Tod Browning was a masterful director of the 20s and 30s, once most famous for directing the original Dracula (1931) and now best known for making the infamous Freaks (1932). The latter is a documentary packaged as a melodrama, with real sideshow freaks in the cast. It also has the shot that is the inspiration for this post, yet another instance where a director let a single shot tell his story, instead of relying on conventional coverage and edits. (Prior posts has highlighted shots in films by Leo McCarey, Ozu, Oz, and Coppola.)
But first some context. I imagine filming a passionate kiss has always been a drag for filmmakers. The idea of putting the faces of your characters that close together is dramatically sound but cinematographically dull. Sure, if the script has organically brought us to the kiss, then we, the audience, can do without seeing their faces for a few moments, and if the acting is spot on, we can feel the passion. But still I’m sure some directors (and actors and DPs) dislike the visual element; it has a way of leveling the playing field, whether it’s Bogart and Bergman, Woody and Diane, or Edward and Bella.
Since the camera can’t see either face completely, what’s a filmmaker to do? Traditionally, they rely on other ways of conveying the passion: the blocking of the actors (how they move into the kiss and out of it); their moans, pants and words uttered in between kisses; music, of course; multiple angles and edits; and camera movement (ah, the old “360° around the kissing couple” routine). In Notorious, Hitchcock famously dealt with a kiss in a single shot that was long, intricate, and incredibly clever.
It’s also been talked into the ground, so I’ll leave that shot alone.
On the other hand, given the same visual conundrum every filmmaker faces, here’s how Tod Browning staged it.
Freaks is about life in the circus and the code of honor among the pinheads, dwarves and others of the freak-class. Many within the circus regard them as “less than,” though to others, such as Phroso the Clown, they’re (relatively) normal people and even their peers. Frequently the film shows us how these people are as domestic and as we are—they can roll cigarettes, pour wine, etc,–regardless of how few limbs they have. In the case of the conjoined twins the Hilton Sisters, Violet and Daisy, we even see their suitors.
In this brief scene, their first in the film, the sisters approach Phroso. They talk about Daisy’s pending marriage and Phroso seizes the opportunity to flex their genetic empathy, so to speak…
The sisters are just bystanders in the film’s plot—not even a subplot—and in a later scene, Violet gets engaged. Naturally, a newly-engaged couple will kiss and this is how Browning shows it…
An uncommon solution, but it always takes my breath away. And although this shot seems like a gimmicky excuse for a post, it stands up under scrutiny, with plenty of pointers for filmmakers.
For starters, use what ya got. If you have gifted people in your film, use those gifts to your advantage. Repeatedly in the film, Browning turns his casts’ unusual skills and features to his advantage, both visually and narratively. In this instance, he found a way to show his characters uniqueness and how their lives might be—and that it’s really quite wonderful.
Secondly, Browning gives us context. Long before this kiss happens, he sets up the payoff. The brief scene with Phroso touching Violet’s arm is played off as a parlor trick, not even a plot point, but only 17 minutes later we get the kiss and Daisy’s joy and know exactly why she feels the way she does.
Lastly, it’s simply a beautiful shot. Here’s how I know: I showed this film to my wife, Debbie, a few years ago. She’s by no means a film geek—she doesn’t get hung up on cinematic style or form—and Freaks really isn’t her cup of tea. She was rolling with it, somewhere between repulsed and bored, when this kiss happened. Her reaction was palpable and positive (kind of a gasp or an audible smile). It didn’t matter whether Daisy’s bliss was genuine or if she was acting (I doubt conjoined twins really do feel each other’s sensations as such); it was something Debbie had never seen, a moment of perfect visual storytelling, all the more impressive since she had not put the film or its filmmaker on a pedestal. In other words, its eloquence caught her off-guard.
Like I said, I don’t know if the Hilton Sisters really had this kind of symbiosis, but this is another example of Browning’s attitude toward “freaks”: they’re well-adjusted, domestic, special (in a good way), honorable, very human, and members of a community that we should respect. (Gooble Gobble!)
Compared with my other posts in this series, Browning’s Kiss is perhaps the most unusual in the bunch (maybe closest in intent to Ozu’s static wide-shot), but I’m certain of one thing: if there were even one more cinematic ingredient (i.e. edits, coverage, a close-up of Daisy’s face, a music cue, even a dolly in) it wouldn’t be as powerful as it is. He cast it well, set the stage, and stood back. After that, it was all up to us.
Next in the When Not to Edit series: Kubrick knows how to make us hold our breath.