Saturday, February 23, 2008

23rd June 2007: "One Of Us, One Of Us" triple!


USA 1932 b&w

aka Forbidden Love, Nature's Mistakes, The Monster Show

Director Tod Browning Writer Clarence Aaron 'Tod' Robbins

Cast Wallace Ford (Phroso), Leila Hyams (Venus), Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra), Roscoe Ates (Roscoe)

Tod Browning, flushed with success from his 1931 horror smash Dracula, returned in 1932 with a film that was not a horror film but was certainly horrifying. Freaks is a story of love and revenge set in a circus and populated with real so-called freaks. Amongst the cast are dwarves, a half-man-half-woman, Siamese Twins the Hilton Sisters (more on them later), a trio of “pinheads” whose grotesque innocence inspired a Ramones song, and Radian the Human Torso - like a blood sausage with teeth - who call roll a cigarette with his lips.

Central to the story of Freaks is a husband-and-wife pair of German midgets, Hans and Freida. Hans spies the voluptuous trapeze artisy named Cleo and announces in front of his wife, “She’s the most beautiful BIG woman I’ve ever seen!” Hans is, let’s say, a little insecure about his size, and, beating his tiny chest and sounding like the old blues song “I’m a Man” played at 45 instead of 33, declares his undying love for Cleo. She plays with his affections, but it seems she is only after his inheritance and she continues an open affair with the strongman. His wife pleads with him to return to her, to no avail; at the fateful wedding banquet all is revealed when a drunken Cleo starts screaming “You’re all FREAKS!”

By this moment you’re already inhabiting their claustrophobic, hermetically sealed universe ruled by a strict code about dealing with intruders. The phrase “one of us” is repeated often enough as a creepy mantra that signals the film’s barbaric ending; the sight of the Human Torso crawling underneath a caravan with a knife between his teeth is the stuff of nightmares. If there’s a message, it’s this: circus freaks are people too, and due to their extreme condition they experience jealousy, infidelity, betrayal, humiliation and retribution in their most extreme manifestations. Either that or circus folk are inherently evil - particularly those no bigger than a postage stamp.

Jarring, creaky and yet always mesmerizing and at times heartbreaking, a film that almost sank Tod Browning’s career and was banned in England until the 1960s - if you’re truly one of us here at Schlock Treatment you’ll know what I mean when I say “gooble gobble” and introduce our kind of people: Freaks.

The Terror Of Tiny Town

USA 1938 b&w

Director Sam Newfield Writer Fred Myton

Cast Billy Curtis (Buck Lawson), Yvonne Moray (Nancy Preston), 'Little Billy' Rhodes (Bat Haines) Billy Platt (Jim 'Tex' Preston)

Here’s one you’ve probably only ever heard whispered outside mixed company or read about in the Fifty Worst Movies Of All Time. The Terror Of Tiny Town is like a typical white hats versus black hats B-western of the 1930s, but entirely populated with midgets. All under four feet, and riding tall in the saddle on Shetland Ponies no less. And it’s a musical. Are you still with me?

The Preston and Lawson ranches are a feudin’ and a fussin’, and it takes hero in a white hat Billy Curtis to point the finger at villain-in-black played by Little Billy. Seriously, the plot in The Terror Of Tiny Town pales into insignificance next to the sheer chutzpah of mounting such a novelty production. There’s even a Song Of The South-era negro manservant - no political correctness here at Schlock Treatment - and Nita Krebs the seductive saloon singer who pleads to be loved by everyone in the room, even though she looks like she’s 8. If I was aghast, you probably will be too.

There’s two positives in this film: it only runs for an hour and barely outstays its welcome, and secondly, I love movies with midgets in them. This is no secret. But an entire movie where our little helium-voiced varmints drink beer, strut around in cowboy hats and shoot each other? Like a monkey smoking a cigar, it doesn’t get much funnier than this. I may be forced to eat those words one day, but I will almost certainly have a two-foot-nine army of darkness to defend me. Lsdies and gentlemen, boys and girls, midges and midgettes, please lower your seats a good two feet to get into the right headspace for what could be the only all-midget musical western in history, the 1938 Terror Of Tiny Town.

Chained For Life

USA 1951 b&w

Director Harry L. Fraser Writer Nat Tanchuck

Cast Violet Hilton (Vivian Hamilton), Daisy Hilton (Dorothy Hamilton), Mario Laval (Andre Pariseau), Allen Jenkins (Hinkley)

And now to the tale of the original Hilton Sisters, Violet and Daisy, who despite being conjoined at the back, managed to lead quite scandalous lives. Born to a barmaid in 1908 and raised by the midwife who delivered them, the Hiltons were dragged around the sideshow circuit, and were paid very little if at all for having their uniqueness exploited. Within a year of divorcing themselves from their surrogate mother, the Hiltons landed a prominent part (or parts) in the 1932 film Freaks, and from then on stayed more or less in the public eye. From Violet’s very public sham marriage at the Dallas Cotton Bowl in 1936, to learning hypnosis from Harry Houdini so they could pretend to be alone, and to a Broadway musical called Sideshow, the Siamese Twins managed to pack more into their troubled years than most oakies wouldn’t dream of. Amazingly they lived to the ripe age of 60, though sadly by then in poverty and complete obscurity; their bodies were discovered in their apartment after not showing up for work.

Chained For Life from 1951 is yet another shabby attempt to exploit their “otherness”. Taking elements from their vaudeville careers and private affairs, this poverty row production cobbles together the story of the Hamilton sisters, freakshow stage performers who plan a mock marriage to help along their careers. Stage sharpshooter Andre is picked for Daisy, who at one point imagines herself free and unfettered from the confines of her sister - a poignant moment and tastefully done, I might add. Andre, it seems, is an unrepentant gigolo and unbenownst to Daisy, sister Violet takes it upon herself to teach him a lesson. With a smoking pistol. On trial for murder, the moral dilemma is this: by sentencing Violet, you condemn the innocent Daisy.

And thus signals an endless series of courtroom palava sandwiched between vaudeville nonsense and the one-dimensional performance of the Hiltons, nice singing voices aside. It seems the freak shows were long gone, but cinematic freak shows will never die, if the careers of Anna Nicole Smith and Winona Ryder are any indication. Still, Chained For Life is a compulsively awful viewing experience, and its multi-layered exploitative approach only heightens its sleaziness. Time to peer into the damaged existence of the first Hilton human car-wreck combos, with the 1951 Chained For Life.

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