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Story by Clarence Aaron ‘Tod’ Robbins Directed by Tod Browning
One cannot deny the utter fascination that comes from all aspects of show business. Tod Browning grew up with such an appeal of performers, having worked within a circus himself at the age of 16. Carrying over his love of abnormalities well into his career, having established quite the reputation alongside forever Legend, Lon Chaney Sr. After working together on Chaney’s last film, The Unholy Three, Harry Earles came to Browning with a story entitled Spurs by Tod Robbins. Proving much darker than what was eventually adapted onto the screen. However it was purchased with the intent of Chaney starring in the film. In fact, the majority of Actors first intended for the movie were either uninterested or simply did not work out in the end.
The short story said to have been entirely much darker and not ending with an otherwise happy ending. Presenting a prologue and epilogue of sorts as a means of explaining what had happened to the once beautiful and leading Trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) in present day. One that Hans (Earles) falls for, incapable of seeing any other beauty around. Including fiance Frieda (Daisy Earles); who while was portrayed as his “lover,” in actuality was Earles sister. Hence the lack of actual contact that the two had with one another. At first glance it would appear Cleo had kind eyes for Hans, though quickly learn of him having dispensed money, explaining the continued interest. For when animal trainer Venus (Leila Hyams) finally gets the courage to leave strong man Hercules (Henry Victor), it seems he falls for the next woman willing to share her money with him. Blatantly leading on Hans as she parades around the fact that secretly, she was laughing behind his back the entirety of the time. All the while Frieda’s heart breaking as she cannot bear the attention being pulled away from her onto someone so undeserving and only interested in his money.
In an attempt to talk some sense into Cleo, Frieda goes to her dressing room to discuss the inheritance Hans had surely discussed with her. When in fact such had not been the case. Though gets the idea to marry Hans and slowly poison him with Ptomaine, planning to run off with Hercules in the end. Which was how the short story unfolded. The turning point coming on the night of the wedding as everyone celebrated amongst each other. In the midst of toasting the couple, stating how they would make Cleo one of them. Something she doesn’t take lightly and proceeds to embarrass Hans, though making herself the bigger fool in the end for such a display. A week passing by and his symptoms forcing him into bed rest as the medicine doesn’t seem to helping any, the majority of people well aware of her intentions and watching steadily; biding their time. Venus even tries to warn Hercules of going to the Police before she did to his solution of shutting her up permanently while breaking into her trailer on a rather stormy night. Escaping only due to her new suitor Phroso (Wallace Ford) coming to her rescue. The twist being that Hans had been made aware of the slight poisoning going on and while intended things to end differently, was surrounded by people who only wanted to protect him.
The reason for the film even coming about being that while other studios had begun releasing Horror movies, this was MGM’s chance to finally do the same. The complete chaos following being something that shocked audiences and gained a banned notoriety throughout the world. Of course, a difference of eighty years may not only have the film seem less theatric or more tolerable in that most would be hard pressed to find things they still found shocking. However, it was a landmark in that it showed a facet of society and behind the curtain aspect that most simply overlooked due to just cause. While audiences had their reactions, the fact remains that this life existed whether they chose to acknowledge such or not. Believing it to be made more personal due to the fact of Browning having had that first hand experience of the life. But these, freaks (as called), are just as real as yourself with their own lives and emotions that often get overlooked. Which is something that should be blamed on the ignorance of others and not ostracized due to a lack of understanding what you choose not to even comprehend. Was it anymore right for them to have their revenge in the end? No, but they were taking care of each other and choose to force a truth where it seemed such would not be possible. The original ending having perhaps a better visual but leaving that to the imagination fairing just as well in the end.
Though the original intention of Actors fell through and several that were in the film later regretted the look they believed was created, was such a gripping movie to watch. Even by today’s standards, that simply can’t be denied. While work never seemed a problem for anyone involved, the fact remained that never again will there be another approach to a film with this same concept. There are several side stories displaying a bit of each Actor that were also incredible to see in their own light and how everyday life was for them. But with “thanks” to CGI and great make-up artists, the lack of compassion that could be streamed from such real people is replaced with big named Actors and scripts that don’t necessarily show who the real monsters are; aristocracy.