One of the joys of early talkies comes in witnessing film artists make up the rules of how big-screen dialogue ought to sound. Often alternating between the stagy, the realistically offhand, and the downright empty, American movies of this period are overflowing with the pleasure of a tradition being invented right in front of one's eyes. Although this 1932 valentine to the misshapen is best remembered for its images (and best known as a "horror movie"), it's the spoken word that stands out most these days. Director Tod Browning (Dracula) populated his Blue Angel-like fable with real circus freaks: adorable pinhead girls, someone who looks like an armadillo with a human head, armless ladies sipping champagne with their feet. These performers (along with the rather clunky "normal" actors) all have the quality of schoolboys reciting from Scripture at an Easter pageant. But rather than resulting in a campy, Ed Wood-style effect, this awkwardness is oddly moving, enough to make the dialogue seem more real and heartfelt than it might have in the context of "good acting." Almost every moment in the film is as enthralling as a Grimm's fairy tale read to a kid: The mixture of expressionist lighting, folkloric storytelling, and authentic "freaks" has a potency that makes you feel like you're regressing into childhood.
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