Not for the Kiddies

Over the years Tod Browning’s 1932 pre-code film Freaks has been called everything from grotesque and exploitive to sympathetic and compassionate. Now a cult classic, the film’s closing scenes are regarded by some critics as among the most terrifying ever put to film.

July 16, 1932 cover by Rea Irvin.

What disturbed so many about Freaks was Browning’s use of actual sideshow performers with real disabilities to tell the story of a conniving trapeze artist who plots to seduce and then kill a dwarf performer to gain his inheritance. The film was not well-received by audiences and many critics. The Kansas City Star’s John Moffitt wrote, “There is no excuse for this picture. It took a weak mind to produce it and it takes a strong stomach to look at it.” However, the New Yorker’s John Mosher, along several other New York critics, gave the film a rather favorable review:

ONE OF US…Although audiences and critics found Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks grotesque and exploitive, today many regard the film as a rare (for its time), sympathetic portrayal of persons with disabilities. Clockwise, from top left, Browning with some of the members of his Freaks cast; French-American actress Rose Dione portrayed Madame Tetrallini, operator of the sideshow; Daisy and Violet Hilton with actor Wallace Ford in a scene from Freaks. Born fused at the pelvis, the sisters were joined at their hips and buttocks and shared blood circulation; limbless sideshow performer Prince Randian, who wore a one-piece wool garment over his body, appeared in the film as “The Living Torso.” (IMDB)
IT HAD A PLOT, ACTUALLY…Freaks told the story of a conniving trapeze artist named Cleopatra (portrayed by Russian actress Olga Baclanova, bottom right) who plots to seduce and then kill a dwarf performer, Hans (portrayed by Harry Earles) to gain his inheritance. Top photo: assembled “freaks” chant their acceptance of Cleopatra at the wedding feast of Hans and Cleopatra; bottom left, the kind-hearted seal trainer Venus (portrayed by Leila Hyams) consoles Frieda (Daisy Earles), who worries about Hans (Daisy and Harry Earles were members of a famous quartet of sibling entertainers known as The Doll Family. The quartet also appeared as members of The Munchkins in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.)(IMDB)
SURPRISE…Leila Hyams (1905 – 1977) was something of a surprising presence in the controversial film Freaks, given that she was a popular leading lady in the 1920s and 30s. Known for both her comedic and dramatic talents, she retired from films in 1936; another unlikely cast member was Henry Victor (1892 – 1945) whose physique didn’t necessarily support his role as circus strongman. (dangerousminds.net)
TRUE GRIT…Perhaps only a Russian actress in 1932 had the grit to transform herself from an exotic blonde temptress to a grotesque “human duck” for the movie Freaks. In the film, Olga Baclanova (1893 – 1974) portrayed a conniving trapeze artist named Cleopatra. Near the end of film the “freaks” capture Cleopatra, gouge out her right eye, remove her legs and tongue and melt her hands to look like duck feet. For critics and audiences, the horror was just too much. As for Baclanova — who was a popular silent film actress known as the “Russian Tigress” — her heavy accent did not translate well to talking films, and she left the movie business altogether in 1943. (muni.com/IMDB)

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Tennis Anyone?

Helen Moody was the top women’s singles tennis player for nearly a decade in the 1920s and 30s, winning Wimbledon eight times, including a match in 1932 against her rival Helen Jacobs. However to sportswriter John Tunis, the women had reached such a level in their play that it had become robotic and tedious to watch. At least James Thurber livened things up with some keen illustrations.

RACKETEERS…Helen Jacobs (left) and Helen Moody (right, in a 1929 photo) were tennis rivals known for their explosive matches. Except, apparently, for the one attended at Wimbeldon in 1932 by John Tunis. (nickelinthemachine.com)

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From Our Advertisers

Sensing that the end of Prohibition was near, the makers of Budweiser reminded readers of the good ol’ days of beer drinking and such…

…if you could afford something better than beer, then you might have contemplated a trip on the SS Manhattan, which along with her sister ship SS Washington were the largest liners ever built in the US…

TO AND FRO…Beginning in August 1932 the SS Manhattan operated the New York – Hamburg route until 1939, when instead of taking passengers to Germany the ship began taking Jewish refugees and others away from Nazi-occupied Europe. It was turned into a troopship in 1941 and never returned to commercial service. The SS Manhattan was sold for scrap in 1965. (cruiselinehistory.com)

…if your thing wasn’t traveling to Germany to see that country being transformed into the Third Reich, you could instead become a Bermuda “Commuter”…

…back home, William Steig joined other New Yorker cartoonists who earned extra money off of the big tobacco companies…

…which segues into our cartoonists, beginning with Victor Bobritsky’s illustration for “Goings On About Town”…

Otto Soglow offered more Little King adventures…

…and Carl Rose gave us a man striding into a factory, apparently a rare sight in 1932…

…on to July 23…

July 23, 1932 cover by Antonio Petruccelli (1907 – 1994). This is the first of six covers Petruccelli created for the New Yorker from 1932 to 1938. He also did numerous covers and illustrations for Fortune, Colliers and other publications.

…and we have another John Mosher film review, in which he refers to Freaks as a “dainty prelude” to another film about the lives of entertainers, in this case George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood, a pre-Code drama starring Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman with a storyline that anticipated 1937’s A Star Is Born — namely, a famous but fading male star who helps an ingénue rise to stardom while he descends into a pit of alcoholic despair.

FUN WHILE IT LASTED…Top image: Waitress and aspiring actress Mary Evans (Constance Bennett) has the good fortune to meet film director Maximillan Carey (Lowell Sherman) when she serves him one night at the Brown Derby. Bottom: Mary and her polo player boyfriend Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton) look down with pity at the down-on-his-luck Maximillan in What Price Hollywood? (Wikipedia/IMDB)

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From Our Advertisers

Originally published by Adam Budge, Inc. in 1910 and later by Joseph Judd Publishing and others, Arts & Decoration magazine hoped to stay alive in the Depression with a promise that its August 1932 issue would be “compellingly readable”…

…and here is the cover of that issue…Arts & Decoration would hang on for another ten years before folding in 1942…

…one of the stars of Ziegfeld Follies of 1931 was actress and dancer Patricia Boots Mallory (1913 – 1958), who posed for this portrait to demonstrate the wonders of color reproduction…

…and here’s Boots Mallory in a scene from the 1932 film Handle With Care with comedian Elmer “El” Brendel (standing) and actor James Dunn

…not everyone could be a movie star, but you could pretend to be one in this swell new (and low-priced) DeSoto…Walter Chrysler must have laid out some big bucks for this two-page color spread…

…for those with greater means you could skip the roads altogether and fly the friendly skies of Ludington Airlines…the airline was founded by wealthy New York socialite Charles Townsend Ludington and his brother Nicholas…

…founded in 1929, Ludington Airlines was the first airline with flights every hour on the hour and the first to carry passengers only (others carried mail, an important source of revenue). The airline offered service between Washington, D.C. and New York City — with stops in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Norfolk, Virginia, Nashville and Knoxville, Tennessee — using seven Stinson tri-motor 6000 aircraft in its fleet, each carrying up to ten passengers…the airline went bankrupt in 1933 (mostly due to the lack of mail revenue) but left behind an astonishing record — in its first two years it flew more than 3.4 million miles and carried 133,000 passengers, a record at the time…

A Stinson SM-6000 airliner similar to the type flown by Ludington Airlines from 1929 to 1933.

…back to earth, sort of, we have this Lucky Strike ad with the famed “Do You Inhale?” campaign that oozed innuendo and no doubt prompted a few young men to take up the habit posthaste…

…on to cartoons, beginning with this spot art by James Thurber

Gardner Rea showed us a man getting his nickel’s worth of sin and repentence…

…and we end with the delightfully unrepentant Peter Arno

Next Time: Rebecca and the Zombies…

Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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