Annotations for “Freaks of the Lens” 8 pages in Cinema Purgatorio #14
Writer: Alan Moore, Artist: Kevin O’Neill
Note: Some of this is obvious, but you never know who’s reading and what their exposure is. If there’s anything we missed or got wrong, let us know in comments.
General: The movie-within-a-comic portrays the life of director Tod Browning. Browning’s life is told through a series of sideshow vignettes, narrated by actor Harry Earles.
It should be noted that Browning had a very prolific career, and that Moore selectively mentions those films which fit into the narrative he constructs.
- The cover depicts Tod Browning arguably most well known for directing Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932). Left to right are: (Thanks to commenter Charles)
– Actor Bela Lugosi playing Dracula
– Director Tod Browning
– Actor Harry Earles
– an armadillo, which references how armadillos and opossums appear in Browning’s Dracula. They wander through Dracula’s castle making the scenes somewhat surreal.
- “Tod” was a stage name Browning adopted after running away to join the circus. The word “tod” means “death” in German, “fox” or “trickster” in Old English.
- “Iceman” is an anagram of “cinema.” British crossword puzzles often feature anagrammatic clues. Here, the phrase “found in” is meant to signal such a clue.
- “Group at Rio” is an anagram (signaled by “becomes confused”) for “purgatorio.” This also suggest the mythological river Styx which one crosses to get to the underworld.
- The narrator is solving crosswords using a pen, typically not recommended and perhaps symbolizing the permanence of one’s actions.
- Moore is said to enjoy crosswords, and has included similar solvable crossword puzzle clues in earlier works, including a Roscoe Moscow strip and Top Ten: The Forty-Niners Chapter 2 P9.
- As stated, the cover depicts character actor Rondo Hatton, whose acromegaly-deformed features would make him fit in with the Freaks characters depicted later in the story.
- The sofa is the one where Bugsy Siegel was shot – see notes for page 8, below.
- The protagonist seems to be looking at her reflection in the glass over a lobby card depicting a human skull. Of course, this also is a reflection of how she herself is in a state of death. (Moore has employed somewhat similar multi-layer reflection images before – examples include Lost Girls Ch9 P2,p3 and Crossed+100 #2, P1,p6.
- The “X” in the corner is a film rating. Unlike in the US (where X-rated movies are essentially banned from release), the British ratings board frequently rated films as “X” from 1951-1982. In the UK, this simply indicated that the film was restricted to adult viewers, and didn’t carry the specifically sexual connotation it had in the US. (Thanks to commenter Tessa Braithwaite for some clarification on this.)
- Was Geraldine a “little person […] torn in half” is relevant to Freaks; “little person” is the preferred nomenclature for many dwarfs and midgets. Torn in half anticipates the next panel, and perhaps a person torn in half is broadly references sideshows – from magic acts to the people in Freaks. It’s also a little chilling that the userhette who does not typically smile, does so when tearing something (someone?) in half.
- “Blowflies” lay their eggs in meat, suggesting that some one has died (as depicted in earlier issues, including CP#10 P8).
- Necro Golden Mane was previously seen in CP#12 P1,p5 where, as here, it stands in for Metro Goldwyn Mayer.
- The hand tearing away the title credit is as seen in the 1932 film Freaks directed by Tod Browning.
- As in the opening of Freaks, the torn title screen (P1,p5) is seen in the hand of a carnival barker announcing a freak show (though the comic here portrays more of a wax museum).
For what it’s worth, Browning’s The Unholy Three (1925) also opens on a somewhat similar circus sideshow scene.
Further, Moore portrayed a somewhat similar carnival barker in his song ‘Hair of the Snake That Bit Me’ (read or listen).
- The carnival barker is, as he states, the actor Harry Earles, a baby-faced midget who appeared in Freaks.
- “Hey you longlegs… I’m talkin’ to you” is Earles breaking the fourth wall, addressing an apparently full-sized person viewer (and reader.)
- “Twisted Tod” is director Tod Browning, though that nickname was apparently created by Moore and O’Neill.
- “It ain’t my real name” references that Earles’ birthname was Kurt Fritz Schneider – mentioned P4,p5 below.
- The curtain Earles is pulling aside appears to have Edvard Munch’s
- The question mark, probably unintentionally, is reminiscent of prominent question mark motifs throughout Moore and O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
- Tod Browning was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1880.
- Pete Browning is as described here, although (probably due to space constraints) Moore does not mention that his alcoholism was due to chronic pain from mastoiditis, making him a “freak” in yet another sense.
- The small figure may be meant to represent Tod Browning as a child, and the juxtaposition with the baseball bat to suggest physical abuse. It is known that Tod Browning was completely estranged from his family as an adult.
- “The Satellites of Mercury” were, as stated, a travelling New Orleans carnival attraction. They hosted a popular festival in Louisville from 1888-1892. (Basic internet research does not appear to connect Browning with The Satellites.)
- According to Wikipedia, “An estimated 74 to 120 people were killed” by Louisville’s devastating March 1890 tornado.
- Various sources refer to Browning’s coffin act as “The Living Corpse” or “The Living Hypnotic Corpse”; Moore’s emphasis of “Hypnotic Corpse” here may be meant to evoke The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (see note to P7,p2).
- Leon Herrmann was the nephew of Alexander Hermann , both popular stage illusionists appearing under the name “Herrmann the Great”.
- Very little information is available regarding Mary Stevens. She and Browning were married from 1906-1910.
- Mutt & Jeff were originally newspaper comic strip characters, but obtained sufficient popularity to branch out into other media.
- David Wark (D. W.) Griffith was a highly influential early film director, best known for his brilliant-but-racist epic The Birth of a Nation (1915). According to Brittanica.com, Browning “had a small role in Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) while also functioning as an assistant director on it.”
- The background appears to be a wax museum diorama. (The fire bucket being used as an ashtray supports this, as fire was an extreme hazard for a wax exhibit.)
- Alice Browning (known under several other names as an actress) was married to Tod Browning from 1911 until her death in 1944.
- Actor Elmer Booth is credited as playing the first film gangster. As described, Booth was killed in a 1915 car crash, with Browning driving. Browning was badly injured, losing his teeth. According to Brittanica.com, actor George A. Siegmann was also injured in this crash.
- In 1918, Browning met director Irving Thalberg, who was, as described, afflicted by childhood illness.
- Lon Chaney appears here as Quasimodo, from the 1923 film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Though not a Tod Browning film, it is perhaps Chaney’s most famous role.
- “Don’t step on it–it might be Lon Chaney!” was a catchphrase in the 1920s. According to an article in the Guardian, it originated when “director Marshall Neilan gave this warning to a studio workman whose foot was poised over a spider: “Don’t step on it: it may be Lon Chaney.””
- Browning “working with the pair [Thalberg and Chaney] on increasingly shockin’ subjects” refers to the films (most described further below) The Wicked Darling (1919), The Unholy Three (1925), The Blackbird (1926), The Road to Mandalay (1926), The Unknown (1927), London After Midnight (1927), and Where East Is East (1929).
- The couple depicted are apparently Browning and unknown woman – suggest?? Browning appears to be stealing something from her – see his left hand – what is it – suggest??
- Anna May Wong later became the first Chinese-American movie star.
- The Unholy Three (1925) can be viewed at DailyMotion.
- The Unholy Three‘s lead characters described are shown (left to right): Victor McLaglen, Chaney (in partial drag as Mrs. O’Grady), unnamed infant actress, Earles, and Browning.
- The deleted scene referenced is detailed at the TCM website:
When Hercules and Tweedledee rob the Arlington mansion on Christmas Eve, they awaken a three-year-old child, who tiptoes out to catch Santa in the act. “Oh Santa Claus,” she exclaims, “You brought me a little bruvver!” She throws her arms around Tweedledee and begins kissing him. Mr. Arlington comes downstairs just in time to see his child being strangled by the diminutive burglar. Hercules tears a curtain from the doorway, wraps it around Arlington’s head and suffocates him.
- The title displayed here would appear to be Kevin O’Neill’s, not based on the film or posters.
- The Mystic (1925) featured gowns by the already famous Erté.
- The Road to Mandalay (1926) is largely lost, though an abridged French version exists. The synopsis from AllMovie.com sheds some light on the “disturbingly incestuous” comment:
The Road to Mandalay is a typically bizarre collaboration between star Lon Chaney Sr. and director Tod Browning. Chaney plays Singapore Joe, the one-eyed proprietor of a Mandalay bordello. Joe’s convent-bred daughter Rosemary (Lois Moran) is totally ignorant of her father’s existence and of course knows nothing of the manner in which her education was financed. When the girl falls in love with Admiral Edward Harrington (Owen Moore), Joe recognizes the admiral as one of his old partners in crime and vows to save Rosemary from ruining her life. But Harrington has totally reformed, and it is he who ultimately rids the world of Singapore Joe. Even in 1926, critics recognized the Oedipal subtext in Road to Mandalay.
- The Show (1927) is set at a Budapest sideshow. Central to the plot is a Salome playlet, featuring a cleverly-faked beheading.
- The Unknown (1927) features Lon Chaney as a knife thrower in love with a woman who has a morbid fear of being embraced, so has his own arms surgically removed.
- London After Midnight (1927) is now lost. Synopses do not suggest that it was “a blatant Dracula swipe”, but if Mark of the Vampire is a close remake of it, then many details were clearly Dracula-inspired.
- Dracula (1931) is, technically, “the first screen Dracula”. It did, however, take some inspiration from the Dracula-plagiarizing Nosferatu (1922).
- The Thirteenth Chair (1929), like Browning’s earlier The Mystic, featured a fake medium in the plot.
- As stated, the actor Bela Lugosi played the titular vampire Dracula. For what it’s worth, Lugosi has cameos in CP#7 and CP#13.
- While some armadillos did appear in Dracula, to call (and depict them as) “rampaging” is a comic exaggeration.
- Multiple sources claim that Browning convinced MGM to buy the rights to “Spurs” in the 1920s, but without giving a solid date. Browning apparently began work on an adaptation as early as 1927.
- A contemporary poster for Freaks is in the background.
- Prince Randian was miscredited in Freaks as “Rardion”.
- Siblings playing sweethearts echoes the incest theme from P4,p5.
- Pictured at center is Henry Victor as Hercules the strongman. This is not the same character as the Hercules from The Unholy Three, although the same actor (Victor McLaglen) was originally considered for the role. This is yet another angle of the movie poster seen on the previous page.
- For Johnny Eck being sawed in half, Kevin O’Neill seems to have failed to find photo reference. But it exists!
- The “duck woman” was the centerpiece of the revised ending to Freaks.
- Much more than just the ending of Freaks was cut or changed.
- Mark of the Vampire (1935) is said to be a remake of London After Midnight. It appears to be a fairly cliche vampire plot for the first two acts, but then turns out to have a not-very-plausible explanation for all the apparently supernatural goings-on.
- The reference to “further flops” is odd, since Browning only made one film in between Freaks and Mark of the Vampire, Fast Workers (1933).
- The Devil-Doll (1936) was Browning’s penultimate film. His final feature was the non-horror Miracles for Sale (1939).
- While the effects in MotV aren’t quite bad enough to see the strings (as drawn here), the flying bats are sadly unconvincing. The “haunted castle” does not contain armadillos in this film, but does contain bats, roaches, tarantulas, crabs, and opossum.
- Visible in the background is the gravestone of Tod Browning, his wife Alice, and several other members of Alice’s family.
- Panels 1-2 form a comics polyptych.
- “Caligari’s expressionism” refers to the German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
- Coming through the curtain are Freaks‘ Minnie Woolsey (Koo-koo) and Daisy Earles (Frieda).
- On the right of panel 2 is the movie poster for MotV.
- At left is Freaks‘ Peter Robinson (Human Skeleton).
- In the background is Freaks‘ Olga Roderick (Bearded Lady).
- From left to right:
– Delmo Fritz (Sword Swallower)
– Josephine-Joseph (Half Woman-Half Man)
– Prince Randian (The Living Torso, pictured as in the scene where he lights his own cigarette)
– Angelo Rossitto (Angeleno, bearing the loving cup which features prominently in the wedding feast scene)
– Minnie Woolsey (Koo-koo, wearing her costume from the wedding feast)
– Tod Browning
– Harry Earles (Hans)
– Frances O’Connor (Armless Girl)
– Daisy and Violet Hilton (Siamese Twins)
– Daisy Earles (Frieda)
– Johnny Eck (Half Boy)
– Schlitzie (Himself)
– Olga Roderick (Bearded Lady)
- “One of us!” is a line featuring prominently in Freaks, and later adopted into pop culture at large.
- The end title card is a close copy of the one for Freaks.
- The couch is the one that Bugsy Siegel was shot on. The narrator has “seen one like it” recently in CP#6 P7,p2 and CP#11 pages 5-6 and CP#13, pages 1 and 8.
- “A tin monad” is an anagram (signaled by “upsets”) for “damnation” which fits into 13 across shown on P1,p1 above. Damnation is what happened to the legendary Faust who sold his soul to the devil.
- “Monad” has a large number of meanings, but “atom” is one.
- The crossword layout lacks the radial symmetry typical of almost all crossword puzzles.
- Similar to the prior issue, the story loops with page 8 flowing back into page 1.
- The fact that the stains look more brown now is likely due to the fact that dried blood is dark brown, not ketchup-red. This implies that the stains were fresh earlier.