Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers

by Charlie Largent Oct 31, 2023

Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers
1925, 1927, 1932 / 70, 66, 64 Min. / 1.33.1
Starring Aileen Pringle, Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, Wallace Ford
Written by Tod Browning, Waldemar Young, Willis Goldbeck
Photographed by Ira H. Morgan, Merritt B. Gerstad
Directed by Tod Browning

1931’s Dracula remains Tod Browning’s most enduring film but it’s often been maligned for its leisurely pacing and stage-bound theatricality. Even fans who accept those factors as part of Dracula‘s power—the movie can put a willing audience into an exquisitely morbid dream state—may be surprised by Browning’s other work, particularly the films set in the world of circus performers.

A former carnival barker himself, Browning enjoyed disturbing the peace, and there’s an anarchic, near-lawless vitality to those big-top melodramas that can’t be denied—as if to prove that point, Criterion has brought together three of those tent-show attractions in one Blu ray set, Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers. The title is no carny come-on, these movies—two of them defiantly pre-code—contain some of the most perversely conceived moments in the history of cinema.

Written by Waldemar Young and Browning, The Mystic stars Aileen Pringle as Zara, a sideshow performer who dazzles crowds with her come-hither charm and quick-change skills. Zara’s allies, the promoter Zazarack, and Anton, the wizard behind the curtain, seem content with their simple life but they’re being closely watched, not by the law but a con artist named Michael Nash who sees a profit in their peculiar talents.

Nash engineers a trip to New York where he plays Pygmalion to Zara’s Galatea, introducing her as a mysterious “mystic” to New York’s richest socialites. But this phony medium is most successful at picking people’s pockets—soon Zara is dressed in gowns by the art deco designer Erté and hobnobbing with the glitterati, debutantes like Doris Merrick, a rich—and beautiful—heiress. Though Nash has transformed the bawdy Zara into the belle of the ball, he’s also awakened a green-eyed monster; “If you love me, prove it by robbing her of everything she’s got!”

The Mystic has an unusually happy ending for a silent melodrama, especially one from Browning, but its feel-good denoument didn’t convince the audience (screenwriter Young wrote the ghoulish Island of Lost Souls but he also penned W.C. Fields’ maudlin Poppy). The Mystic performed poorly at the box office and that failure may have inspired the director to play to his strengths; his own sadism and his favorite star’s masochism.

1927’s The Unknown could be seen as a particularly depraved sick joke but thanks to Lon Chaney’s impassioned performance, the grisly horror becomes operatic. Chaney plays Alonzo, a tent-show knife-thrower who uses his feet instead of his hands—supposedly because he has none. In fact Alonzo keeps his arms bound under his garments for two reasons, an odd disfigurement that would alert the law to his real identity, and Estrellita, the woman he loves, can’t stand to be touched—especially by a man. When Chaney screams “There is nothing I will not do to own her!”, you’d better believe him.

Joan Crawford was just 18 at the time and her work as the conflicted Estrellita is graceful and heartbreaking. Chaney is extraordinary, his obsession is terrifying and his fate even worse—his agonized reaction to that moment of truth is more frightening than his unmasked Phantom. Dracula, made two years later, seems like a parlor game in the light of The Unknown and after making the vampire classic, Browning took a deep breath and went back to doing what he did best, disturbing the peace.

Freaks is the story of circus performers whose physical otherness has made them outcasts but united them as a family—the circus  has given them a home, and for the most part it’s a happy one. If they’re refused acceptance in the society outside they’ll build one of their own under the big top—their rallying cry is “One of us!” It’s a world where nature has taken the road less traveled and brought forth miracles of human determination and an indomitable spirit, men and women who have learned to laugh at the Cosmic Joke.

Daisy and Violet are sisters, so-called Siamese twins who are joined at the hip and share a near metaphysical kinship—when Daisy is kissed, Violet is the one who swoons. Johnny Eck’s body stops at his waistline, he walks the earth on his hands. Even more extraordinary in his agility is Prince Randian, the limbless “Living Torso.” Jenny Lee Snow and Elvira Snow are Zip and Pip, cruelly labeled as “pinheads.” They’re two of the sweetest characters in movies, their childlike wonder may be the result of their circumstances but it’s real. For the most part, these people seem comfortable in their own skin—but at least one of these entertainers isn’t so happy with his lot in life.

His name is Hans, a little person with money in the bank and a loving fiancé. He’s also quick to retaliate for any perceived insults, a lethal combination of inflated ego and self-loathing. His perennially aggrieved state makes him an easy target for a gold-digger like Cleopatra, the statuesque trapeze artist played by Olga Baclanova who trades her kisses for favors. When she finds out that Hans is in line for an inheritance, she’s willing to trade more than that.

There are those in the sideshow who dare to give Hans friendly warnings, like Phroso, the clown played by Wallace Ford, and his warm-hearted girlfriend Venus, played by Leila Hyams. Venus has just broken up with Hercules, the show’s strongman, an ogre with an attitude to match; now he can be found most evenings in Cleopatra’s wagon where they’re plotting Hans’s fate; marriage first, then murder.

Freaks paints a warts and all picture of circus life. It’s also an unflinching portrait of its director. Browning’s methods are both compassionate and cruel, showing Johnny Eck and Prince Randian at their very best, yet the director is able to turn on a dime and conjure up a horror show using his friends as the monsters.

When Eck, Randian, and the others take their revenge on Cleopatra, it is extraordinarily brutal and… freakish. In no way would anyone describe Cleopatra’s fate as “just deserts.” Part of the audience’s stunned reaction is not just the incomprehensible violence and nightmarish imagery, it’s the mixed message the director has decided to send—is he saying “Look, even the best of us can be monsters”, or something worse?

Criterion’s Browning collection is a fine presentation of a singular artist’s work. The newly restored movies are the main attractions but as usual the company has included a good assortment of worthy extras including the new restoration for The Unknown with a new score by composer Philip Carli, and an upgrade for The Mystic, with a new score by composer Dean Hurley. David J. Skal, author of the essential Browning biography, 1995’s  Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, provides new audio commentaries for Freaks and The Unknown and a video introduction to The Mystic.

There’s a new interview with author Megan Abbott about Browning and pre-Code horror, and an archival documentary from TCM about Freaks. Wrapping the packages are excerpts from Kristen Lopez’s podcast, Ticklish Business, and the prologue to Freaks added in 1947 by exploitation vulture Dwain Esper.

Inside the box is an excellent essay from film critic Farran Smith Nehme with an eloquent overview of Browning’s life and films. The box cover itself features splendid new art from Raphael Geroni.

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[…] years before. MGM’s horror talent Tod Browning had crashed and burned with the shocking Freaks, made in a pre-Code year when even Paramount was toying with extreme and transgressive horror […]


A wonderful package, but I wish they’d included THE SHOW and made it an even four.


Can you give us more info on the restorations? I can guess that there was no way to make them look at good as the “2001” remastering, but I’m curious as to how clean they are.


Always love your column and the reviews!


[…] No, we’re not going to load down a 90 year-old classic with PC sermonizing. Native Americans were frequently afforded respect in Hollywood adventures, a gesture seldom offered to characters of African descent. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ popular Dark Continent fantasy treats Africa as a colonial domain where white men represent everything civilized. In the early MGM Tarzans, black natives might as well be wildlife — they’re either terrified safari porters or bizarre distortions of white prejudices. MGM hired dozens of dwarves to represent African pygmies. Covered in black body paint, they’re more grotesque than the sideshow denizens of Tod Browning’s Freaks. […]

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