FREAKS (1932) – Aren’t we all freaks in some way?


The following is my entry in The Disability in Film Blogathon, being hosted May 13-15, 2016 by Robin at the blog Pop Culture Reverie. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ critiques of movies depicting a wide variety of persons living with disabilities!


In light of Freaks being a horror movie (Tod Browning also directed the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula), it’s most ironic that it treats sideshow attractions as real people. In fact, in this film, the people who treat these carnival workers as “freaks” aren’t very normal themselves — which is the point of much of this movie.


The movie primarily concerns Hans, a midget who succumbs to the flattery and charm of Cleopatra, the carnival’s local beauty, despite Hans’s being loved and accepted by the carnival’s informal family of “freaks,” most of all by Frieda, a fellow short person. The movie takes great pains to show this informal family of carnival workers most matter-of-factly. The movie’s “Everyperson” couple of Phroso and Venus interacts with the group’s Siamese twins, a man lacking arms and legs, etc., and the movie does nothing to draw great attention to these workers after their initial screen appearances.

But in spite of lacking physical normalities, these people are anything but helpless. When Cleopatra and her strong-man lover Hercules take great pains to humiliate Hans and (by extension) the rest of his extended family, they exact a most complete and utter revenge.

It is at this point that the movie, having admirably shown the “freaks” as human beings, does indeed exploit their deformities for maximum impact. And yet, the “freaks” seem quite happy to cooperate in such exploitation, probably because it shows them as both empowered and empowering. In short, the film’s message is: Just because we’re different, don’t assume we’re weaklings. In their own way, the “freaks” can kick behind with the best of cinema’s he-men.

It’s probably this very message that has caused the movie’s ongoing controversy. M-G-M released the movie in 1932 and then did its best to disavow the whole thing. And it was banned in Britain for over 30 years.

But in a movie era where no oddity is considered too sacred for either a quick laugh or massive condescension (see the Farrelly Bros. filmography), this movie is worth a second look. We’re all freaks in one sense or other, and perhaps if we more often looked inward, a little less hostility might directed outward.

A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932) – Katharine Hepburn’s film debut


The following is my entry in the 3rd Annual Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, being hosted May 12-14, 2016 by the blogger who is surely the biggest KH fan on the planet, Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ insights into the movies and life of this legendary actress!


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

A Bill of Divorcement always seems right on the verge of collapsing into sudsy soap opera. But the movie is always pulled back from the precipice by the sterling acting of John Barrymore and, in her sizzling film debut, Katharine Hepburn.

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The movie is based on a British stage play that was written as (to quote Wikipedia) “a reaction to a law passed in Britain in the early 1920’s that allowed insanity as grounds for a woman divorcing her husband.” In the case of this play-turned-movie, the unlucky fellow is Hilary (Barrymore), who has been committed to an asylum for the past 15 years after experiencing shell shock in World War I.

Hilary’s wife Meg (Billie Burke), having given up hope of Hilary regaining sanity, has taken up with Gray (Paul Cavanagh), had herself divorced from Hilary, and is now due to marry Gray on New Year’s Day. Meanwhile, Hilary and Meg’s daughter Sydney (Hepburn) is madly in love with Kit (David Manners), and as the story begins on Christmas Eve, Kit proposes to Sydney, who happily accepts.

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But darned if old Hilary doesn’t get better again, come home, and ruin everybody’s Christmas.

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First of all, Meg is beside herself and doesn’t begin to know how she’ll tell the truth to Hilary, who has not received the warm welcome home that he’d expected from his spouse. (Truth to tell, Meg’s dithering isn’t made easier to take by the fluttery Billie Burke, who is easily the weakest cast member here. And hindsight doesn’t help either, knowing you’re watching the future Wizard of Oz’s Good Witch of the North trying to portray a cuckolding wife.)

Secondly, Hilary’s return causes Sydney’s aunt Hester (Elizabeth Patterson) to reveal to Sydney that it was a bit more than just shell shock that brought her daddy down; in fact, both Hilary and another family member had mental problems, so it’s possible that insanity runs in their family. This just might interfere with Kit’s plan to have Sydney birth a few dozen kids.

Other than Burke, the movie’s major debit is director George Cukor’s penchant for TV-style close-ups (20 years before TV became popular) of actors giving overly long speeches. Given all of this, you’d think you’d be laughing this movie off the screen. But we’d be forgetting that intangible element called “star power,” and Barrymore and Hepburn have it here in spades.

From his first entrance, Barrymore is thoroughly believable as a man who has just escaped after nearly two decades in an asylum. The sentence seems to have worn down his physical being. Barrymore walks through the entire movie resigned, with slumped shoulders, as though the memory of the asylum was a weight pressing down on him.

And Hepburn is simply dynamic. Sydney doesn’t make a point of telling us what a carefree, independent spirit she is; she simply is — is a force of nature — and it makes the sadness that occurs later in the movie that much more heartbreaking. It’s easy to see how Hepburn’s performance must have captured moviegoers’ attention and imagination.

Some movies go straight past the rational side of your brain and hit that primal spot where you’re still willing to respond to unabashed emotion — and when that response is earned, it’s a gratifying time at the movies. That’s what A Bill of Divorcement is.


#SatMat Live Tweet movie for Sat., May 14: I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE (1958)


Y’know, there are two ways of looking at I Married a Monster from Outer Space.

One of them is the way that it was obviously intended to be looked at — as the story of young newlywed Marge (Gloria Talbott), who can’t fathom the extreme personality change that occurred in her husband Bill (Tom Tryon) the moment they got married. Bill completely lost all affection for Marge and for his own pet dogs, whom he previously adored. (Needless to say, the movie’s title gives you a clue as to wherein the problem lies.)

Of course, if you’re a cynical male (especially a cynical male newlywed), the other way to look at the movie is: Sheesh, she fell in love with me because I was so different from everyone else she’d dated, and now she criticizes everything I do. I can’t please this woman to save my life! To hear her tell it, you’d think I’d been invaded by an alien life form or something!

Whichever point of view you take, join us this Saturday at at 4:30 p.m. EDT for a movie that makes you realize that even the worst day of your own marriage isn’t quite so bad as you’d thought.


Albert Brooks in MOTHER (1997) – A mother’s job is never done


In the comedies he has written and directed, Albert Brooks has tended to play anti-heroes who are so obsessed with being politically correct and “doing the right thing” that it never occurs to them how obnoxious they are. (In Brooks’ Real Life [1979], he played a documentary filmmaker who nearly drove his subjects to nervous breakdowns.) But in Mother, Brooks has made a noble effort to meet his audience more than halfway, and he’s definitely worth the trouble.

Brooks plays John Henderson, a science-fiction writer who begins the movie in the middle of arranging his second divorce. (Trying to look at the bright side, John says of his ex, “She brought great furniture to the marriage.”) Doing some navel-gazing, John concludes that his problems with women stem from unresolved issues with his mother (Debbie Reynolds, in a welcome return to the movies). So he informs his mother that he wants to move back in with her as an “experiment.” The experimental situation includes returning his old room to its 1970’s splendor, complete with tacky posters and a stereo blasting at all hours of the night.

John’s mother has been widowed and on her own for many years, and she doesn’t take kindly to the thought of re-raising her son. But she gives as good as she gets, feeding John old food from her freezer (the freezer burn, she reasons, is a “protective coating”), and informing total strangers of John’s failures with women. Adding to the mix is John’s brother (Rob Morrow of TV’s “Northern Exposure”), who thinks Mom likes him better but is in for a few surprises.

Jackie Gleason used to say that he did a “nudge act” — you could watch blustery Ralph Kramden, nudge your partner, and say, “That’s my Uncle Charlie.” I haven’t known anyone who’s seen Mother who didn’t nudge me or anyone nearby and recognize themselves in the movie’s relationships. The scene where John returns home is nothing but a prolonged take of John and his mother eating and squabbling in the kitchen, and it’s probably the funniest piece of film that was shown in any theater in 1997.

I hope I haven’t made Mother sound like a dark, brooding comedy or a sappy sitcom about a grown-up kid and his mom. It’s the most intelligent sort of comedy — the kind that goes for truth instead of snappy one-liners. All of the performances are believable and some kind of wonderful, and Brooks’ screenplay (co-written with his long-time partner, Monica Johnson) proves that Brooks continues to be an underappreciated national treasure.

HOT AND BOTHERED – The films of 1932 Blogathon

Another hot blogathon to join!

Once upon a screen...

When I posted the 4th anniversary celebratory post on this blog in November I made it a point to say I was swearing off blogathons in 2016.  So, in keeping true to my word I’m announcing the third concurrent blogging event I’m co-hosting.  You see, when writers and bloggers and fellow fans whose work and words I admire reach out to me I simply can’t say no as is the case here.  Theresa Brown, blogger at CineMaven’s Essays From the Couch and a celebrity in our circles invited me to co-host a blogathon with her several months ago, but when she recently mentioned the intended topic, The films of 1932, I simply couldn’t resist and imagine you won’t be able to either.


Hot and Bothered is the order of the day and debauchery the sin of choice so turn on your fans and join us for this titillating event!

Given not…

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