Archives for posts with tag: Big Fish

freaksI’ll admit that this is an odd topic for a post during the holiday season but an interesting one nonetheless. At Halloween, whilst re-watching the excellent Tod Browning film Freaks I recalled a post from last year entitled Zoetropes and Kinetoscopes – which I put together after visiting Dingles Fairground Heritage Centre – where I mentioned writing some articles about the history of the circus and its various offshoots, in particular the history of the freak show.

Over the following weeks a trend seemed to emerge featuring all things freaky, beginning with the fourth season of American Horror Story on FOX, which is entitled Freak Show (great concept, dull execution). FOX obviously decided that ‘freaks’ were in and aired a new reality documentary series called Freakshow, in which a man named Todd Ray and his family showcase their Venice Beach sideshow business, featuring his ‘freaky’ employees, including ‘The Lobster Boy’ and ‘The Human Pin Cushion’.

In the first episode Ray attempted to add America’s tallest man, George Bell (7 feet 8 if you’re interested), to his collection of freaks, a word that George was clearly uncomfortable with. Ray also wanted to sign up a bearded lady named Jess, and she was initiated in a scene straight out of Browning’s film (‘One of us! One of us!’). However, many of Ray’s ‘freaks’ are not actually freaks, in that their only ‘deformity’ appears to be the ability to inflict pain upon themselves in a Jackass-style manner.

‘Never seen before…’ Todd wailed as he enticed the public into his shop and displayed his two-headed bearded dragon for all to see. But we have seen it all before. Two-headed reptiles are surprisingly common. Due to fluctuations in temperature of the eggs – since, unlike bird eggs, they are not incubated – mutations can readily form. However, two-headed mammals are much less usual.

The recent death at age 15 of the cat Frankenlouie (Frank and Louie) in Massachusetts only added to the recent discussions concerning the strange and unusual. Contrary to popular belief, Frankenlouie did not have two heads but in fact two faces – a condition called diprosopia – although a creature exhibiting this mutation rarely survives beyond its first few days of life. Frankenlouie’s survival was an extremely rare case, much rarer than the mutation itself.

tomandbarnumAnother recent TV offering was BBC4’s The Real Tom Thumb: History’s Smallest Superstar. Tom was one of the world’s most famous freaks, a young man of just over three feet in stature but with lofty ambitions.

Charles Sherwood Stratton aka Tom Thumb was born in Connecticut in 1838. He was ‘discovered’ by distant relative and circus impresario, PT Barnum, who christened him with the moniker ‘General Tom Thumb’ and made him fabulously wealthy. Tom began his travelling performing career at a very young age, under the pretence that he was on the cusp of adulthood at Barnum’s request. General Tom made friends in very high places, including Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln, and his impressive former home is still intact.

 
History

According to Britannica, the term ‘freak’ comes from the Old English word ‘frician’, meaning to dance, cavort or any other capricious behaviour.

In the 18th century, ‘freaks’ or ‘freaks of nature’ referred mainly to animals, creatures whose physical make-up deviated from standard norms. Some naturalists collected these creatures and displayed them at touring shows, shocking the public with their ‘cabinets of curiosities’.

In the mid-nineteenth century, circus promoters had added human ‘performers’ to their exhibitions. PT Barnum was one such promoter, however, he did not use the term ‘freak show’. Alongside those with gigantism, dwarfism and the extremely hirsute, many of the performers were not what they seemed. For example, Barnum’s ‘Fiji Mermaid’ was merely a deceased monkey fused with the tail of a fish. There were many similar exhibits, and such promoters were subsequently labelled as frauds. Freak shows were a very American tradition, but one which permeated Europe and beyond.

 

On Film

I have included a selection of movies depicting freak shows, beginning with the seminal classic, Freaks (1932).

Can a fully grown woman truly love a midget? This, the question posed on the poster of Freaks. That midget is Hans (Harry Earles), a freak show performer, engaged to his height-matched co-star, Frieda (Daisy Earles). Despite their pending union, Hans’ head is turned by trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), who is of average height. The infamous wedding banquet scene is truly brilliant as Cleo’s true motives are revealed.

Before the cinematic screenings of the film, a message was displayed for patrons, which seemed sympathetic to the plight of individuals with deformities: ‘Their lot is truly a heart-breaking one’. However, towards the end of the prologue, it goes on to say ‘…modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world.’ The effort of including such a message therefore seems inane, but during the 1930s people who were born with physical abnormalities were not readily accepted in mainstream society, hence the existence of the freak show. (The full message is included on the DVD).

The ‘freaks’ in Freaks are all real people – no special effects here – including a man named Rardion, ‘The Living Torso’, who had no limbs and performed in freak shows in Coney Island under PT Barnum. Despite his disability, he fathered five children, spoke four languages and was able to complete everyday tasks using his mouth and shoulders.

 
The Elephant Man (1980)

Based loosely on the life of Joseph (John in the film) Merrick, a young English man with neurofibromatosis, a disease which causes benign tumours to grow on the face and body. Whilst the film does stray from the truth – Joseph’s life during his freak show years was not nearly as awful as director David Lynch’s portrayal – it is a beautifully made, poignant film, with excellent performances by John Hurt as Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as Dr Frederick Treves, the man who saves him from his barbaric existence.

 

Big Fish (2003)

Directed by Tim Burton and based on the novel by Daniel Wallace, Big Fish is a film of tall tales told by Albert Finney (Ed Bloom) to his son, Will (Billy Crudup). The young Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor) disappears into his own fantasy and begins a lengthy journey with Karl the Giant (Matthew McGrory). On his expedition, he encounters a circus, led by a werewolf named Amos Callaway (Danny DeVito), and Siamese twin singers Ping and Jing (Ada and Arlene Tai). Edward subsequently joins the circus, shovelling elephant manure and washing obese performers in exchange for information on his dream girl, Sandra.

After the Danny Elfman concert, I got to thinking about my favourite Tim Burton films. Here’s what I came up with.

Beetlejuice (1988)
Originally written as a drama, Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis) are married suburbanites who find themselves in limbo after a tragic accident. ‘Bio-exorcist’ Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton) may be the man to help them. Keaton improvised many of his lines and has often said that it was one of his favourite projects to work on (an underrated actor in my opinion). As well as the comedy in Beetlejuice – with the aid of Harry Belafonte’s calypso sounds – the Expressionist-inspired sets, the score, the stop-motion animation sequences and the colourful underworld make this one of Burton’s most imaginative films to date.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)
A pastel, suburban nightmare featuring Johnny Depp in his first Burton collaboration as Vincent Price’s macabre creation. After spending years hiding his razor-sharp hands and self-inflicted scars high in his gothic castle, Edward is ‘rescued’ by well-meaning Avon lady, Peg (Dianne Wiest). Naturally, Edward struggles to adapt to life in the ‘burbs and realises that not everyone is as kind and as thoughtful as he. A modern-day morality tale with beautiful music, an excellent cast and some amazing topiary.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Although it was Henry Selick who directed The Nightmare Before Christmas due to Burton’s hectic Batman schedule, he did create the story and the characters, as well as serving as producer. I have mentioned before that this was my childhood favourite, but even now as a grown-up I don’t get tired of watching it. The songs, the characters, the animation, the magical worlds of Halloween and Christmas town, it truly is enchanting.

Ed Wood (1994)
A cross-dressing Johnny Depp plays optimistic, B-movie director of the 1950s, Edward D. Wood Jr in this black and white comedy drama. We follow Ed on a mission to cast long-retired Dracula (1931) actor Bela Lugosi (played by Martin Landau) and the subsequent filming of Glen or Glenda (1953). Wood’s fascination with Lugosi is said to mirror Burton’s interest in another stalwart of film horror, Vincent Price. I feel that this film is often overlooked (it didn’t fare well at the box office) but Ed Wood is very humorous at times, and includes a great ensemble cast, particularly Bill Murray as Bunny Breckinridge. Landau went on to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Lugosi.

Big Fish (2003)
Based on the novel of the same name by Daniel Wallace, Big Fish is a less dark, but no less colourful, Burton offering. Ewan McGregor plays a young Edward Bloom, a travelling salesman with a penchant for tall tales. He meets many interesting characters on his travels including an eccentric ringmaster (Danny DeVito) with a nocturnal secret and a highly-amusing, hopeless town poet (Steve Buscemi). Albert Finney plays the elder version of Bloom, who is dying, and is supported at home by his wife, Sandra (Jessica Lange). Bloom’s son Will (Billy Crudup) tries to sort the fact from the fiction. The result is a moving tale of life and death and the importance of family.

World Premiere Monday 7th October

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Danny Elfman has composed themes as diverse as Tales From the Crypt, Desperate Housewives and of course The Simpsons, as well as films such as Men in Black, The Frighteners and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. However, it is his compositions for (most*) of the films of Tim Burton that he is most recognised, and this relationship was the reason for last night’s sold-out concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

John Mauceri conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra, who worked their way through his Burton back catalogue. The music was accompanied by a slideshow of film clips and Burton’s drawings, the early conceptions of his characters. This was a good idea, but I became so enthralled with watching the orchestra that I often forgot about this.

Films featured included early work such as Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (first full-length feature for both in 1985) and Edward Scissorhands, to later efforts like Big Fish and Dark Shadows as well as animated films Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie.

It can only be described as sublime. Standouts for me were the unbelievably good Beetlejuice intro, Mars Attacks! (a film which I am not overly fond of), complete with theremin UFO-like sounds and the Batman films. (I actually got chills during the Batman sequence).

A huge crowd pleaser which made good use of audiovisual was Edward Scissorhands. From the ethereal choir accompanying Kim as she danced under ice flakes, to the mechanical rumble of the Inventor (Vincent Price) at work, to the whizzy violin solo accompanying Edward’s manic topiary, it was magnificent.

For the Nightmare Before Christmas segment, Elfman joined the orchestra on stage to sing as Jack Skellington, a role which he undertook in the film. He sang four songs, including ‘What’s This’, which was magical. He also sang ‘Oogie Boogie’s Song’, with conductor John Mauceri filling in for Sandy Claws. This was the first live performance of these songs since the film’s debut in 1993.

Helena Bonham Carter took on Catherine O’Hara’s Nightmare role for ‘Sally’s Song’, which she actually performed quite well, despite her admitting to ‘losing my virginity’ with regards to live singing. Burton himself made an appearance at the end.

It was probably one of the best concerts I have ever been to and Elfman called the it the best moment of his life. It made me want to watch all of Burton’s films again, especially ones I haven’t seen in a while, like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. It also made me wish I could play an instrument.

Look out for posts this week on my favourite Tm Burton films and my favourite TV opening credits.

End note
*The only Tim Burton-directed movies Elfman did not score were Sweeney Todd and Ed Wood. As Sweeney Todd was adapted from a musical this makes sense. Elfman’s missing name under the composer credit in Ed Wood is a little more confusing. This was apparently due to the two falling out (circumstances unknown), although it evidently didn’t last.