"An Abomination on the Silver Sheet"
In Defence of Tod Browning's Skill as a Director in the Sound Era (including an analysis of the opening of Freaks)
"The opening scenes of Freaks demonstrate a sophisticated use of staging, framing, editing, and camera movement to suture the audience into a complex set of sympathies. It is the work of a director in full control of the medium, able to use the camera to reveal a rich subtext beneath the dialogue."
I would like to look at the widely held critical opinion that Tod Browning was unable to adapt to the coming of sound in the 1930s. It seems to me to be a fallacy that has unfortunately become general wisdom, arising from the necessity (originating in the 1940s, as a result of his falling out of favour with the studios) to denigrate Browning as a director. It was, in other words, a stick used to beat Browning with after the scandal of Freaks, a reason to end his career early when he had become too "risky" to the studios; it subsequently became the adopted position of conservative-minded critics later on when Freaks was revived in the 1960s. Since then it has stuck, tarnishing Browning's reputation as a filmmaker.
Browning began his career as a director in 1917, after working as an actor for D. W. Griffith. At first he made melodramas such as The Virgin of Stamboul
(1920), until producers Carl Laemmle and Irving Thalberg paired him up with Lon Chaney for Outside the Law
(1921). Thereafter he developed a reputation for the macabre, working with Chaney on a number of silent horror films that have become regarded as classics: The Unholy Three
(1925), The Road to Mandalay
(1926), The Unknown
(1927) (which many regard as Browning's best film), and the lost film London After Midnight
Chaney's death coincided with Browning's transition into sound with Dracula (1931) followed by Freaks (1932). In between, he made a boxing picture Iron Man (1932) and, following Freaks, the Depression-era drama Fast Workers (1933). Thereafter Browning's career went into decline: Freaks and Fast Workers were both box-office disasters (none of his subsequent films managed to turn a profit), which forced him to remain within the horror genre with Mark of the Devil (1935) and The Devil Doll (1936) — neither of them bad films but both lacking the social critique of previous films. After Miracles for Sale (1942), he never made another film and felt himself "blackballed" by Hollywood. The studios, for their part, claimed that Browning, like many actors and directors from the silent era, had not been able to make the transition to sound. The critical opinion subsequently grew around this that Browning's silent films are superior to his sound films and that his sound films are, in comparison, somewhat lacking.
These comments made by Ronald V. Borst (in 1973) typify the standard view of Browning's sound period: "Technically, Freaks
is a primitive example of film-making, even by 1932 standards. The camerawork and settings are hardly on the same level as other genre efforts of the day such as Chandu, The Magician, Island of Lost Souls, Bat Whispers
and Mask of Fu Manchu
Even Browning's biographers David J Skal and Elias Savada, writing in 1995, are of the opinion that Browning "had made his fortune as a silent film director but had considerable difficulties in adapting his talents to talking pictures."2
Skal and Savada at least qualify their criticisms, which centre on the stilted vocal performances and "static" staging of Dracula
: "Browning wasn't a stage director and could offer little technical advice in matters of vocal projection and staging."3
Elliot Stein, writing in 1975, is almost alone in disputing the popular view of Browning, that "he could not adapt to sound — his silent were great films, his talkies were not so good."4
For Stein, "this is to turn the truth upside down"5
: "With the exception of The Unholy Three
(1925) , those of Browning's silents available today indicate that much of his earlier work, based on his own stories, in spite of reel after reel of splendid atmosphere and outlandish situations, was plodding, contrived, and repetitive, seriously hampered by narrative flaws. His best talkies are based on stories by other writers; they are far more expertly told than the silents."6
That Browning's first sound films, Dracula
, were hampered by poor vocal performances (by a cast of "amateur" performers in the case of Freaks
, by an actor — Lugosi — who could barely speak English in Dracula
) seems to have been seized upon by the majority of critics as evidence of the director's inability to adapt to sound. However, the contention that Browning's use of the camera is "primitive" and his staging "static" is more serious, and should be contested. (Critics of Browning nowadays often point to the "cinematically superior" Spanish version of Dracula
as evidence of Browning's primitivism. The reputation of the Spanish version seems to me, however, to be entirely based upon a few intermittent visual flourishes: George Melford's film does not display the sustained cinematic sophistication of Freaks
Browning was a director who learned his craft in silent cinema, as did many of the best directors of the era — mastering the grammar of film before sound; and after the introduction of the talkies, the best directors continued to use those same silent techniques, using sound to bring greater realism to the image. Browning has written eloquently on film technique: "The unnecessary subtitle is an abomination upon the face of the silver sheet. The novelist works with words but the director works with expressions. The director does the real writing of his story in the cutting and projection rooms."7
Browning's comment that the "subtitle is an abomination" is similar to Hitchcock's oft-expressed complaint that too many films are "photographs of people talking." Both directors place importance on visual storytelling over reliance on dialogue — the view that a film made almost entirely of dialogue scenes (as many were in the early 1930s), no matter how beautifully photographed, can never be truly cinematic.
Before I look at the opening sequences of Freaks
to demonstrate Browning's mastery of sound cinema, it is necessary to clarify Browning's role in guiding the cinematographer and the editor in the making of this film. Some directors defer more than others to the cameraman – MGM had such expert craftsmen working in all areas of production during this time – and the studio (Thalberg especially) was notoriously intrusive on some of the projects, therefore readers may want to be reassured that Browning actually framed the shots in Freaks
, especially given claims that cinematographer Karl Freund directed Dracula
, or at least sections of it.
I would argue, firstly, that Browning being a producer on Freaks and taking a hand in the scriptwriting (albeit uncredited, as he tended to do) suggests that, along with Thalberg, he was the main creative force on the project from the start.
In Dark Carnival
, their biography of Browning, Skal and Savada mention a comment by Browning's agent, Phil Berg (who represented most of MGM's directors in the late 1920s), that "Browning was unique among directors of the time as he initiated his projects rather than being assigned them by the studio."8
In the case of Freaks
it seems that Thalberg hired Browning to direct, but Browning had, according to Savada, known of the short story, "Spurs," on which Freaks
is based, for years through his friend Harry Earles (who had acted for Browning in The Unholy Three
While Browning helped Thalberg oversee the whole production, there is no evidence that the mogul interfered during shooting once production commenced. Browning was left alone to direct. It also seems that the collaboration between Browning and Freaks
cinematographer Merrit Gerstad was more in keeping with standard practice than Browning's work with Karl Freund (who himself had ambitions to direct, and took advantage of Browning's problems with Universal on Dracula
to direct The Mummy
). Browning had worked with Merrit Gerstad three times previously (on The Unknown, London after Midnight,
and Road to Mandalay
); and again there is no evidence to suggest that Gerstad overstepped the mark in his role as cinematographer the way Karl Freund had. (Standard practice in Hollywood is for the cinematographer to control the lighting while the camera operator works with the director to frame the shots, and this is how Browning appears to have worked with his camera crew on Freaks
Moreover, Browning's control of the editing process, on which he placed obvious importance in terms of his storytelling technique, is reflected in his comment that "the director does the real writing of the story in the cutting and projection rooms"; the editor of Freaks, Basil Wrangell, seems, on evidence of his filmography, to have been a fairly undistinguished "jobbing" editor, and given his distaste for the whole project, which was reflected in the disparaging comments he made about the film afterwards, it's unlikely he functioned as much more than an assembler of the footage Browning shot. In all, given his close involvement in all the facets of production, the guiding hand in the script-to-screen process, including the camera shots and the editing, seems to have been Browning's, and thus the cinematic skill evidenced in the film, I would argue, is attributable mainly to him.
The opening scenes of Freaks demonstrate a sophisticated use of staging, framing, editing, and camera movement to suture the audience into a complex set of sympathies. It is the work of a director in full control of the medium, able to use the camera to reveal a rich subtext beneath the dialogue.
Shot 1: Hercules wrestles the bull as ...
Shot 2: ... Hans and Frieda watch.
Shot 2a: The camera follows Frieda to her pony ...
Shot 2b: ... and Frieda turns to see ...
Shot 3: ... Cleo come through the curtain.
Shot 4: Cleo looks down to see ...
Shot 5: ... Hans gazing at her lustfully.
Shot 6: Shot 6: Cleo reacts with amusement ...
Shot 7: ... and pretends to drop her cape ...
Shot 8: ... as Frieda watches disapprovingly.
The sequence is built almost entirely on looks and gazes, established through a series of shot/reverse shots and matching eye-lines. We see Hans and Frieda peering through a curtain as Hercules wrestles a bull in the circus ring (shots 1 & 2). Immediately Browning establishes a division between the "little people" and the "normals" that is at once social and ideological as well as spatial. The camera follows Frieda through the curtain as she walks toward her miniature pony (into a new geographical space) and glances back over her shoulder to Hans (shots 2a, 2b). We cut to Frieda's point of view as she sees Cleo enter through the curtain, next to Hans (shot 3). The full framing of Hans and Cleo emphasises their differences in height. Hans stares at Cleo, unable to disguise his desire. We cut to a close-up of Cleo, framed from slightly below, subtly emphasising her greater height and power (shot 4). She notices Hans" gaze and the reverse shot of Hans which follows is, interestingly, framed at Hans" level — not from slightly above so as to "balance" the close-up of Cleo — suggesting Browning's reluctance to "look down" upon Hans (shot 5). We then cut back to the close-up of Cleo as she smiles in recognition of the kind of look that Hans is giving her (shot 6). This short sequence of alternating close-ups between Hans and Cleo indicates their social separateness (they're no longer occupying the same frame), and because the point of view in the shot/reverse shot is Cleo's (she is looking down at him to catch his gaze, but he is not looking up to catch hers), the separateness indicates — Browning suggests — how Cleo sees her relationship with Hans, rather than how he sees his relationship with her. At this point we cut back to the full shot of Cleo and Hans as Cleo drops her cape for Hans to retrieve (shot 7). The position of the camera for this shot reminds us that Frieda is observing; Browning then cuts to a shot of Frieda on the miniature pony, and her eye-line confirms that she is watching the scene unfold (shot 8). Now Frieda is the one separated. She occupies a frame on her own, in a different space to Hans and Cleo, while they again occupy a frame (and space) together. We are left unsure at this point in the sequence if a union between Cleo and Hans — between "freaks" and "normals" — is possible and if Frieda (whom we know is engaged to Hans) is to be left out in the cold.
Shot 9: Hans retrieves the cape.
Shot 10: Cleo turns to allow him to place it around her shoulders, knowing he cannot reach.
Shot 11: "Are you laughing at me?"
Shot 12: "Why, no, Monsieur."
Shot 13: "I am a man with feelings."
Shot 14: Cleo kneels down to Hans.
Shot 14a: The camera tracks in as Hans embraces her.
We then cut to Frieda's point of view (the shot/reverse shot thus becomes hers): the full-shot of Cleo and Hans — again the difference in height is apparent (shot 9). Then into the close-up of Cleo as she turns to allow Hans to place the cape around her shoulder — waiting for him to do so and knowing full well that he cannot reach up (shot 10). We cut to the close-up of Hans, and he meets Cleo's gaze for the first time as he asks, "Are you laughing at me?" (shot 11). Browning alternates the close-ups as Cleo feigns innocence, and Hans, rather indignantly, proclaims that he is a man "with normal feelings" (shots 12 & 13). Now, Browning's strategy for framing Hans on his level becomes clear: Hans's plight arouses sympathy in us. We cut to the full-shot of Hans and Cleo one last time (shot 14), and as Cleo gently kneels to allow Hans to return the cape, the camera pushes in to emphasise the moment, the embrace of the "big woman" by "little Hans" (shot 14a).
Shot 15: Frieda turns her nose up at Cleo and her game.
Shot 16: Cleo notices the look ...
Shot 16a: ... and crosses over to Frieda ...
Shot 16b: ... but Frieda ignores her ...
Shot 16c: ... and rides out of frame ...
Shot 17: ... looking back as she goes.
We cut back to Frieda watching — in a slightly tighter close-up than before — and she makes a face in reaction to what she has seen (shot 15). Because we have witnessed the embrace from Frieda's point of view, our perception of it is guided by her response: we immediately doubt Cleo's sincerity. Browning then cuts to a new shot of Cleo and Hans, seen from a slightly different angle (shot 16). Cleo notices Frieda's look and decides to go over to her. The camera tracks with Cleo as she crosses the set in an attempt to enter Frieda's space (shot 16a). But Frieda shuns Cleo and rides her pony out of frame in the direction of the ring (shots 16b, c). We cut to a reverse shot as Cleo stares out of frame at Frieda riding the pony, looking back at Cleo, holding her gaze across the frame (shot 17). Cleo and Frieda have momentarily swapped geographical spaces. Their inability to share the same frame and the same space emphasises their ideological and social differences. They can only occupy different frames, different spaces, connected only by their eye-lines — their jealous gazes.
Shot 18: Cleo turns her attention back to Hans.
Shot 18a: Camera follows her back to Hans.
Shot 18b: "Come see me sometime."
Shot 16c: Hans watches as Cleo exits.
Shot 19: Cleo struts through the circus.
We now cut back to Cleo (from a new camera position) as her gaze moves from the retreating Frieda to Hans (shot 18) — the camera tracks with Cleo back to Hans at the curtain (shot 18a). This crossing to Frieda's space and then back again to Hans is emphatic on Browning's part. An editor might normally consider such a transitional shot as unnecessary and try to remove it. Browning uses it to underline the theme of ideological difference. Cleo kneels to Hans and invites him to "come and see me sometime" (shot 18b). She then exits frame, leaving Hans staring after her (shot 18c). Another director might choose to end the sequence here, but Browning has Hans also exit the shot — but through the curtain. He then cuts to a moving shot from in front of Cleo — "pulling" her — as she struts through the behind-the-scenes area of the circus (shot 19). Here the gaze on Cleo is not Hans's and Frieda's but the viewer's (and by extension, Browning's). It is Browning's authorial view of Cleo, showing her as the preening "peacock" that we suspected her of being.
Immediately on watching this sequence, the economy of Browning's cinematic storytelling becomes apparent: the mobility of his camera; his use of editing techniques emphasising the gazes of the characters — signifying their desires and jealousies. It demonstrates a mastery of film technique representative of all the great directors who learned their craft in silent cinema — Ford, Hitchcock, Dreyer, Bunuel. There is nothing "primitive" in this piece of filmmaking — in Browning's ability to express complex ideological ideas in filmic terms — and there is certainly no comparison between Browning's cinematic technique and that which is on display in the likes of Chandu, The Magician, Island of Lost Souls, Bat Whispers, and Mask of Fu Manchu.
It is an extraordinarily rich sequence in terms of its use of the cinematic gaze and of "suturing" (the technique by which the viewer is drawn inside a scene by virtue of the camera position and editing). The audience is drawn into the perspective both of the "little people," Hans and Freda, and the "big woman," Cleopatra, creating an attraction/repulsion that is palpable. The ideological thrust of the sequence is perfectly expressed cinematically in terms of the editing and the use of camera position and camera movement.
This is sophisticated filmmaking in terms of cinematic technique, and those needing evidence of Browning's skill as a director during the sound era need look no further than this sequence from Freaks.
1. Borst, Ronald V, (1973), "Freaks: Re-evaluating a Screen Classic," in Photon no.23, 1973.
2. Skal, David J, and Savada, Elias (1995), Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Hollywood's Master of the Macabre, New York: Anchor Books, p. 4.
3. Ibid., p. 131.
4. Stein, Elliot, (1980) Tod Browning in Richard Roud, ed. Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (vol. 1), London: Secker and Warburg, p. 160.
7. Quoted in Skal and Savada, p. 140.
8. Ibid., p. 100.
9. http://www.olgabaclanova.com/the_making_of_freaks.htm accessed September 18, 2012.
lives in London, where he writes and teaches. He is author of the forthcoming book Shocks to the System: Subversive Horror Films
(McFarland) and its companion blog
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