Camp David

CAMP DAVID NOVEMBER 2006: FREAKS

By • Nov 1st, 2006 • Pages: 1 2 3 4

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“’GOOBLE GOBBLE…. ONE OF US”

One of the most unsettling and celebrated moments in the cinema of Pre-code Hollywood occurs during a vicious thunderstorm as a circus caravan is observed moving through a forest at night. The film is Tod Browning’s infamous production of FREAKS (MGM 1932). The events that follow that climatic thunderstorm, where circus freaks armed with sharp objects crawl through the mud to enact a shocking retribution for the poisoning of one of their own, has been the subject of film scholarship and debate for decades. The comeuppance of Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) and her lover Hercules (Henry Victor) was deemed too strong for audiences in that depression era, leaving MGM to withdraw the film and remove their company’s logo from all prints. The film was reissued by a different company in 1949 and then disappeared until its legend overcame any obstacles to prevent modern audiences from appreciating what is now an acknowledged classic of surrealism, unique even in the realm of the horror genre itself.

I was privileged to have known two of the performers from that film, Angelo Rossitto (“Little Angie” to his friends) and Johnny Eck (John Eckhart), the “human torso”. Angie was the only actor from that bizarre ensemble to have an acting career in Hollywood following the disastrous initial release of FREAKS. By the summer of 1986 I was working as the unit publicist for a portmanteau entitled THE OFFSPRING. Since one of the stories took place in a carnival, the director, Jeff Burr, had but one actor in mind for the role of the front man who lures customers into the tents to see the special attractions, and that of course was Angelo Rossitto. To be honest I think Jeff and his young associates remembered him from a similar role in a grade Z horror film from 1971 – DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN – Al Adamson’s wacky tribute to the Universal horror films of the 1940’s, which sadly contained the final performances of J. Carroll Naish and Lon Chaney Jr.

Angelo was rarely out of work in the nearly seven decades he was a fixture in films, as well as a landmark on the corner of Hollywood and Vine, usually seated on a high chair behind the counter of his little newsstand that became an institution for show-biz folk to pick up the trades and hear the latest exploits of one of Hollywood’s smallest thespians. Legend has it that if a producer wanted to hire Angelo they simply dropped a script or contract off at Hollywood and Vine.

When I began assembling the press material for THE OFFSPRING Angelo came by my apartment one afternoon to go over his publicity and see what photos he would like, if any, from the production. Angelo called in advance and explained he would be dropped off at my place and could I take him back home when we were finished, no problem as I was completely fascinated with his career and the legendary actors he knew from a lifetime in front of the camera. Angelo Rossitto arrived at the front of my building aided by two very small walking sticks allowing him to move slowly but with the security that he would not lose his balance. You learned quickly with him that he was a very independent, not to mention a proud, man who made it his business to hold his own in a world that must have been overwhelming at best.

This was the only aspect of meeting him that was a bit of a trial, doing one’s best to treat him as you would any guest, yet his size made this almost impossible. For example when he came through the door and was offered a seat it was obvious that he could not rise up and seat himself on my sofa as he would require a lift up or better yet a footstool. Fortunately I had in my kitchen a small step-ladder which served admirably instead. Once I got him comfortably seated he began looking through the stills and press materials as he must have done countess times over the years

Noticing a large framed portrait I had of John Barrymore on my living room wall from SVENGALI (1931), Angelo said to me “You know, Jack Barrymore was the finest actor of them all and a great guy to hang out with.” He then recalled that in the Twenties Barrymore would send a car down to Hollywood and Vine to collect Angelo and bring him up to Tower Road for drinks and lengthy conversations. “Barrymore could spin tales for hours and never bore you once, and much of what he talked about was “man’s talk,” you know, about women. He had lived a lifetime before he ever came to Hollywood. Barrymore could out-drink most men, and I tried to keep up with him, but liquor effects people my size a lot faster and I would usually pass out before dawn. He would then just cover me up with a blanket; he always looked after me, I really loved Jack Barrymore. I cried like a baby when he died”.

Angelo appeared with the great profile in THE BELOVED ROGUE (1927), which also starred the legendary Conrad Veidt. Angelo revealed that when the two great actors met on the set for the first time Barrymore said to the German star of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919) “I find I can usually seduce most women using only the hypnotic quality of my voice but in these silent films they are drawn to my profile. Conrad Veidt looked at Barrymore for a moment and replied “Well I just fuck them with my face.” The two actors became great friends from that moment on and made a remarkable film together. Angelo was also very proud of the fact that Barrymore himself wrote a scene into the film where his character, “Beppo,” demands that one of the guards bring Barrymore “all the wine he wants” during the imprisonment scene towards the end of the film. “That was our little private jest.”

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