Is it really a B-movie if they screen it in an art house?
The cultured-yet-depraved folks at Trash Film Debauchery—sort of the Garbage Pale Kids of film scholarship—continue their experiment in highbrow reexamination of low-brow schlock, taking head-long plunges into the bargain bin in the hopes of dusting off a misunderstood classic. This week, they may have found their Holy Grail. A prime specimen of high meets low. A true mutant of taste.
It’s a 1932 film about sideshow freaks, produced by the most regal and artistically celebrated film studio in the land: MGM.
That’s right, MGM. Home to Clark Gable and Greta Garbo. Just a few years later, they’d be orchestrating adaptions of literary classics like David Copperfield and Romeo and Juliet. But in 1932, it was a quick trip to carnie land. And to confound judgments even further, the goal wasn’t shock-mongering. Director Tod Browning had been a member of a traveling circus in his youth and aimed to create a humanizing portrait of the physically deformed people who worked the sideshows. The plot involved a gorgeous but duplicitous trapeze artist, Cleopatra, who seduces a midget to get at his inheritance. The idea was that the full-grown woman would be the monster. The “freaks” would be the do-gooders. Browning further stoked sympathy for the sideshow by casting actual sideshow performers in the lead roles.
Still, The Elephant Man it wasn’t.
The travails of the film’s production are legendary—an early version contained a castration scene, and at a test screening, a pregnant woman was so upset that she threatened to sue the studio for causing her to miscarry—and the final product is said to have differed widely from Browning’s vision. But the slice-of-life shots captured the prosaic verisimilitudes of life in the circus. In 1994, Freaks was selected for preservation in the United States Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Worth another look? The Trash Film Debauchery people have a well-honed nose for sweet stinkers. (And, by the way, Freaks kicks off an entire season of TFD programming dedicated to dwarves.) This could be the best bad taste you experience all year.
Wednesday, September 25
Trylon Microcinema, 3258 Minnehaha Ave. S., Mpls.