Being that attendance was slipping and people seemed to be getting annoyed with our deliberately bad programming (their words, not mine, “Purple Rain” is awesome), I decided that it was time to bring some class back to the proceedings. Or at least make it seem like I was. A lot of people hold onto the misconception that older movies are somehow classier, or of a better quality. This is largely because, as with most things, despite the enormous quantity of material that was produced prior to the last 50 years, the majority of films that have endured are the best ones. This has the curious effect of giving people the impression that all films from the ‘30s and ‘40s were masterpieces. They ignore the fact that there are hundreds of movies from the “Golden Age of Hollywood” that were pure disposable crap, much like most of what is produced today. Disposable Hollywood is not a new phenomenon, crappy movies have been around as long as celluloid itself.
It was with this in mind that I formulated this week’s program. I had been planning on programming Tod Browning’s “Freaks” ever since we started the Den of Sin, but had decided to wait until the DVD was released. But what to program with it? Well, while reading the surprisingly informative “Hollywood in the Thirties” by John Baxter I came across an odd little number called “Doctor X” (1932). Considered a classic by many it was obviously green lit in order to compete with Tod Browning’s “Dracula” (1931) and James Whale’s “Frankenstein” (1931), and it includes as its subject matter necrophilia, cannibalism and implied incest. Oh, and it’s a comedy. Directed by Michael Curtiz, who is probably best known for his excellent swashbuckling collaborations with Errol Flynn and of course “Casablanca”, it also took advantage of an early two color Technicolor process (as if Fay Wray making goo-goo eyes at Lionel Atwill wasn’t enough). It seemed to fit the bill perfectly and on top of that was necessary viewing for a Hays Code nut like myself. Also there is a reference to it in “Science Fiction Double Feature”, the song that opens the “Rocky Horror Picture Show”.
Attendance was still pretty slow as many of the regulars now have classes on Tuesday nights and only 6 people were able to make it. We decided to start with “Doctor X” as Owen and my Fiancé had already seen “Freaks” and wanted the option of taking off early. Right away things were looking grim as we were introduced to Lee Taylor, Intrepid Reporter (Lee Tracy), a head smackingly unfunny comedian and our hero (!). His delivery was stilted and phony, even for the Thirties and for Lord’s sake he even had a hand buzzer in his arsenal. The convoluted idiocy continued with talk of special Viennese brain scalpels, charges of cannibalism despite no mention of mutilation except to the brain (with the Viennese brain scalpels) and a whole lot of expository dialogue that made absolutely no sense, either on its own or in the context of the film. Sadly it seems as though Mr. Curtiz et al were so preoccupied with trying to make the most salacious film of all time that they forgot to make it comprehensible. It is also probable that it was simply cut to shreds to remove the more objectionable material, but the watering down of the plot only resulted in making what little appeal the film may have had completely nonexistent.
The Peanut Gallery reacted swiftly and loudly with multiple exclamations of “huh?!”, “what?!” and “the hell?!” The rest of the time we were all gaping in slack jawed awe at just how strange the film was. “Are they really going, “Ha, ha he’s a cripple and leaving”?” remarked Damon. Yes, yes they were. We amused ourselves by making cracks like “the homeopath did it” and “bubbling things mean science” when not burying our heads in our hands at Lee Tracy’s deplorable comic timing. “Do we really have to watch this guy bumble around skeletons for another 10 minutes?” remarked Damon. Yes, yes we did.
Luckily there was one really great sequence in the film where we see the killer transform himself with the help of his “synthetic skin”. Basically, we got to watch a grown man smear silly putty all over his head until it was molded into a grotesque monster face. And he got gnarly claw hands too. There were also some good creepy moments once everyone shut up and I have to put my vote in for Fay Wray as one of the all time greatest scream queens. That lady had pipes.
Get some Freaks in part two of ENTER THE DEN OF SIN: THE DIRTY ’30S>>>