siam16mm

fragments of obsolete cinema

Freaks in Bangkok

Not quite my translation of salim, nope. Discovering this little review in a November 30, 1932, issue of Bangkok Times Weekly one afternoon as I was yawning my way through endless microfilm reels in a London library certainly made me sit up. Fancy! Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) went to Bangkok.

Freaks

Browning was a circus showman turned filmmaker probably best know for his 1931 MGM film Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. An earlier film of his that blew me away because of its fabulous weirdness is called The Unknown (1927), starring a young Joan Crawford as a circus assistant who has a horror of men with hands, and so the knife thrower, played by Lon Chaney, amputates his arms to win her love.

According to a Chicago Tribune article on Browning, Freaks was a big flop when it first came out in the USA. But the Bangkok Times reviewer took to it very well indeed:

“Freaks, which will be screened at the Princess Theatre, commencing from tonight, is something out of the ordinary. It is a production of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the producers have managed to get together for this picture a collection of real wonders – the half boy, who walks and runs on his hands; the Siamese Twins; the man without arms and legs, who rolls his own cigarette with his lips; and many others. The leading actor and actresses are a midget couple, Harry and Daisy Earles.

It is amazing and very interesting and the management is to be congratulated on securing the picture for Bangkok cinemagoers.”

This enthusiastic reception reminds me of a talk film historian Nadi Tofighian gave at the Southeast Asian Cinemas Conference event in Ho Chi Minh City last year, where he suggested that early cinema in Southeast Asia followed the exhibition trajectory of itinerant circus shows.

Certainly in Siam’s case, the enjoyment of cinema as an unruly event – a form of attractions with partial root in the circus along with other modes of folk and plebeian theatre – lasted a long time. The physical appearance of comedy stars of the 1960s such as Sangthong Srisai, and repeated jokes about his “ghostly/ghastly” appearance in the films he starred in, might be held up as one example of the appetite for the “freakish” in popular Thai cinema. You can trace this lineage, I think, to the contemporary comedies and TV soaps, with their crude jokes centring on figures who are at the same time abject and fascinating, loveable and threatening, such as the krathoey sidekicks.

Sangthong Srisai in the 1970 musical Tone

Interestingly, the Chicago Tribune article mentions that Freaks reappeared as a cult hit in the USA around the time of the Vietnam War, as a kind of cipher for youth anger and disillusionment.

More on Tod Browning in Bernd Herzogenrath’s piece in Vertigo magazine, where the film image was taken from.

May Adadol Ingawanij

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This entry was posted on December 10, 2011 by in early cinema, films, writing and tagged , , , , .

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