is appalled by them, and when the goblet is served to her, she unleashes her fury. “Freaks! Freaks! Freaks! Get out of here!” The dejected “living, breathing monstrosities” leave the room as Cleo and Hercules humiliate Hans, perching him atop Cleo’s shoulders and parading around the tent.

Cleopatra is slowly poisoning her new husband, but the freaks are watching from a distance. Always watching, hidden in the dark, underneath the wagons. Watching and waiting. Hans is wise to Cleo’s plot against him, and initiates a plot of his own with the help of his brethren. The circus wagons roll out during a storm, and Hans and his army of freaks confront Cleo. Hercules, trying to silence Venus, fights with Phroso. The freaks go on the attack, creeping and crawling in the darkened storm, and Hercules dies in the muddy road, as the “peacock” runs screaming into the night in the pouring rain, hunted down like an animal. The flashback ends, and the audience is shown the result in that box: Cleopatra has truly become “one of us”!

Browning’s film shocked both audiences and MGM execs, who cut a half hour from the film, then swiftly withdrew it’s release. The negative reactions to FREAKS effectively ruined Browning’s career; he’d make only four more films before retiring in 1939. FREAKS was banned in Britain, and sat unseen until the early 1960’s, when it was rediscovered by midnight movie audiences and rightly heralded as one of the best in the horror genre. Browning never knew his dark vision had been vindicated, having died in 1962.

Of the “big people” in the cast, Leila Hyams and Wallace Ford are sympathetic to the plight of the freaks as Venus and Phroso. Miss Hyams was (and is!) a Pre-Code favorite in films like THE BIG HOUSE, RED HEADED WOMAN, and THE BIG BROADCAST, also appearing in Browning’s first talkie THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR (with Bela Lugosi) and the horror classic ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. I’ve discussed Ford’s career many times; he was one of the most dependable character actors in film. Beautiful Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra) was a silent star whose transition to talking pictures was hampered by her Russian accent; in FREAKS that accent and her exotic good looks serve her well as the villainess. Henry Victor (Hercules) suffered the same fate as Baclanova, though his career was lengthened by WWII, where his German accent came in handy in Nazi roles. His horror credits include THE MUMMY and KING OF THE ZOMBIES . Other “normal” Familiar Faces include Roscoe Ates, Ed Brophy, Rose Dionne, and Matt McHugh.

But it’s the freaks themselves who are the real stars, beginning with Harry Earles as the diminutive Hans, and his sister Daisy playing fiancé Frieda; both were circus performers with extensive movie credits. The rest were recruited straight from sideshows, circuses, and carnivals, each amazing in their own right. Most well known is probably Schlitzie, the microcephalic who served as the model for Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead. She’s joined by two others, Zip and Pip. Prince Randian, the Human Torso, was born without arms or legs, and demonstrates an amazing ability to overcome his handicap. Johnny Eck, the “half-boy” who walks on his hands, is equally amazing. The famed Hilton Sisters, conjoined twins Violet and Daisy, once performed in vaudeville with no less than Bob Hope , and starred in the exploitation film CHAINED FOR LIFE. There’s Josephine Joseph (hermaphrodite), Koo Koo (the bird girl), Olga Roderick (bearded lady), Peter Robinson (human skeleton), Frances O’Connor (armless girl), and Delmo Fritz (sword swallower). Dwarf star Angelo Rossitto , who had a long and successful film career, also appears.

Tod Browning and the cast of “Freaks”

FREAKS will disturb some people even today, mostly those who feel the performers were being exploited by Browning. Yet these men and women took what misfortunes nature had given them and used it to their advantage to earn a living as best they could. We should be grateful Tod Browning gave them a chance to shine on the screen, especially in a movie showing them in a sympathetic light. In the world of the FREAKS, it’s Cleopatra and Hercules that are the true monsters, and their retribution, while horrifying, is justified. Browning’s dark carnival remains a masterpiece of early horror, and perfect for a dark, stormy Halloween night.

Turning Back the Cuckoo Clock with Wheeler & Woosley in THE CUCKOOS (RKO 1930)

We last left the wacky world of Wheeler & Woolsey with a look at the looney HOLD ‘EM JAIL . Today we delve deeper into comedy’s film vault with their 1930 effort THE CUCKOOS, based on the hit Broadway musical by Guy Bolton, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby. The play featured the team of Clark & McCullough, who are even more obscure than W&W to most film fans (they appeared in a series of shorts from 1928-35), but RKO (after the success of 1929’s RIO RITA) put W&W into the film version, hoping the team’s antics would click with Depression Era audiences.

And click they did, leading to an RKO contract and nineteen more features! THE CUCKOOS’ plot concerns romantic entaglements at a plush hotel, with  heiress Ruth (June Clyde) in love with pilot Billy (Hugh Trevor), but pushed toward the oily Baron de Camp (Ivan Lebedeff ) by her rich Aunt Fannie (Jobyna Howland). The boys get in the thick of things as a couple of fraudulent “American fortune tellers”, with Sparrow (Bert) in love with gypsy Anita (W&W’s frequent costar Dorothy Lee). The gypsies, led by burly Julius (Mitchell Lewis), scheme with the Baron to kidnap Ruth, while out to get Sparrow and his pal Professor Cunningham (Bob) because Julius wants the lovely Anita for himself.

The plot takes a backseat to Wheeler & Woolsey’s silly shenanigans, and they dominate the picture with their buffoonery and double entendre laced puns (it is the Pre-Code era, after all!). Some highlights include the nonsense song “Oh, How We Love Our Alma Mater” (complete with silly dance), Woolsey putting Wheeler in a trance (he gets on all fours and barks like a dog), the boys asked to keep their eyes on a forbidden keg of beer at the border (Prohibition, doncha know?) with hilarious results (and the punchline later lifted in a Three Stooges short), being constantly interrupted in their hotel room by a succession of crazies (reminiscent of the old burlesque skit ‘Crazy House’), and Bert in drag enticing the gypsies to his boudoir, only to receive a conk on the noggin from a hidden Bob!

Woolsey gets off some funny one-liners with Jobyna Howland, the team’s version of Margaret Dumont (she appeared in two other W&W films), like this one: Fannie: “Do you think you’ll love me until I die?” Professor: “Well, that depends  on how long you live”. She’s big and bawdy, and makes a perfect match for sarcastic Bob.  Miss Lee, just 19 at the time, was cast a Bert’s love interest in a dozen of their films. She’s cute as a button but no great thespian, though she brings a Ruby Keeler-ish enthusiasm to her roles (personally, I think she’s much prettier than Ruby!). Dorothy and Bert have a charming duet together, “I Love You So Much”, which is reprised by the cast at film’s finale.

THE CUCKOOS is far less static than The Marx Brothers’ early effort THE COCONUTS, although it can be stagey in spots. One thing different from that film is the abrupt switch to two-strip Technicolor for some of the musical numbers, which took me by surprise! W&W’s song “Goodbye” is in this early color process, as is “Dance the Devil Away”, a bizarre little segment with Dorothy and a bevy of beauties gyrating with wild abandon on a Hades-inspired set! The finale gets the Technicolor treatment, as well. Wheeler & Woolsey were on the right track here, and continued to make kooky comedies until Robert Woolsey’s untimely death in 1938. If you haven’t rediscovered them yet, you’re as crazy as they are!