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Leaving a Marc (1977)

Marc Bolan, on tour in 1977 with The Damned

In early 1977, Marc Bolan — enigmatic English singer, songwriter, and charismatic leader of one of glam rock’s seminal bands, T. Rex — was past his prime. The success that came with UK #1 hits like “Bang a Gong (Get it On) (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=wZkTh_T75QY),” from 1971’s Electric Warrior and “Telegram Sam (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=du7jfDYe5LI)” from 1972’s The Slider, was largely behind him. Tax problems found him in exile for a while in the early seventies, T. Rex’s lineup of musicians kept changing, and his marriage had fallen apart due to his infidelity. But with a new band and a new tour supported by popular young punks, The Damned, Bolan was making a comeback in 1977. He had gotten a new band together, and, later that year, Granada Television gave him his very own show — a daytime variety hour simply titled Marc.

Marc ran in the late summer / early autumn of 1977, and gave Bolan the opportunity to showcase his music for a new audience. Daytime television was primarily aimed at teens and tweens — an audience for whom glam rock meant little. But new music — punk and new wave — was starting to chart, and Bolan (or his producers) smartly took advantage of mixing up his hits (often oddly lip-synced with guitars rarely even plugged in) with exciting new acts like Generation X, Radio Stars, and The Jam.

Other than Bolan performing “Show Me a Song” to start things off, The Jam were the first band to perform on Marc. Call them punks or mods revivalist, The Jam were a far cry from glam rock — a band born of the early seventies, but unlike anything else from the pop scene of the period. Bolan seemed somewhat uncomfortable, or at least unorganized, as he sat against the stage in a leopard jump suit reading the band’s name from a tiny promotional badge. It is as if the past of pop music was confronting its future in a way only possible in the turbulent nineteen seventies. But, instead of conflict, there was confusion. Bolan seemed lost in front of the camera. Drugs and alcohol were reputedly not to blame (Bolan had kicked his addictions by 1977). No, this confusion seemed more like a man trying to find his place in a music landscape that had changed on him. Immediately after The Jam, out came a cadre of female dancers awkwardly choreographed to Bolan lip-syncing “I Love to Boogie.”

Many believed that Bolan truly embraced the new music. Captain Sensible, guitarist for The Damned, spoke highly of him. But others thought he was an opportunist.  “Marc would’ve embraced any movement as long as it reflected well among the gullible,” said Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel. “I say this with no criticism and no malice,” he added. “Marc was a fully paid-up member of the Fantasy Island Club.” (for more on this and more, read this great article by noted music journalist Geoff Barton (https://www NULL.loudersound NULL.com/features/the-last-days-of-marc-bolan)).

In denial, or simply an opportunist, Bolan was still a full-fledged rock star — in every sense of the word. Bigger than life. Flashy. Always entertaining, and forever “other” — no matter how silly the costumes or the posturing became.

He would inspire countless musicians. Early on it was The New York Dolls and The Ramones. Then came the post-punks: Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Bauhaus (the latter whose cover of Telegram Sam (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=Z_pm2wPR5u4) is arguably better than the original). Later in the nineteen eighties came The Power Station. Their “Get It On (Bang a Gong)” would chart even higher in the US than the original. Oasis‘s guitarist, Noel Gallagher and Joey Santiago of The Pixies both cite Bolan as an influence on their style. Both Morrissey and Nick Cave have covered “Cosmic Dancer.” The list goes on and on.

But the artist whose work is most associated with Bolan is not one who covered him, but a contemporary. A friend. Even a competitor. It was David Bowie.

Faces on the Mt. Rushmore of Glam Rock, Bowie and Bolan met in 1964, when David was still David Jones. Their careers developed in parallel ways throughout the early seventies, and by the time of Bowie’s massive “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” album, there was conjecture that Bowie’s “Lady Stardust,” was even a tribute to Bolan. After retiring Ziggy, Bowie would abandon glam, and embrace first American R&B, then later, influences like Kraftwerk and Brian Eno. Bolan, however, remained the quintessential guitar-based glam rock star. It arguable hurt his career— with television’s Marc as his last hurrah.

David Bowie performed “Heroes” on the final episode of Marc Bolan’s show

Fitting then that David Bowie was the last performer on the show. Singing “Heroes,” (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=lRqxoM7iqoY) Bowie seems somewhat cold and distant — both from his past, and from Bolan. Bowie reputedly directed and orchestrated his own performance, not involving Bolan’s input at all. This didn’t sit well with Bolan, whose sole and final interaction with Bowie would be a jam session at the end of the last Marc show — one than ended with a humorous, and almost prophetic fall from the stage. Bowie smiles, and that’s the end of the show (for more details, see Roger Griffin’s day by day Bowie biography (https://books NULL.google NULL.com/books?id=EKE2DQAAQBAJ&pg=PT474&lpg=PT474&dq=did+granada+television+make+money+off+of+the+marc+bolan+show&source=bl&ots=BRrN5V03-q&sig=ACfU3U3-o9XuO4IK9mN05VoNpJMa-30Jmg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj-94WPmYvnAhXMo1kKHbP7Ab4Q6AEwEnoECBEQAQ#v=onepage&q=did%20granada%20television%20make%20money%20off%20of%20the%20marc%20bolan%20show&f=false)).

Curiously, Bowie would go on the following month to record his now famous Christmas duet with Bing Crosby. Ever the chameleon, Bowie learned to adapt to changing times; and Bolan, unable to shed the leopard tights and feather boas, was the equivalent of a green peacock — flashy and nearly extinct.

A little over a week after filming the Marc show with Bowie, Bolan would be dead. With his girlfriend Gloria Jones at the wheel, driving the couple home early in the morning of 16 September, Bolan’s purple Mini Cooper slammed into a tree. Bolan died on impact. The final episode of Marc (with Bowie) ran posthumously. The show had ended after only six episodes.

Leaving a definitive mark on rock and roll, Bolan has become a rare thing in pop music: part iconoclast, and part icon. He left behind over a decade’s worth of material.  Songs like the infectious “20th Century Boy (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=L6OzyUcJ7K0)” continue to get used in all manner of movies and television commercials, and, this year, he will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as a member of T. Rex).

The recognition is long overdue.

 

 

 

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For the Love of Beauty: Tod Browning’s Freaks

...love life of the sideshow
“”The story of the love life of the sideshow””

Few would argue that Freaks (1932) is one of the more uncomfortable films to watch in cinema history. An MGM pre-Code horror film from Tod Browning, Freaks, as released, ran abridged at 64 minutes. Its 90 minute original version — of which no versions exist — was deemed too much to bear for audiences of its day. It was banned in Britain until the 1950s, and is, perhaps, one of the most controversial films of all time. Oddly billed in the promotional poster of its day as “the story of the love life of the side show,” it is more a study of the extremes of human behavior — as well as physical form — but it’s certainly not a traditional love story by any means.

Coming off of the success of 1931’s Dracula (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Dracula_(1931_English-language_film)), producer and director Tod Browning was inspired to make Freaks after reading a magazine story called ‘Spurs” in which a circus-performing little person falls in love with a beautiful bareback rider who agrees to marry him upon finding out he has inherited a great deal of money. Browning’s idea was to tell a similar tale using real “freak show” attractions — not actors in Lon Chaney-esque prostethics or makeup. He himself had run away and joined the circus at age 16. He knew the lifestyle and the people of the circus, and, by all accounts, genuinely wanted to showcase the widest possible range of human emotion and physical differences.

Indeed, characters with physical disabilities had appeared in two of Browning’s silent films — 1927’s The Unknown (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/The_Unknown_(1927_film)) (where Lon Chaney is an armless knife thrower) and 1925’s The Unholy Three (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/The_Unholy_Three_(1925_film)) (where one of the titular characters is a little person). It would seem that events of his life, the trajectory of his career, and his interest in telling stories of characters on the fringe of society coalesced in Freaks. His heroes would be the sideshow performers that many find shocking. His villains would be the so called “normal” people.

The prologue to the film provides more than a hint to Browning’s attitude toward his subject matter: “For the love of beauty is a deep-seated urge which dates back to the beginning of civilization.” Before we’re even introduced to the circus performers, we are challenged to accept the premise that trust and pursuit of the beautiful is part of our nature. So what happens when we are presented with the ugly and the grotesque — not as monsters, but as people? People that are meant to shock and simultaneously entertain us with their deformities? Browning makes it clear: these are people, no matter what their deformities. And as for beauty, it can hide malformations of its own.

Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra) with Harry Earles (Hans)
Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra) with Harry Earles (Hans)

Following its prologue, the movie opens with a barker drawing attention to a sideshow where a woman looks into a box and screams. It seems this horror in the box was once a beautiful trapeze artist named Cleopatra. She had seduced and married a dwarf named Hans after learning of his sizeable inheritance. Conspiring with “strongman” Hercules, Cleopatra plans to murder Hans and inherit his wealth. At their wedding reception, Cleopatra poisons her groom’s wine while the circus freaks now celebrate her as one of their own. “One of us, one of us,” they chant. But the ceremony unnerves the inebriated Cleopatra, and she reveals that she has been having an affair with Hercules. She mocks the assembled freaks, while Hans, humiliated, takes ill.

The newlyweds feign reconciliation while Cleopatra secretly plots to provide more poison to her husband, disguising it as medicine. But Hans has secret plans of his own: he plots with the other freaks to get revenge. In the end, the freaks attack the adulterers during a storm, brandishing knives and guns. In the process, they truly become monsters.

The "freaks" of Freaks
The “freaks” of Freaks

In turning the freaks into bloodthirsty killers, Browning effectively turns the tables for a second time on the audience. These so-called freaks — pinheads, bearded ladies, siamese twins, dwarves with missing limbs and all manner of other men and women with deformities — they are just like you and me. Only they aren’t. Their physical form is unsettling at first. But Browning softens us on them. Normalizes them — until, that is, they turn to violence. It begs the question: is violence inherent in the human condition no matter what the form? If so, what exactly is “normal” then?

Leila Hyams as Venus
Leila Hyams as Venus

Juxtaposed with the seemingly normal but conniving Cleopatra and once innocent — now murderous — freaks,  are a genuinely kind-hearted couple: a seal trainer named Venus and her clown boyfriend, Phroso. They may be the only example of true love in the film. Though outsiders themselves, they are physically “normal” — thus muddying the waters of what the relationship is between true love and normalcy.

Regardless, the climax of the film hinges on the knowledge the couple has: Venus and Phroso know about Hans’ revenge plot, and when Hercules finds out that they do, he wants nothing more than to kill them. His plans are thwarted, however, as Hercules is chased by the freaks during a raging storm, and is never seen from again. Reputedly, he is castrated in Browning’s original cut of the film.

"The Duck Woman" and Director Tod Browning
“The Duck Woman” and Director Tod Browning

As for Cleopatra, she is terribly transformed into a human duck. Little more than a tarred and feathered torso with deformed hands that now resemble webbed feet, she is, as it turns out, the horror behind the opening scene.

Freaks promotional poster
Freaks promotional poster

And so it ends. Beauty is ruin. The freaks are vengeful murderers. The audience can assume Venus and Phroso survive. But they are not the celebrated lovers of the movie poster. Instead, oddly enough, Hercules and Cleopatra are seen, again and again, in the promotional materials —dressed in evening wear, like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire! It was as if MGM’s publicity department couldn’t stomach the reality of the picture and its depiction of what normalcy is — or is not.

Although most prints end with the revelation of what happened to Cleopatra, MGM apparently went so far as to eventually insert a final scene for a more traditional, happier ending. In a mansion, Hans is living a millionaire’s life. Venus and Phroso visit, bringing Frieda, to whom Hans had been engaged before meeting Cleopatra. Hans at first refuses to see Freida, but she eventually assures him that she knows he tried to stop the others from their revenge. The others may have become murderers, but Hans remains an innocent “freak.” In essence, he becomes the hero of the movie, and as he starts to cry, Freida comforts him.

It’s a forced ending, but the only one MGM could possibly tolerate in what would otherwise be a depressing end to a subversive film. The epilogue itself exists in two different versions, one with dialogue, one without. All three endings are included on the Warner DVD (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Freaks-Wallace-Ford/dp/B00027JYLC).

Browning would go on to direct two more horror films: Mark of the Vampire (1935) and The Devil Doll (1936) along with two more pictures: a drama, and a mystery. But his career was effectively over. The projects he truly wanted to make were never seriously considered by any major studio following the box office failure and stigma of Freaks.

In 2012, TCM showed Freaks as part of “A History of Disability in Film Festival.” One of the programmers, Lawrence Carter-Long wrote:

The importance of showing ‘Freaks’ in 2012 is that it takes those conventions of who we’re supposed to identify with and where our sympathies lie and turns everything upside down. Our sympathies aren’t with the buxom blond non-disabled woman. From the beginning, your sympathies are with the freaks themselves. That’s the impact of the film. The audience is rooting for characters who look like what is traditionally the villain in a film. It challenges you to reconsider the outsider.

The lasting impact of Freaks, however, is not just that it challenges us to “reconsider the outsider” as sympathetic. It is to realize that they are just like everyone else — capable of kinship, compassion and love, yes, but also violence, revenge, and hate. No matter what form the body takes, the human condition is forever the same. Capable of extremes of behavior and emotion, humanity is both beautiful and ugly — inside and out.

And it is “for the love [and blind pursuit] of beauty [and perfection]” that many of us suffer.