Tod Browning’s magnum opus drew on his own experience working in the circus as well as his years of collaboration with silent star Lon Chaney on what some critics have termed “disability dramas,” films like The Unholy Three (1925) and The Unknown (1927) about characters dealing with disabilities. That allowed him to present this firsthand look at the daily lives of sideshow performers that made them seem endearingly sympathetic. He gradually twists the audience’s perceptions as the tight-knit community turns on an outsider, the beautiful Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), who marries and plots to kill little person Hans (Harry Earles). MGM production head Irving G. Thalberg only green-lighted the film when Browning agreed to humanize the characters, which he certainly did. The later, horrifying sequences were so intense the film was banned outright in some states and ultimately lost money. Its power is undeniable and helped it achieve cult status through an acclaimed revival at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival and midnight screenings in the ’60s and ’70s.
Dir. Tod Browning
In attendance: Dana Gould