by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It’s a rare occurrence, but late Saturday night/early Sunday morning Turner Movie Classics beckoned and a polarized double feature was watched including the great Irene Dunne/Cary Grant screwball comedy, 1937’s The Awful Truth followed, quite unintentionally, by Tod Browning’s bizarre and controversial Freaks (1932).
While the first is a breezy pleasure, marking Grant’s leap into the Hollywood elite firmament and showing Dunne’s prodigious acting (and singing) skills, not to mention great support from the likes of Ralph Bellamy, Cecil Cunningham and Esther Dale, it was pure curiosity that led to watching the latter, which was known by a mixed reputation.
Browning was riding a wave after his masterpiece, Dracula, with the formidable Bela Lugosi, was released in 1931. Universal Pictures had two massive horror hits that year with that film and James Whale’s superb Frankenstein, so Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s young impresario Irving Thalberg hired Browning to top that pair and gave the director carte blanche.
What resulted made a lot of people blanch, including Thalberg and his boss, studio head, Louis B. Mayer. Already depressed with what he’d seen and heard (he reportedly said, “I asked for something horrible, and that’s what I got,”) the former ordered a wholesale cutting of an entire third of the picture after a test screening.
These were allegedly the most shocking and grotesque scenes of a strange story involving circus “freaks” wreaking brutal revenge on a trapeze artist and her strong-man lover who conspired to poison the dwarf performer that the former married for the latter’s money. The wedding feast is one of the more striking scenes in the film as the drunken bridge unleashed her furious contempt for the melange of “freaks,” including those with missing limbs, distorted features, a set of Siamese twins, and many others.
When another member of the “freaks” happened to witness the gradual poisoning, he alerted the victim and others of their fraternity and, in a brutal, driving rainstorm, the punishment was exacted. Scenes showing more of the revenge attacks were also excised from the finish product and a happy ending was tacked on so that the young male little person could be reunited with his circus partner and former girlfriend (in real life, the two were siblings) in a palatial mansion.
Much of the film, though, shows the “freaks” in a very sympathetic light, as they bonded with each other and their keeper (Madam Tetrazzini) and Browning filmed many scenes of them doing “normal” things to show their basic humanity, while other parts of the picture seemed to exploit them for the entertainment of the audience. For example, one of the Siamese twins is kissed by her paramour and the other shows ecstasy on her face. In another, crude circus employees mock the half-man, half-woman, Joseph/Josephine, purportedly a true hermaphrodite.
Browning, though, ran away from home and performed with a circus before working in vaudeville and then in film. It was reported that he’d harbored desires of making a circus-themed movie for years and was planning to do so with his most noted collaborator, Lon Chaney, Sr., but Chaney died of lung cancer in 1930.
The cast features some decent, though little-known, actors like Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams and Henry Victor, though none were renowned thespians of the era (well, who among the elite acting corps would be in a film like Freaks in the first place?) When the name of the actress playing the trapeze artist came up on the opening credits, though, a light of recognition burst forth.
Olga Baclanova (1893-1974) was already pushing forty when she worked on Freaks and her career in Hollywood was short, starting only in 1927. Born in Moscow as the Russian Empire continued to totter towards self-destruction, Baclanova joined the Moscow Art Theatre at 19 and became a well-regarded stage actress, known for her prowess on the boards and her stunning beauty. She also made some films in Russia.
In 1925, not long after she received an award as “Worthy Artist of the Republic” under the Communist regime of Josef Stalin, who’d just taken power in the Soviet Union, several years after the revolution of 1917, she appeared in a touring company production in New York. When the troupe returned to Moscow in mid-1926, Baclanova remained behind at the behest of theater impresario Morris Gest.
She appeared in a stage production in Los Angeles and took a small, uncredited part in a 1927 United Artists film, The Dove, starring Norma Talmadge, and released at the end of that year. That was followed by appearances in seven 1928 films, including a Russian-themed MGM picture, which obviously worked well for Baclanova, five Paramount pictures (her scenes were cut and reshot by another actress in a sixth), including Josef von Sternberg’s classic Docks of New York, which seems to be her best-considered performance.
There was also one film in 1928 for Universal Pictures, The Man Who Laughs, intended to be a Lon Chaney vehicle but directed by German Paul Leni and starring his countryman Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin. The movie, based on Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel (Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Chaney was a massive success five years before), was not, however, well received by critics, though it has been reassessed and considered an Expressionistic classic.
Baclanova then moved into talkies, including three for Paramount in 1929 (one, A Dangerous Woman had her top-billed as merely “Baclanova”) and two for Twentieth Century Fox the following year. Newly married (her second) and giving birth to her only child, a son, in 1930, the actress made one film for MGM in 1931 (The Great Lover with Adolphe Menjou and Irene Dunner) before taking on Freaks for the studio.
Apparently, the actress considered the stage her forte and regarded movies as a practical necessity during her years in America. Freaks was one of her last significant roles as she made another MGM movie in 1932 and performed in Paramount’s Billion Dollar Scandal the next year. She made a few shorts mid-decade and one film for Fox in 1943 as she turned more to the theater before she retired from acting in 1947.
After the long-forgotten Freaks was rediscovered in the 1960s, Baclanova had a bit of a resurgence in interest in her career as the film became a cult classic of major repute. She moved late in life to Vevey, Switzerland, also the final place of residence for Charles Chaplin, and she died there in 1974.
The Homestead has two items related to Baclanova in its collection. The first is a June 1929 issue of Photoplay, the best known of the many film magazines of the era. The actress appears in a dramatically colorful painting on the front cover, though does not seem to be mentioned, at least not prominently inside (though her Freaks costar, Leila Hyams is in the publication.) She’d had two films released in May, including her only starring vehicle, A Dangerous Woman and The Man I Love, though there would be no further movies that year.
The second was a rare find, a copy of a contract drawn up with Universal in 1927, likely made in advance of her sole Universal feature, The Man Who Laughs. Unfortunately, the last four pages of the document were torn out, but the first nine are interesting to peruse for the terms and conditions a major studio could put in its contracts with actors.
While the exclusive nature of the contract was typical, it is still interesting to see how much control the studio had over their employee, including the Baclanova would perform “in such roles and in such photoplays as the producer may designate” and that she “will make personal appearances on the stage in connection with the exhibition of photoplays” and would “faithfully comply with all reasonable directions, requests, rules and regulations made by the producer,” though what constituted “reasonable” was not explained.
There was a blanket requirement that “she will perform and render her services hereunder conscientiously and to the full limit of her ability and as instructed by the producer, at all times and wherever required or desired by the producer.” How enforceable is such a provision that she use “the full limit of her ability” and do so any time and anywhere demanded?
Any photographs or other images of Baclanova were the sole and exclusive property of Universal and language even includes the stipulation that this applied to “all of her acts, poses, plays and appearances of any and all kinds,” but also that perpetual rights were enjoined for “the artist’s physical likeness in connection with the advertising and exploitation thereof.” though that latter word could be defined at least two ways. Basically, the public image of the actress belonged solely to Universal.
Most interesting is section 5, which deserves a full quoting:
The artist agrees to conduct herself with due regard to public conventions and morals, and agrees that she will not do or commit any act or thing that ill tend to degrade her in society or bring her into public hatred, contempt, scorn or ridicule, or that will tend to shock, insult or offend the community or ridicule public morals or decency, or prejudice the producer or the motion picture industry in general.
Presumably, this would have included appearing in Freaks, but, beyond this, this goes back to the question of enforceable legal conditions. What were “public conventions and morals” and who decided that? How would the studio explain what constituted “public hatred, contempt, scorn or ridicule” and what standards were there “to shock, insult or offend the community” much less the “ridicule [of] public morals or decency?”
Also noteworthy is the eighth section, declaring that, should Baclanova “suffer any facial or physical disfigurement materially detracting from the appearance on the screen,” the agreement was thereby null and void during such incapacity and Universal could terminate the agreement after three days with a possible extension up to two weeks, after which they “may cancel and terminate this employment.”
Suspension of filming by acts of God, strikes, fire, government or judicial fiat or other reasons also could mean suspension of the contract or termination by either part subject to certain conditions. If the contract expired without an extension but filming was in process on a film project, the terms of the agreement were to be in full force for up to sixty days after the date of expiration.
Section eleven added another interesting contractual component: the terms
are of a special, unique, unusual, extraordinary, and intellectual character which gives them a peculiar value, the loss of which cannot be reasonably or adequately compensated in damages in an action at law, and that a breach by the artist of any of the provisions contained in this agreement will cause the producer irreparable injury and damage.
This meant that Universal was, by the virtue of these absolutely unique conditions, “entitled to injunctive and other equitable relief to prevent a breach of this agreement by the artist.” There, however, was no reciprocal right extended to Baclanova, especially as she was once more stipulated to be required to “perform her required services hereunder to the full limit of her ability and as instructed by the producer” or forfeit her pay.
The thirteen section laid out how communications of required services by Baclanova were to be handled and, though, it initially discusses such communications in writing, the section then states that “the producer may deliver such notice . . . either orally or in writing.” Obviously, if an oral communication was made, how would Baclanova be able to legally demonstrate the substance of such a situation or whether it happened at all?
Section fifteen also called for Baclanova to “provide, at her own expense, such modern wardrobe and wearing apparel as may be necessary for any and all roles,” though if “so-called character or period costumes be required the producer shall supply the same.” These, of course, remained the property of Universal.
For any services provided outside of Los Angeles “or its environs,” however that might be defined or away from the studio’s Universal City complex, board, lodging and transportation were to be provided, though, again, who decided what were the “environs” of Los Angeles?
After this the contract is incomplete with just slivers of the top portion of the remaining pages missing. It should be said that we do not know if this contract was ever consummated—it might very well have been rejected. Baclanova worked mainly for Paramount as well as MGM and Fox after making her one picture for Universal. We do know that, in 1929, she successfully sued her manager, Al Rosen, claiming the five-year deal was made at the expense of her lack of understanding English.
Still, the terms expressed in the contract are remarkable in light of what would exist today and show the power of the studio system. After all, a studio had no shortage of actors and actresses to hire and cast and the leverage belonged to the studio unless the performer was of such popularity that they could dictate terms—or, in the case of United Artists principals Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Mary Pickford, set up their own studio.
Baclanova, however, was not of that level and, whether she signed this particular contract or not and, given the missing pages, it stands to reason that she could have, she probably would have found similar pacts wherever she worked in her roughly decade-long career in Hollywood.