For Reel


Miracles for Sale (1939)
August 6, 2015, 2:05 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Tod Browning
4 Stars
Miracles for SaleThe debacle that followed the release of Freaks in 1932–in addition to the stricter censorship mandates in Hollywood following 1934–must have put director Tod Browning on watch at MGM. Usually a studio associated with gloss and glamour, Browning’s dealings with the occult and the otherwise macabre threatened both the studio’s raison d’être and the Catholic standards imposed by Joseph Breen’s Production Code Administration. Regardless, Browning was more than able to have his cake and eat it too with Miracles for Sale, reveling in images of corpses in pentagrams and spiritual encounters under the protection of a narrative that deals with illusions. Although the centerpiece seance scene, a remarkable feat of editing (using rapid-fire cuts between reaction shots and an oppressive silence), is later revealed to be staged, the caveat is almost an afterthought, delivered off-handedly in a few lines of dialogue. Now, Browning is brilliantly able to continue his exploration of the morbid as long as it’s followed by the sentiment, “not really.” Miracles for Sale would tragically be Browning’s last film, spending his remaining years as a reclusive widower who would die from throat cancer (as did his friend, Lon Chaney) in 1962.

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Freaks (1932)
July 18, 2012, 2:29 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Tod Browning

Surely one of the most unlikely projects ever commissioned by MGM production head Irving Thalberg, Freaks is famed for its casting of real sideshow workers in major roles. Though the chilling climax – in which the freaks violently pursue the two treacherous lovers who sought to exploit a little person – has become iconic as a macabre slasher prototype, it is uncharacteristic of the rest of the picture, which is often quite warm-hearted, playing up the affection that the performers have for one another. In fact, few films have ever rendered the presumed “monsters” so compassionately (ignoring the tonal misjudgment of the third act). The acting often leaves something to be desired, with The Unholy Three star Harry Earles and his sister Daisy (playing his fiancee) not particularly suited for their extended dramatic parts. Regardless, it is admirable that Tod Browning wisely evades shameless exploitation – although the disabilities are certainly played up during each character’s introduction, they later become an after-thought, or, in the case of Prince Randian (“The Human Torso”), depicted as unexpectedly high-functioning.